Retail and rail – the design challenge

Since its creation, the architecture of the railways has been primarily about facilitating transportation. Now, as today’s travellers require multi-tasking spaces, architects and designers need to create retail opportunities as an essential part of the journey from pavement to platform, argues Holly Simpson of design consultancy Studio Tait

There’s nowhere more conveniently placed for feeding, entertaining or purely distracting our consumer society than railway stations. It’s an irresistible opportunity for retailers to engage a captive audience.

The demand for retail in transport hubs swells in line with increasing passenger numbers. A mind boggling 1.3 billion passenger journeys were made last year on the London Underground alone – with some stations achieving a footfall that dwarfs the UK’s largest shopping centres.

The need to seamlessly integrate the retail offer within the design of new stations cannot be ignored. Modern stations are the ultimate ‘people places’ – somewhere to meet, dine, do business and, more than ever, shop.

Retail presentation requires specialist skills. We consult alongside architects, offering insight into the branding, interior design and functionality of commercial operations.

Successful retail in stations means content and prosperous tenants and an assured long-term return for the Landlord. Retailers’ long-term needs have to be designed-in at the outset. Elements like clear sightlines, considered lighting and signage and the treatment of flank walls will create a shop front that’s an invitation to explore further.

To creatively announce a brand and turn passers-by into customers means working hard on shop-front presentation when you’re competing with the tick of the station clock.

Underground opportunities

As retail design consultants for Transport for London, Tait is two years into understanding, redefining and implementing a strategy of revitalisation across the network. The combination of factors that comes with implementing commercial units in these high-traffic hubs is quite particular, and presents different challenges every time.

London’s station architecture is diverse, narrating the city’s history. Retail architecture, design and tenant mix has to respond to this, and reflect the personality of its locality. It also has to accommodate the changing demands of retail itself – a well-reported state of affairs that is challenging even the

industry stalwarts.
Creating flexible spaces that cater for a higher turnover of

tenants or enable an established brand to change its store

fit-out with ease and frequency means that, although the architectural envelope is set, all that falls within it has to be adaptable.

The new Old Street

These factors came into play when we created TfL’s first ephemeral retail destination at Old Street Station, situated on the tectonic plates of vibrant Shoreditch, Tech City and the financial district. Four subways were treated with playful wraps of colour to aid wayfinding, and ten retail units were revitalised into pop-up shops and market stalls on very short-term leases. An intrinsic need for flexibility underscored the design. Units were stripped back to gallery-like spaces, and a consistent signage format provided via projecting lightboxes over each frontage, allowing tenants to implement and change their branding overnight but remain in line with a hierarchy of communication. The tenant mix is curated around a seasonal theme, ensuring commuters are continually re-engaged.

Creating a dynamic hub of activity – and revenue – has been a bold and astute solution, ushering in the change that will come with the major long-term redevelopment of Old Street roundabout.

In an entirely different environment, at Foster and Partner’s Canary Wharf underground station, we retrospectively transformed a wall of service cupboards and WCs adjacent to the escalators into four thriving retail units (pictured below).

The objective should always be for retail to enhance the passenger’s journey. Convenience is critical, but the impact on circulation must be considered carefully. Our concept at Canary Wharf minimised disruption to the existing architecture, showcasing retailers by re-pitching the louvered ceiling and replacing steel walls with taller, fully glazed facades.

However, the volume of retail opportunities will sometimes be dictated by the station architecture. With the obvious challenges and limitations of being literally underground, many stations don’t have the ongoing service facilities required by retailers, such as daily refuse removal.

Architectural language

In all station environments, the desire to maximise the value of the space is consistent. The new TfL kiosk (pictured above), launched at Waterloo station, provides a uniform architectural language that diverse tenants can individually brand. The station architecture is crucial to achieving this balance between consistent quality and materials, and encouraging tenants’ creative expressions.

We’re now finalising the Retail Design Idiom, a set of overarching design principles for the network, ushering in a new generation of retail standards for London rail travellers.

Working alongside architects as retail design specialists we always have three clients in mind – the landlord, the tenant and the consumer. The most successful spaces are those that consider the continuing life-cycle of all three.