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The Brent Cross Shopping Centre (or Regional Shopping Centre as it was originally known – the phrase ‘shopping centre’ was applied previously to custom-built high-street shopping arcades) is located in low-lying land in the valley of the river Brent in the south-east of the London Borough of Barnet. Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened to the public on 2nd March 1976 and was seen as offering an American-style shopping experience to consumers visiting from as far off as Dunstable and the south midlands as well as from London’s west-end.

Hammerson Property and Investment Trust Ltd first drew up plans for the centre in 1957, the initial proposals being made in 1963. The 52-acre site was formerly the location of a sewage farm serving the Hendon Urban District Council. However this was closed down in 1936 following the advent of the Middlesex Main Drainage Scheme and the site was given over to allotments. The south-western corner of the site (now the Stadium Car-Park) was formerly the Hendon Greyhound Stadium.

Hammerson originally planned to include a boating lake, covered swimming pool and a bowling centre on site but these leisure facilities never materialised. Instead what was described by a contemporary as a ‘super-self-contained shopping module’ emerged on the valley floor and has been slowly expanding ever since. The building was designed by Bernard Engle & Partners and was based on the successful ‘bar-bell’ formula of malls in the US whereby two ‘anchor’ shops were located, one at each end of a main hall serving numerous smaller outlets. Fenwicks and John Lewis formed the anchor stores and are still there today. The main hall was 610 feet in length, the floor finished in Cremona and Lido marble (mainly from Italy but some from Yugoslavia). One contemporary commentator described entering the centre as like ‘walking into the foyer of the National Theatre.’It was a requirement that trade in food would be limited so as not to adversely affect local shopping centres and that Brent Cross would focus on the sale of high-quality consumer goods instead.

 1956 saw the opening of the world’s first enclosed mall – the Southdale Shopping Centre in Minneapolis. According to Victor Gruen, who designed the Southdale Centre, Malls would be the new agoras of the suburban motor-cities emerging across 1950s America. In this he was proved right, with similar centres popping up in most US cities over the next five years or so.

Around 1960 two Yorkshiremen, Arnold Hagenbach and Sam Chippendale, opened the first mall in the UK and within a decade many towns boasted their own Arndale shopping centres. However, Brent Cross took the concept to a new level, both in terms of size and in the designated catchment area – the placing of Brent Cross at a large road junction ensuring that the centre would draw in motor-based shoppers from miles around. Brent Cross is still singularly dangerous to approach on foot.

Brent Cross is named after a major crossroads formed by the junction of the A406 North Circular Road and the A41 Hendon Way. The junction between the A406 and the A5 runs just to the west of the site and the M1 motorway has its terminus close by. The early 1960s saw the building of the Brent Cross flyover which further facilitated the movement of traffic towards what was always conceived as a centre serving motorised shoppers. The only railway station in the area is Brent Cross (formerly Brent) on the London underground’s Northern Line.

Lest the amateur psychogeographer feels the need to sneer at the cultural shallowness of Brent Cross it must be stressed that a sequence from the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies starring Pierce Brosnan was filmed in the car-park built on the site of the old Johnson’s Photographic Factory (see photograph). Apparently over £1m worth of brand new BMWs was written off filming the sequence! Neither is the area without its own darkness and density: On July 20th 1964 a crane mounted on the half-built flyover just east of the site collapsed onto a coach carrying workers from a factory in Feltham to a day out in Southend. Seven people died as a result.

Photos: Peter Simon

Have a read of Brent Cross Omphalos

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