In 2019-2020 we were asked to work with Kortrijk Design Region and the local Authority to assess and reevaluate the cities problem mainly due to its High Street demise. Our year 1 RCA students were invited to explore the picturesque city of Kortrijk in Belgium in order to consider retail, shopping centres, the high street and the challenges they currently all face.
Kortrijk is a beautiful, agreeable city currently on a mission to renew itself. The city hosts a large indoor shopping centre, Belgium’s biggest, but with a distinct lack of young people who have fled to the major cities; the town is bereft of energy, cultural engagement, with empty shops and streets.
The research is centred around projects we set in Kortrijk for postgraduate students from the Royal College of Art, Interior Design, who represent a diverse cross section of people of the world. The exploration was an opportunity for students to reflect on a typical western outlook and to consider complex issues from global perspectives in response to the provocative questions we posed.
Consolidating our research and outcomes will require time and further investigation but one thing is clear, during these strange times of uncertainty, the established high street model we are familiar with, no longer serves the majority of its users.
This problem seems to be problematic all over the world and not unique to Kortrijk or even the West as a whole and it is staring at us in London and the UK generally.
High Streets should be the heartbeat and pulse of our communities and reveal the scents and sounds of their visitors, part of all of us, they should not be showcased solely for big brands.
A major rethink, a re-evaluation of our high streets is urgently needed; how they are used and who might profit from them. We should question the priority of brands and the peppering of estate agents and instead support a broader cross section of society with mutually benefiting spaces. In so doing ….encouraging a more contextual socially diverse and exciting exchange both inside and outside shops.
We should consider a radical cultural shift, a revaluation of consumerism and profiteering and look to build human centred spaces created by investing partners but curated and maintained by locals and visitors in collaboration together.
If the high streets are to be reimagined, clients and their designers must question the ethics of their practise and undertake a profound and philosophical revaluation as to how to approach the retail environment, redesigning shops in isolation seems to be an increasingly mundane and redundant practice.
After 30 years UK commercial design has communicated a retail design language around the globe and often paves the way. The best design is a triumph delivering iconic spaces and defining high streets, but this language has also helped to sanitise and standardise those same streets. It is now even more important and necessary to reinvent and rethink our entrenched ideology.
Across the globe we see the same high streets, the same brands, products and architecture. This global mediocrity turns its back on its local potential, choosing instead to rely on established ideas and money drawn to places from farther afield.
We pride ourselves on a championed/prized British creative education; a world leader in fashion, art, music, graphics, design and more, we attract the best young creatives from all over the world: but who can move from education to the High Street easily? Who can afford the transition? How many give up or leave the country because of demotivation or visa issues to become successful and generate wealth elsewhere?
We must encourage an achievable journey, keep the dream alive for these young creatives who are prepared to challenge the status quo and allow them to reveal their stories, without overburdening pressure or financial paralysis, to encourage growth and development.
London especially seems to have turned its back on the creative dream, long gone are the optimistic yet livable dreams for young entrepreneurs. Living in Shoreditch in the early 90’s saw a heady mixture of inner city urban life, affordable housing, studios and retail spaces, anger, energy and entrepreneurial spirit, sitting next to the financial heart, philosophically miles apart, but intrinsically entwined and feeding off one another, creating the melting pot. These creative urban magnets spawned property and retail booms throughout the country, but now left unchecked cities have rejected those who helped it prosper, greed unable to share success, biting the hand that fed culture, leaving it an overweight and rudderless ship, ignorantly focused on profit at the expense of souls.
Cities, towns and high streets currently rely heavily on major brands and established names. Understandable in order to meet financial needs, but without the hope and vision of something new, we forget to question, in our comfort zone, become stagnant and frightened of change. We must make our high streets magnets for new ideas and energy, high brow or inexpensive , …….a mix of sensorial experience, the joy of engagement.
Street culture and design has been key to this country’s cultural evolution, yet we have turned our back on it recently and looked towards finance and the blankness of the West End and a global typology, seemingly without the confidence to suggest otherwise. The new high street should be like the pop charts for our cities, shops the 7inch singles, a perfect moment in the time capturing the mood of the times, some get to number one, but many don’t but the experience we have by being exposed to it is fun and so important to put the status quo into context and under scrutiny. Shops come and go, we should celebrate this, make it easier to inhabit a space, re-use its materials, burn bright, learn then perhaps grow or move on.
Generally the architecture of our cities rarely expresses this connection, prefer the LP version, the long player, without imperfection, the fragile fascination of the human element we all secretly desire, and look for when we traverse the globe and demand cultural experience.
This current trend encourages design practices to tell stories of their clients, stories of the companies they work with with a pre defined cultural palette, but with no thought for the narrative and idiosyncratic memories of the people who live and work nearby. The stories of the streets are often lost and forgotten amongst the pursuit of a global standard, as we gentrify our environments.
Companies, after years of mal-practice are now jumping on the bandwagon of sustainability, anxious to stay relevant by laying claim to responsibility and ethics, we don’t need to look far for solutions, the next generation are able and willing to reassess our position. Re-branding, re-aligning after being called out, designers requested to paper over the cracks, but if we open up the high streets and allow diversity, embrace and empower the new it not only offers more choice but will naturally push change at a greater rate.
To survive and thrive we must invest time and energy, building and encouraging our local talent to become empowered visionaries and not consigning them to the affordable backstreets, on an equal footing to brands, old, current and enabling new generations, forcing all to converse for mutual cultural benefit.
By taking on global brands we might equalise and balance the experience for the shopper, breaking the visual standardisation of the shopping environment, challenging the designer look and revealing contextual diversity and richness which ebbs and flows from city to city, making the trip both memorable and worthwhile.
Questioning the global aesthetic should be primary for a designer in practice, for some ugly places might be the most inspiring or magical, to others exotic and glamour of Instagram aesthetic demands attention, but together provides a freedom to choose and places which speak of the culture from where it was born.
The High Street cannot compete with online, but online will never replace that visceral human experience which must become the cornerstone going forward.
Of course, this utopian dream relies heavily on radical changes to planning laws, business rating bands, local authority investment and of course a moral compass; but unless we are radical, the next 5 -10 years will only showcase powerful global brands with the capital to retain a high street presence. Italy is selling empty domestic properties to reenvigour their forgotten towns for 1 Euro, surely we can make deals to revive the Nations High Streets?
Meanwhile converting disused shops into housing, if John Lewis gets their way, seems a tragedy and won’t solve the philosophical dilemma and will not keep this nation of Shopkeepers uplifted….
Here are 3 suggestions from our findings to support a more positive high street experience.
The creation of an open environment to encourage freedom and self expression to offer open spaces in order for the visitor to experience choice and an alternative viewpoint. The high street is not just a place to shop but should also be a place for minds to wander, play and grow; a chance to experience art, explore culture and be educated in open spaces both inside and out.
Local retailers, makers and entrepreneurs. Reinforcing community skills and showcasing locality along with global entrepreneurs. Inviting conversations between residents, visitors and the local infrastructure. Projects developed with local needs at the heart; working alongside global brands in order to harness local talent. A desire to nurture contextual investment, to encourage talent, support family ties and create visual connections which tell stories of the spaces and places. Global brands and chains subservient to historic narratives, to create a distinct sense of place.
We call it The Polestar, it signals a new way to navigate the High Street; a means of unifying community and commercial sensibilities; supporting the union and collaboration of residents with events, makers, entrepreneurs and business owners. It stands as a marked destination inviting visitors to navigate and understand the High Street and its surrounding area. A place to seek out information, share neighbourhood knowledge and promote a sense of well being and belonging.
A new type of information centre, a physical space not only online, The Polestar, aims to place individual High Streets and their surrounding communities on their own map, showcasing makers, benefitting business and highlighting shops, amenities and forthcoming events. The designated space will act as a one stop guide for visitors, providing and sparking new conversations between different cultures within the community, available online, but also a reality.
Below are some fabulous examples of projects from RCA Interior Design students, devised from the agenda we have set:
Please contact me if you want to speak to any of the designers involved, you won’t regret it.
Copyright Steve Jensen Design Limited