The world's first pop-up shopping mall

Is clothes browsing inside refurbished shipping containers in east London as hip (and non-corporate)

It's midday, and I am walking along Shoreditch High Street headed towards the northern end of Brick Lane. I turn into Bethnal Green Road. There is a lot of activity going on -- lots of young people of various nationalities purposefully moving stuff around while others stand back and survey the results of their endeavours. I wonder what's happening as this is normally a dead area -- except on evenings at weekends, when the affluent young people of London and their counterparts from overseas come out to play and move between the various bars, clubs and restaurants in Greater Shoreditch.

The reason soon becomes clear. There is a line of grey recycled shipping containers, adjacent to the pavement area, which have been turned into retail outlets. The brand names, all in the same style of lettering, are flagged up above the entrances: Calvin Klein, Farah Vintage, Levi's, Original Penguin, Marimekko and Puma. There is even an Amnesty International shop selling "limited edition" jewellery, stationery and prints for the festive season.

This, as I later find out, is Boxpark, described in the PR as "the world's first pop up mall" in the "coolest part of the coolest city in the coolest country in the world", which opens today.

It certainly seems a world away from London's other recent, purpose-built shopping centres like Westfield London in Shepherd's Bush and Westfield Stratford City, as well as older models like Brent Cross; enclaves detached from the surrounding area with shops like John Lewis, Debenhams, WH Smith and Mothercare offering customers of all ages a very safe and mainstream retail experience to the sounds of George Benson, and the like.

But how different is Boxpark? My first reaction -- from the sheer number of well-known brands targeting young people and the clever symmetry of the double-storey assembly -- was that this is not the usual activity of small, independent retailers that have colonised parts of Brick Lane and the Old Truman Brewery site in the last six or seven years.

Such places have transformed the western edge of Tower Hamlets -- the second poorest borough in London and third poorest in the country -- into a zone of "ultimate cool" for the middle classes.

The space where Boxpark now sits was earmarked for some serious retail and leisure development, but the global economic crisis has put paid to that, at least for the time being.

It turns out that one of those backing Boxpark is Charles Dunstone, the former public schoolboy who turned £6,000 worth of savings into a fortune through the Carphone Warehouse. Always on the lookout for new investment opportunities, he and his partners (although they don't always get it right; witness the recent closure of the Best Buy electrical megastores) might well have found a crock of gold at the end of Shoreditch's rainbow: a huge influx of visitors will visit east London for the Olympics next year and, it is hoped, thereafter.

Irrespective of the PR behind Boxpark, it has to be pointed out that the concept is not totally new.

Refurbished shipping containers have been used in several parts of the world -for example, the Puma City in Chicago and the Illy Café in New York -- and there are even plans to create a space for a church in the US. Moreover, Dunstone and his partner, Roger Wade, chief executive of Brighton-based Consultancy Brands Incorporated, are now looking further afield for another site in London to use the containers to develop a leisure complex.

So it looks like this is just the beginning of a new wave of innovative retailing, which will make the traditional high street shopping experience for many very old fashioned indeed. Perhaps the government's retail guru Mary Portas, whose review of the future of the UK high street is due for release any day now, should take note.

What does all this mean for London in general and greater Shoreditch in particular? Undoubtedly, Boxpark's arrival is yet the latest sign that the centre of cultural and economic gravity in the capital is moving inexorably eastwards. My guess is that the pressure will continue to build up and it is only a matter of time before permission is granted to build an airport in the Thames estuary.

As for E1, Boxpark can stay for five years. Then, assuming the UK economy has returned to some sort of growth, it will vanish; preserved only in memories and digital photographs. However, unless the urban planners and members of Tower Hamlets Council put some very creative hats on, the probability is that something more mainstream will take its place.

The coolest part of the world won't be quite so cool anymore. But that's progress for you.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage