The Marks and Spencers at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street isn’t exactly the grandest building in the neighbourhood. That honour belongs to the palatial Selfridges which is right next door.
So M&S may have thought that no one would mind much if they demolished Orchard House and replaced it with a new building. Indeed, the company was “pleased” to announce the final go-ahead last week. The horrified reaction to their tweet should have been warning of the bad publicity to come.
We're pleased that our plans to redevelop our Marble Arch store have been approved. M&S has a long history in the area and this means we will be able to create a modernised store offering the best of our products & services. pic.twitter.com/6D0blq7Bn1
— M&S News (@MandSnews) November 24, 2021
Initially the push-back came from organisations like Create Streets and the Twentieth Century Society, both aghast at the impending loss of a fine example of 1930s architecture. But now the furore has spread to the mainstream media. While the coverage is overwhelmingly critical, there’s an ideological split on exactly what different critics are objecting to.
The Mail emphasises the damage to Oxford Street’s heritage. Though Orchard House doesn’t have listed status, its Art Deco facade adds to the distinctiveness of the West End. The same cannot be said for the proposed replacement — a typical example of what Nicholas Boys-Smith calls “spreadsheet architecture”.
Meanwhile, The Guardian focuses less on aesthetics and more on the carbon emissions that would be created by the destruction and replacement of a structurally-sound building. It reports a claim by critics that 2.4 million trees would need to be planted to offset the impact of the re-development. For Marks and Spencer — which makes a lot of its green credentials — this is awkward. The new building may be more energy efficient, but old buildings can be made greener too if they’re refurbished properly.
Traditionalists and environmentalists should make common cause here. Indeed, what better symbol of sustainability could there be than a building that is handed down from generation to generation, century to century? And what worse example could there be than to replace it with a faceless structure than nobody will ever love?
The arch-modernist, Le Corbusier, once said that a building was “a machine for living in.” As per usual, he could not have been more wrong. Machines wear out and become obsolete; a great building is the opposite — it becomes more valuable the older it gets.
Orchard House may not be a truly great building, but it is a characterful one. Marks and Spencer — a brand that prides itself on specialness — should think again.