One of the more inspiring stories that we at Mediolana have come across in recent days is that of a shopping mall with a difference: Bikini Berlin (‘BB’). The six-floor structure, which is based near the German capital’s zoological garden, and which opened after redevelopment in April 2014, has won plaudits for its originality: the uppermost section of the mall comprises a 7,000m2 terrace with excellent views of the adjoining Tiergarten Park, and is accessible from street level. Within BB’s main hall are 19 ‘Bikini Boxes’ – pop-up stores in which independent retailers can set up shop for between three and 12 months. Experimentalism abounds: for four months in 2014, there were even social spaces within the mall where customers could play football.
And the customers have more than responded to this shopping-mall-as-public-space concept: nearly 500,000 thronged to Bikini Berlin in its first week. BB is a model that satisfies ‘arthouse’ impulses as well as the bottom line. After some contemplation, we think that London and its shopping options should strive to incorporate at least three key lessons from this remarkable paradigm:
- Take Risks. London as whole and its shopping centres in particular are hives of conformity. Identikit outlets increasingly populate all four corners of this city; indeed, those who do not know the UK’s capital particularly well could be forgiven for perceiving that one Caffè Nero-McDonald’s-Ryman-filled neighbourhood just merges into another. In many commercial areas it is rare to see anything other than a chain store. This risks making a vital part of the urban experience exceedingly boring – and exploitative.
- Stop Worshipping Luxury. London retailers seem to be increasingly divided into two camps: those which sell low-value trinkets which are broadly accessible to most demographic groups, and those which service the needs of the global mega-rich. The sheer prominence of the latter group of retailers is getting disturbing in a polarised city where 21% of workers are now earning less than a living wage. Planners and politicians need to incentivise the flowering of a different breed of suppliers.
- Encourage Relaxation. Far too many London shopping centres have virtually no concept of public space or civility – unless you want to spend lots of money quickly, these are not places where you would want to linger, with pathetic seating provision and brusque, impersonal service. Ultimately, this is a counterproductive strategy, and is just driving people to satisfy their retail needs online. A total redesign and reconceptualisation is the only thing that can save some London malls in what is, after all, a notoriously volatile sector.