Oxford Street is beautiful. Pedestrianisation will help us appreciate it

By Rob McNamara

Oxford Street is Europe’s busiest shopping street. It is home to over 300 shops, receives half a million visitors a day – and, according to new plans recently announced by the Mayor of London, all 1.2 miles of it are going to be pedestrianised by 2020.

As city planning announcements go, Sadiq Khan’s plans for Oxford Street are a pretty big deal. But of the many benefits associated with canning the cars, one perk has barely received a mention: pedestrianisation will let us appreciate the beauty of Oxford Street’s buildings.

“Beauty” and “Oxford Street” don’t often appear in the same sentence. However, if you cast your eyes up above the plasticky shopfronts, you’ll soon realise that you’re surrounded by some very fine architecture. A little bit of digging uncovers numerous points of historical interest, too.

The Pantheon. Image: Matt Brown/Flickr/creative commons.

There is the darkly distinctive 1930s frontage of the Pantheon building, built to house a Marks & Spencer and which remains the retailer’s home to this day. Its well preserved art deco facade won it Grade II listed status in 2009. The Pantheon gets its name from the James Wyatt-designed assembly rooms that originally occupied the site, and which was once considered to be one of the finest buildings in the country. Horace Walpole once referred to the original as “the most beautiful edifice in England”.

Then there’s the flagship John Lewis store, opened by the retailer in 1960 after its original premises had been razed to the ground in the Blitz. Capturing the spirit of London’s post-war recovery, the store is also noteworthy for the “Winged Figure” sculpture by Dame Barbara Hepworth that is mounted over one of its main entrances.  

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John Lewis. Image: John Allen/geograph.org.uk/creative commons.

Both buildings serve as reminders of the rich architectural contributions made by the British retail industry to the look and feel of our high streets. But away from these two very visible landmarks, there are many other gems on offer – some of which are all the more interesting due to the sheer incongruity of building and present-day occupant.

There’s a Sports Direct – all “pile it high, flog it cheap” – housed in a gorgeous art deco building with windows two stories high. The premises once housed Britain’s first Woolworths and, more recently, a large HMV. Now it looks, rather poignantly, like it’s in urgent need of some TLC. Another art deco-fronted beauty – The Plaza – was home to a dreary and underwhelming mini-mall of shops. The mall closed at the end of June and is scheduled for redevelopment.

Some of the real treats are the ones that you barely realise exist. At 215-219 Oxford Street, there’s a large Zara store that occupies what would originally have been two distinct premises. Look above this outpost of Amancio Ortega’s multi-billion dollar business, and at the corner you’ll see a fantastic 1950s building, replete with curved windows and three ornate plaques, added to commemorate the Festival of Britain in 1951. The building’s architects, Ronald Ward & Partners, were also responsible for Millbank Tower.

Intermingling with the old stuff is a growing collection of ambitious new additions. No. 61 Oxford Street, which won the 2016 RIBA London Award, is a prime example. It is a beautiful, wavey, shimmering structure that embodies Oxford Street’s willingness to take on challenging new projects.

So we should welcome Oxford Street’s pedestrianisation. Not just because it will ease the congestion that bedevils the street, but because of the extra time it will give us to pause and appreciate its many overlooked buildings. The only negative is surely that the absence of double decker buses will make it more difficult to see many of them up close. New Oxford Street monorail, anyone?

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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