Future Systems' design for the new Birmingham Selfridges (planned to open in 2003) looks like a metallic Yorkshire pudding. Rising beside the neo-Gothic St Martin's Church, its digitally imagined curves glinting in the sunlight, the department store invites immediate comparison with Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum; a comparison that is not so much about form as an overall urban mood. Although Frank Gehry's building also has curved metallic surfaces, its choppy, spliced design more closely resembles a solid substance that has been dismantled than a fluid one that has been inflated. However, like the Guggenheim, the Selfridges store will create an inner city schism. It's a building so unlikely and outlandish that the diverse elements of the surrounding city will have to struggle to suppress their differences in order to make their strange new friend feel at home (a bit like America and the USSR in joint communication with aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
This situation is not confined to Bilbao and Birmingham. Other new buildings, such as Allsop and Stormer's Peckham Library in London, or even Norman Foster's addition to the Reichstag in Berlin, function in a similar manner. It seems that architecture's prevailing agent of urban regeneration is a kindly Martian who parks her bizarrely engineered spaceship or cantilevered behind in the midst of huddled city streets. As an example of fashionable urban overhaul, the Future Systems Selfridges fits so seamlessly alongside these museums, libraries and government buildings that it is easy to forget it will actually be a shop. Selfridges may be explicit about the role of the new structure (their chief architect, Martin Illingworth, describes it as a container of 'brand culture'), but there is an air of ambiguity about the project none the less.
The cost of the building is being borne not by Selfridges but by a triumvirate of property developers known as the Birmingham Alliance. These developers have taken an area of inner-city Birmingham, known as the Bull Ring, on a 250-year lease and are spending £400 million to refit it as a 'mixed retail and leisure development'. Although the money is coming from private investors, the government is lending the project considerable support, chiefly by reorganizing the city's roads to promote access to the area (breaking Birmingham's infamous 'concrete collar') and by hurrying through planning permission for the buildings involved. To warrant this support, the Birmingham Alliance have provided a proportion of public space in their plans, including a new plaza in front of the church which will be called St Martin's Square. There is nothing new in this: cities have long been indeterminate chequerboards of public and private and it is fairly uncontroversial to view shops as worthwhile adjuncts to common ground. But what does seem novel about this project is that the area within the Selfridges building - the heart of the commercial arena - is being proposed as a type of public space. The press release imagines 'a shop for people to visit purely for enjoyment'. For the last few years theorists such as the architecture critic Aaron Betsky have argued that commercial brands are essential ingredients in meaningful social interaction, and it would appear that such ideas are now entering public policy.
Known for their innovative use of technology, Future Systems are connected to a longstanding tradition of department store design, a lineage that includes the engineer Gustave Eiffel's pioneering work in glass and iron for the late 19th-century Parisian store Bon Marché. All the same, looking at Future Systems' already well established record as architects of commercial spaces - Comme des Garçons in New York and Tokyo, Marni in London and Milan, and two branches of the London florists Wild At Heart - they might seem an unlikely choice. All their previous shops are at the very top end of the retail spectrum and common to them all, alongside the company's signature organic forms, are devices that transform their well-off customers into characters in a privately experienced fairy tale. Enter Comme des Garçons in New York, for example, and you are sucked from the city street through a shiny tunnel and deposited onto the cave-like shop floor; in London's Marni you have to hop over doormat stepping-stones to access an island that sprouts chromium arbours; and in the Notting Hill Wild At Heart you cross a drawbridge to reach a bright white, high-tech grotto. All these spaces are designed to emphasize separation from the street; a favourite Future Systems technique is to clad the shop windows with an extra layer of glass to reinforce the distance between the hustle of the pavement and the seduction of the space within. So successful in heightening the seclusion around retail activity, it remains to be seen how such techniques will translate to a large-scale, quasi-public arena. Will they be able to create the space that Selfridges are promising: a communal, inclusive environment where participants and non-participants feel equally welcome?