Be­lieve in Brix­ton

Re­turn of the high street

Evening Standard - West End Final Extra - ES Homes and Property - - Front Page -

BRIX­TON used to be so posh that, in its Ed­war­dian hey­day, it had no fewer than four gen­teel de­part­ment stores, in­clud­ing Bon Marché. The first de­part­ment store in Lon­don, Bon Marché was mod­elled and named after the Paris orig­i­nal, the first store in the world to bring dif­fer­ent “shops” un­der one roof.

Bon Marché was opened in Brix­ton Road by James Smith in 1876. Smith had won big time on horses at New­mar­ket and de­cided to in­vest his win­nings in retail.

Lon­don her­itage ex­pert and au­thor of five books on the bor­ough of Lam­beth, Ed­mund Bird, says Bon Marché, was the first of a string of grand de­part­ment stores to open in Brix­ton from the later 19th cen­tury up to the Thir­ties. One, Mor­leys, founded in 1897, is still go­ing strong. Bird says: “They re­flect a golden age of smart retail es­tab­lish­ments when Brix­ton was a premier shop­ping district.”


Now Bon Marché’s long-derelict 1905 fur­ni­ture an­nexe has been re­mod­elled into a mix of workspaces, shops and restau­rants. It is across the street from the orig­i­nal store and was con­nected by tun­nels.

Also in the an­nexe is the head­quar­ters of ar­chi­tec­tural firm Squire and Part­ners, which is show­cas­ing its prow­ess in the re­furb, strip­ping back the build­ing to its shapely bones for its 150 staff to use. The site, now called The De­part­ment Store, has an al­most ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ap­proach to de­sign with layer upon layer of the build­ing’s his­tory scraped back to re­veal old scars and old paint, bricks and Art Nou­veau tiles.

Verdi­gris colour re­vealed and graf­fiti re­tained from the build­ing’s pre­vi­ous life as a squat, the makeover is teamed with glossy con­tem­po­rary in­serts in black steel and an­odised gold, and lim­ited- edi­tion fur­ni­ture de­vel­oped with de­sign­ers Minotti, Sa­muel Heath and Carl Han­son. In a steam­punk touch, power and data ca­bles are hid­den within shiny fat brass and cop­per tubes.

The look, says Squire and Part­ners’ Tim Gled­stone, is not util­ity chic but “de­cayed deca­dence”. Act­ing like a light­house, a cor­ner tur­ret has had its old dome re­placed with di­a­mond­paned glass and a new top floor houses a swish din­ing room and bar with rugs, so­fas, roof ter­race and fire­place, that, li­cens­ing per­mit­ting, might soon be able to wel­come out­side guests in the evenings and week­ends.


The base­ment holds a large bike store, with show­ers and chang­ing rooms next to an event space where lo­cal artists and de­sign­ers can ex­hibit. At ground-floor level is a Mak­ing Room where artists and de­sign­ers hold work­shops.

The gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of Brix­ton is caus­ing ruc­tions in the area — un­der­stand­ably so where it is driv­ing out long- stand­ing busi­nesses and res­i­dents, or ru­in­ing old build­ings. But the protests for­get Brix­ton’s in­no­va­tive and pros­per­ous past when it led the way in ur­ban in­no­va­tions, such as hav­ing one of the first streets with elec­tric light­ing at Elec­tric Av­enue.

ALL OF Brix­ton’s old de­part­ment store build­ings sur­vive. The former Co-op has been turned into flats but oth­ers, such as the older wing of Bon Marché across the street from Squires, and the build­ing next door that now holds Pound­land and a Job­cen­tre, once home to the Quin and Ax­tens bazaar, re­main.

It’s a re­mark­able his­tory and The De­part­ment Store demon­strates how the area could scrub up with­out sell­ing out.

Makeover: the Bon Marché an­nexe is now The De­part­ment Store, for mixed use, in­clud­ing the HQ of pro­ject ar­chi­tects Squire and Part­ners

Re­mod­elled: lay­ers of the build­ing’s his­tory were scraped back, its old fea­tures com­bined with a con­tem­po­rary gloss

Re­stored to glory: the an­nexe, en­tirely reimag­ined, now pro­vides restau­rants and shops as well as workspaces

Like a light­house: glass-paned cor­ner tur­ret is a re­tained his­toric fea­ture

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