Brutalist department stores could soon enjoy protected status as the public body that looks after England’s historic environment scrutinizes buildings considered by many to be high street icons.

Historic England’s announcement comes amid widespread lockdowns, made worse by the pandemic, economic turmoil and the rise of online shopping.

Many old stores are left vacant, threatened with demolition and facing calls for renovations in line with climate goals.

“We study the history of department stores to provide a national overview of the main architectural and historical phases of their development,” said a spokesperson for Historic England.

“This is in response to changes in retail which have seen stores close and an increase in requests to be considered for listing. The work is still in its early stages, we therefore, we do not yet know if it will lead to proposals to list other examples.

Organizations such as Twentieth Century Society (C20) and SAVE Britain’s Heritage have campaigned to save the buildings that have dominated the urban environment for decades, calling for a creative reinvention of spaces.

The review of buildings that were ‘once the heart of our high streets’ has been welcomed by SAVE Britain’s Heritage.

“These stately and prestigious commercial palaces that were built to impress and have stood the test of time through the quality of the architecture and the great affection people have for them,” said the organization’s director, Henrietta Billings.

“We hope this review will lead to more and urgent listings – meaning protection and national recognition – across the country.”

In seven years, more than 50% of department stores across the country have closed, according to C20, leaving almost 2 million square meters of retail space vacant, the equivalent of 275 football pitches, which, according to the campaign group, is a space worthy of being “reinvented”. .

A recent campaign to save the M&S branch in Oxford Street, central London, is the latest example of this possibility, as property developers and MPs have joined calls to upgrade the building for sustainability purposes.

In June, Michael Gove called for a public inquiry after the company announced the demolition of the landmark 1920s structure for an office and retail building.

“I believe this particular building is the absolute best example of a building that needs to be protected,” said Jacob Loftus, chief executive of General Projects, which specializes in reinventing existing buildings to create sustainable ones.

“From a sustainability point of view, the case for demolishing it does not exist. The embodied carbon created by the new development is enormous.

Nor is the focus solely on London. C20 lobbied for the review of department stores across the country as a separate building type.

Buildings flagged for architectural and historical interest by the organization include the former Debenhams stores in Somerset and Surrey, and Norco House in Aberdeen, acquired by John Lewis in the 1980s.

His efforts paid off earlier this month when a former John Lewis and Cole Brothers building in Sheffield was listed as Grade II by Historic England, after a 20-year battle.

“If not as temples of consumerism, how could these leviathans serve their communities?” the organization said of its campaign.


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