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Culture and the High Street - forum report from 'Cultural Cities'

Westgate shopping centre, Oxford (run by Land Securities for the Oxford Westgate Alliance) - entrance from Queen Street

At our recent Future Cities Forum in Oxford, opened by Lord Mendoza of the DCMS, the role of culture in creating sustainable high streets and shopping centres was central to the discussions.

Land Securities Westgate Centre Director, Brendan Hattam spoke of the success of the new Westgate shopping centre in Oxford (owned jointly with the Crown Estate) which replaced a 1960's brutalist and run-down shopping precinct. The Westgate is now thriving and has turned a dreary corner of the city into a busy shopping, eating, culture and entertainment area:

' The link between shopping centres and culture is a lot stronger than most people imagine. We have a roof terrace which looks over the Oxford skyline, an archaeology trail, a square to hold public events and 20 million visitors per year. It's about the whole city and connecting with that. The Westgate site is very permeable, with many entrances, and we did the same in Leeds at Trinity shopping centre. You have to make spaces that are multi-use and appeal to many. We try to create spaces so the link between culture, tourism and retail is strong. We sometimes regard ourselves as the support act to what Oxford is about, but the support act has to be of a certain standard.'

Ellen Harrison, Head of Creative Programmes and Campaigns at Historic England responded to a question on communities around the UK and how they view heritage on the high street:

'I don't think people view heritage as an entity, rather it acts as a backdrop. I deliver cultural programmes across 67 High Street Action Zones (HAZs), and I was speaking recently to the project leader in Hexham, who said people approach thinking about heritage or culture as an artistic activity, which provides an easy way in to talking about bigger issues around place-shaping. It's almost a kind of leveller as people don't feel as if they are talking about heritage or culture but instead they are talking about their stories and their roots.'

On Cornmarket, MICA Architects are finishing a project for Jesus College Oxford where at ground floor retail plays a part in the re-shaping of college-owned buildings, and efforts have also been made to open up Market Street with an attractive and welcoming door into the college. Three GP surgeries will be based in the building as well as space for lectures and events for the public.

CGI of view up Oxford's Market Street to Cornmarket with re-modelled buildings and new public entrance for Jesus College (MICA Architects)

Director Stuart Cade explained:

'The brief underlined the need for Jesus College to look outwards - to Cornmarket and the city. It's an extraordinary and very busy thoroughfare and it passes the back of the college. The site has the potential of connecting these two worlds. It's about making a back into a front, and making Market Street (which runs down the side of the college from Cornmarket) into a lively street again while reinforcing the presence of the Oxford Covered Market. The project combines education, with retail and other services for the city. We are opening up a medieval street.'

Cabinet Member for Culture and Tourism, Cllr Mary Clarkson highlighted the extreme contrasts of wealth and privilege against areas of extreme deprivation and said:

'It is important for buildings to be multi-purpose, the more we have multi-use the more resilient we can be. Westgate is not only about retail as it it has cinemas and performance spaces, but there is huge inequality in the city. On the one hand you have the universities and the success of the vaccine discovery programme, but on the other hand many groups in wider Oxford do not feel the city centre is for them. Culture has to be for everybody and you do not have to go through the gates of a college or museum to experience it.'

CGI of front elevation of Temple Works Leeds (produced for developer CEG)

In Leeds a new district is being created to the South of the City (Leeds South Bank) with the help of a potential move by the British Library to one of the largest industrial revolution factory spaces called Temple Works. There has already been a lengthy engagement with the city council, the developer and local stakeholders to make it a success. Jamie Andrews, the British Libraries Head of Culture and Learning:

' We are not new to Leeds, as since 1961 the National Library of Science and Technology had space in Boston Spa, close to the city, which stores two thirds of our collection but is not as accessible for the public as we would like. The opportunity now for the British Library is to be in the middle of Leeds. Temple Works is a former flax mill, 1836 in a historically deprived area. The strongest feature of the area is Temple Works, a massive room of two acres with a roof held up by cast iron columns. The world's first hydraulic lift got sheep up to the roof to graze the grass to keep humidity up, a 'green roof' in effect. Architect and Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi based the front elevation on the Temple of Horus .

' What attracted us was the environment - the perfect conditions for flax production in the 1830s are perfect for knowledge production in 2020s. A huge top lit single room is crying out for use by the library. Another attraction is the location in a deprived area where there no public libraries and few cultural assets. We think we can make a difference. In the way Marshall's Mill / Temple Works had a profound effect on the area in the first industrial revolution, we believe that in the current industrial and knowledge revolution we can have a similar and galvanising effect.'

The Leeds Council cabinet lead for culture, Cllr Jonathan Pryor, added:

'Leeds is going through a massive change. While transformation opens huge opportunities it does present challenges. As a city, we are bigger than Manchester but we have a smaller city centre and a lot of local centres which are well connected into the centre. However, there is a need for transport investment alongside culture. Our new Metro Mayor, Tracy Brabin (who works alongside council leaders from Bradford, Kirklees, Calderdale, Leeds and Wakefield) has two main priorities: transport and culture. I think the pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends that were already happening. Go back to the 1960s and we had the arrival of super-markets (which changed shopping habits) but now internet shopping has changed things again.. The reasons for people going into city centres is evolving and shifting, and culture has a very important part to play.

Entrance to Lambeth Palace Library (on left) facing across to the Evelina Children's Hospital (Wright & Wright Architects)

The importance of opening-up 'fortress' places to communities was echoed by Stephen Smith, Partner at Wright & Wright Architects, when he described his recent project for an extension to Lambeth Palace Library:

'In terms of the Library and Archive extension it's a new building. Lambeth Palace is one of the most secure sites in the country and very difficult to get into. The old site of the library collection of the Church Commissioners was sealed off in an old warehouse in Bermondsey but the challenge became how can you can offer different ways for people to see the collection and the new library building? The idea for the tower came from a conversation with the local authority who said why don't you show off? The new building will be open for people to come in on certain days and that's the most important thing. The top viewing platform of the tower is balanced at the bottom as right opposite the entrance is the Evelina Children's Hospital. Lots of parents and grandparents come in from there to see the view into the Archbishop's garden and ecology pond and many say how brilliant it is to come in for quiet respite from the hospital.'

Warrington Borough Council's Chief Executive, Professor Steve Broomhead, joined the discussions to talk about the important work he carried out in chairing the Libraries Taskforce:

' Research showed us that libraries contribute enormously to community, social, economic and regeneration improvements with spaces used for many different purposes. It's not just the traditional education and learning aspects as now libraries are being deployed in a much more flexible way. It is now recognised by the DCMS that they have a space in culture. To give you an example, the Story House in Chester has been a tremendous part of cultural regeneration in that city, acting as a theatre, cultural arts and library space all in one in a re-designed cinema building. There has been tremendous support from the DCMS and the Libraries Investment Fund will be a big boost. Covid-19 has been an opportunity to re-think the digital agenda, and the ambition for the sector.'

There is no doubt that the pandemic has hit museums and theatres hard and Ashmolean Museum's Director Xa Sturgis spoke of the new exhibitions that have been put on to encourage new connections with the local community:

' We are the most visited attraction in Oxford but I do think that museums are in an interesting position but difficult moment post pandemic, as visitor numbers have plummeted. The 'loyal and the local' are there in support but Oxford is a city of extraordinary inequalities and our real work locally is to ensure we are an Ashmolean for all. The show 'Owning the Past' is about working with diaspora communities from the Middle East in Oxford about their stories including the global history of Iraq and the lines drawn in the sand 100 years ago - and Oxford was very involved in that process at the time.

'Museums have to be social spaces. In the same way that a shopping centre has to be more than retail, museums must be about more than sticking a picture on a wall. When we opened in1683 visitors from abroad were astonished that all were allowed in. How do we ensure that we welcome a very broad audience that is local, national and global? The temptation is to retreat to the loyal and the local who have provided most of the (visitor) income. The business model of free museums asks us to develop our commercial operations. Major loan exhibitions are hugely financially risky. Covid-19 has give us a huge jolt and has made us look at the sustainability of our business model'

Oxford Playhouse's joint directors Louise Chantal and Vanessa Lefrancois, spoke of the opportunity that the pandemic has brought in for building up new connections with communities. Louise Chantal said:

'Theatres across the UK have proved themselves during the pandemic as embedded in the local community. Once we were shut down on 16 March 2020 we went out and made new partnerships with young people - working on literacy, and we moved online too with the Association for the Blind and also with Age UK - and that is where we proved we are embedded with the community. We have weekly yoga classes at the theatre, and 'knit and natter' and these ought to be classed as culture.'

Vanessa Lefrancois added:

'The positive benefit and silver lining from the pandemic is that the Culture Recovery Fund has enabled us to quadruple the amount of investment going into community programmes, where we set out to engender engagement with culture from a early age, as well as working with freelance artists. We have been able to create the Associate Schools programme, as well.'

Grimshaw Architects' London Studio Managing Partner, was also optimistic about the opportunities ahead for the museum sector. She has been leading the development of a Turkish museum, the relocation of the Sadberk Hanim to the Golden Horn historic dock district of Istanbul, where 'a street' is being created to draw the public in to experience the collection:

'Getting people back to high streets, culture has a really important role. How you create really open buildings is a really consistent theme across our cultural projects. We are working in Istanbul for the Koc Foundation on an old rope factory. How do we convert this to make it open and inviting and showcase everything that is offer? How do you get people through the door in the first place? That's why we have created a 'street' into and inside the museum.

'The pandemic has really made people ask what is a cultural institution and what is it for? I think it's now an opportunity for the sector to embrace society's need for social interaction - the thing we have all been missing - so that museum and gallery spaces reflect this, rather than being repositories for artefacts.'

Culture Liverpool's Director, Claire McColgan, added to our debate by talking about the response to Liverpool's recent loss of UNESCO World Heritage status:

' We are, at the council, enhancing the culture budget rather than cutting it. Culture feels like it is at the heart of everything, although losing UNESCO status was very disappointing. However Everton FC's project to build a new stadium will help open up the northern dock area and create thousands of jobs. I think the challenge now is how the city works with architects, designers and planners on further regeneration of Victorian buildings and spaces to enhance the already strong cultural experiences in Liverpool.'

Future Cities Forum felt privileged to be able to host our event in the Weston Library - part of the Bodleian Libraries - and Head Librarian Richard Ovenden, concluded our debate by saying:

' Culture is something that grows out of society, it is not separate, and the content of the stacks of the Bodleian show us that - but culture is constantly evolving and developing, enmeshed with society. What the institutions and the players in culture have to do is to have both the long term vision to step back but also be connected to what is happening right now, to respond, to enable, to engage, to listen back, and - for an organisation like mine - to capture it, to preserve for the future to see where we have come from. One of the key values of museums, libraries and archives is the preservation of cultural record so that it can inform our future cultural development because we need to see the stepping stones of where we got to today, as we use that culture to be the kind of society we are now, for good or ill.'

(Below) Colonnade of the Bodleian Libraries' Weston Library with public cafe seating, opening access onto Oxford's Broad Street with Clarendon Building, Sheldonian Theatre and Science Museum (left to right) opposite


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