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Exeter’s Guildhall evolution

Associate architect Matthew Mayes discusses why the future of the High Street is about much more than survival of the fittest.

There’s been a great deal of speculation about the next phase of development at Exeter’s Guildhall Shopping Centre. Perhaps the clue to some of the uncertainty is in the title. It is – and must be – much more than a shopping centre.

Unlike many a mall Guildhall is unique and, like the city of Exeter itself, has a strong sense of character and history. The first phase of redevelopment, completed back in 2016, was hugely successful and saw the balance begin to shift from predominantly retail to a much broader mix including high quality leisure and food offers with the advent of the Queen Street Dining quarter.

So the second phase, approved by Exeter Council just this month, is the next natural step. Despite the doom and gloom about the future of retail, it is important to remember that the forces of nature apply.  High streets, and the city centres they belong to, are not dying but evolving. As with all delicate ecosystems, if we make the right interventions we can give nature a helping hand to ensure the evolution is to the benefit of all.

As a regional capital, Exeter must be brave and lead by example. Building on the success of Guildhall’s first phase of development will pave the way for other regional towns and cities to follow suit. Ensuring a really strong leisure and entertainment offer, from bars and restaurants to indoor golf, bowling or a cinema, will help sustain its future. Not only do these elements attract people, boosting customers for the traditional retail element, they are also key to encouraging people to stay longer.

So the success of our city centre is about much more than survival of the fittest. In fact these crucial symbiotic relationships, where two elements support each other, are key to long term health and sustainability.

This is where design is crucial. At BDP we create exciting, inviting spaces that build on a place’s own distinct character and history. Guildhall, with the historic St Pancras church at its heart, is no exception. Our design will adapt the current space, building on and around its current form, cutting and carving the existing building to create an innovative and contemporary space, but one that retains its unique sense of place. We’ll create new roof terraces and feature windows, including two large glazed openings in the currently blank façade on Paul Street that will help to bring the outside in, to open the centre up to the streets that surround it.

Real time bus, rail and Exeter airport flight information screens, similar to those that you find in airports, will help connect you and the centre to the city, and indeed the world around it. And design needs to reflect that – creating spaces where people want to linger and spend time. As we’ve seen with the success of Queen Street Dining, the food offer in shopping and leisure centres is now much more focussed on the whole experience, rather than the quick pit stop, grab a bite of the food court of old.

This range of use is true not only of former shopping centres like Guildhall, but urban centres more broadly, which are moving rapidly towards a far more balanced mix of use. We’re seeing this with plans for the Exeter bus station area too. Places to live, work, shop and play are increasingly existing alongside each other, rather than in designated, separated areas. Not only will this will ensure the long-term viability of our city centres, it will also be hugely important in terms of air quality and sustainability, reducing the need to drive between one element and another.

These seismic shifts in our town and city centres are part of a genuine evolution. Truly successful and visionary urban planners and architects create spaces that evolve. Whilst we might be talking about a bowling alley and indoor golf centre today, we need to ensure the space can become an AI gaming centre or adult soft play centre tomorrow - whatever the latest in leisure demands.

Whether it’s city centre facilities like Guildhall or former out of town shopping malls , retail and leisure centres need to be as adaptable as possible to accommodate the latest in ‘competitive socialising’ – an expression worthy of Darwin himself.