Modelling the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre

Oct 2022

At this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, an architectural model of Heatherwick Studio’s redevelopment plans for the Broadmarsh shopping centre in Nottingham was on display in the Architecture Room. The model, alongside another Heatherwick design for the redevelopment of the sixteenth-century Parnham Park estate in Dorset, were on show as part of the exhibition’s ‘climate’ theme for 2022. What do a 1970s shopping centre and a Grade I-listed stately home have in common? For Heatherwick Studio, these are just two examples of how existing architecture can be reused, reinterpreted and salvaged. Retrofitting, the studio claims, has been crucial to its modus operandi since it was formed in 1994 by designer, Thomas Heatherwick. That much is evident with the plans for Broad Marsh* and Parnham: the former was in a state of dereliction when it was announced that Heatherwick Studio would oversee its redevelopment, and the latter damaged by fire in 2017. Both models on display at the exhibition demonstrate how Heatherwick Studio intends to reuse the existing fabric of each space.

The Broadmarsh shopping centre was undergoing a vast redevelopment project when the property’s owner, intu, went bust in 2020. The centre had opened in Nottingham in the early-mid 1970s and was the result of a partnership between Nottingham council and the developer, Arndale. Following intu’s collapse, Nottingham city council – who had retained part-ownership of the shopping centre – took on full responsibility for the site. In late 2020, The Big Conversation was launched, an open consultation inviting the public to share their views for how the space should be used. The need for green, open space was a common response, and in late 2021, it was announced that Heatherwick Studio had been appointed to realise this vision. As part of the design studio’s plans, the half demolished, and now exposed skeletal structure of the former shopping centre, will be utilised as a frame for a multipurpose, rewilded space in the heart of the city.

But what does it mean to have a model of a shopping centre on display at an institution like the Royal Academy? If shopping centres are temples to consumption, pilgrimage sites for mass culture, the academy is surely seen as its antithesis (gallery shops, aside). The difference with Heatherwick Studio’s Broadmarsh model, of course, is that the function of the shopping centre as a space of mass consumerism has been neatly removed. As the model’s title clearly states, it shows the ‘Salvaging and reusing the partially demolished shell of a 1970’s shopping mall to provide a new space for all types of civic life and a bridge between generations, communities and cultures in the heart of Nottingham city centre’. This new vision has been posited as the antidote to the failures of the twentieth-century shopping centre; if the Broadmarsh Centre was commercial space, the reimagined Broad Marsh will be communal space.

The model itself is rather rustic. It’s a far cry from the slick 3D renders and animated video that were released in December 2021 to show Heatherwick Studio’s ambitions for the Broad Marsh site. Instead of the candyfloss coloured sky, fairy-lit blossom trees and aspirational types meandering through Heatherwick’s leafy dreamscape, the model is constructed from acrylic, flock, wood and cork – a lollypop stick wouldn’t go amiss here. The model is less an accurate depiction of how the Broad Marsh area will look upon completion, than a whimsical exercise in showcasing the boundless limits of Heatherwick’s imagination. With work to clear the (unwanted) bits of the Broadmarsh Centre still ongoing, only time will tell how the project will be realised. But for The Guardian’s architectural critic, Oliver Wainwright, Heatherwick’s plans are characteristic of the designer’s approach to date; ‘the fairytale images present a beguiling, Tolkienian picture’. The danger with a scheme such as this one, Wainwright notes, is that it ‘ends up being a greenwashing decoy, the novelty centrepiece of what appears to be a fairly bland commercial development’.

There are crucial questions to be asked about Heatherwick Studio’s involvement with the plans for the Broad Marsh site. Will this be quasi-public space which uses facial recognition to police the area, as at Coal Drops Yard, Heatherwick’s upmarket shopping complex redevelopment of former coal sheds behind Kings Cross? The designer has often espoused the benefits of privately-owned public space as being safer for all (a small irony given the extensive scholarship on the use of policing in privately-operated shopping centres to discriminate against certain groups of people). Will the scheme even make it off the ground, as Heatherwick’s vision for Boris John’s farcical Garden Bridge project failed to? Another valid concern, given that Nottingham council has yet to secure the money to fund the redevelopment. These are questions that need to, and will, be addressed in due course as progress is made.

With all this said, there was a real pleasure to be had from seeing the small, colourful model of the Broad Marsh’s future on display at the Summer Exhibition. The fact that the scheme is, in essence, made from an exposed structural frame allows the viewer to peep through every crevice, and to see into it from every possible angle. I certainly stood over the model for a good while, trying to imagine how this tiny model will be re-created on a 20 acre site. But what I found most curious about this model was that, at the time of the Summer Exhibition, I had also been researching a different architectural model – the model for the Broadmarsh shopping centre itself.

Architectural models of new shopping centres were not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the extent of change that these new developments would bring to the built environment, a model could provide the public with a way to comprehend what was to come. In a television interview with Arthur Swift, whose architectural firm designed Nottingham’s other shopping centre, the architect stands alongside a model of the Victoria Centre scheme: the whiteness of the proposed complex in stark contrast to the grey surroundings of Nottingham’s existing infrastructure.1 The models would be displayed for the public to see as part of local exhibitions or in municipal buildings, and photographs of them printed in the local press or promotional publications.

The public display of architectural models has a long history, but can be pinpointed to the early twentieth century, with figures like the polymath planner and reformer Patrick Geddes who advocated planning exhibitions as a way for people to learn their urban environment. In the years during and after the Second World War, public planning exhibitions were widespread – in 1943, for instance, an exhibition for the County of London Plan was put on display at the Royal Academy.2 In general, such exhibitions sought to garner public support for the reconstruction of blitzed towns and cities in the immediate years following the war, or for vast redevelopment plans, like Nottingham’s Broad Marsh scheme, in town and city centres in the decades after.

L: Nottingham Topic (Aug 1966); R: Nottingham Evening Post (27th June 1968)

In 1966, a model for the new shopping centre was displayed as part of an exhibition at the Midland Design Centre in Nottingham. According to an article in the Nottingham Evening Post, the exhibition was held to coincide with the publication of the corporation’s traffic plans for the city, and other models on display were used to show how traffic redevelopment could look. In photographs that exist of the model, it’s clear that the model depicts a version of the Broadmarsh Centre that did not come to pass. Three towering blocks of social housing rise from an otherwise flat shopping complex; the housing blocks were quietly omitted from the scheme in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in 1968.

But little else exists about either the 1966 exhibition or the model of the Broadmarsh Centre. This is not entirely surprising. As the planning historians Peter Larkham and Keith Lilley have noted, the ephemerality of these exhibitions makes them tricky to pinpoint, and thus researching them requires scouring local newspapers for ‘minor news items’ or trawling local archives for the passing remark.For fellow planning historians Robert Freestone and Marco Amati, co-authors of the book Exhibitions and the Development of Modern Planning Culture (2014), it is that such planning exhibitions were dour in comparison to more avant-garde design showcases that has contributed to a lack of scholarly attention.4 It goes without saying that Heatherwick Studio’s model for Broad Marsh’s future is vividly more dazzling than the model for the Broadmarsh Centre past.

The lack of available information about the Broadmarsh model, or any potential public exhibitions that it was displayed at, is nonetheless significant. It was also something that was remarked upon at the time by members of the public. In evidence given at a 1969 public inquiry into the Broadmarsh Centre scheme, two objectors protested what they believed was a deliberate lack of publicity given to the plans. Little detail had been made public, they argued, bar a ‘photograph of a model of the scheme as seen from the West’, an angle which would obscure the fact that Drury Hill, an historic passageway through Nottingham, was to be bulldozed to make way for the Broadmarsh Centre. The model was misleading, it was felt, so that the public could not fully comprehend what the council planned to do with the Broad Marsh area. ‘These models are now kept in a room on the top floor of the Council House,’ the objectors added: ‘There is nothing to show that the public has been informed of this fact or whether the public may see these models.’

The purpose of such architectural models and the exhibitions at which they are displayed thus needs to be questioned. Both Larkham and Lilley, together and in separate publications, have queried the extent to which planning exhibitions were about public participation, or were merely publicity events for what they call ‘passive consumers’.5 What was the function of a planning exhibition, both historians ask, ‘if the planner was the expert and the plan was to be accepted without question? […] was this active participation? Or were these exercises in placation and persuasion: were exhibition visitors simply to feel that they were participating?’6

In contrast to the much more publicised Victoria Centre plans and model, the Broadmarsh Centre model is harder to track down. What’s more, the developer and architect behind the Victoria Centre held several public consultations and meetings to discuss progress on the new shopping centre over the course of its construction – a noticeably different approach to the council’s handling of the Broad Marsh scheme. If the developers of the Victoria Centre were – at least outwardly – receptive to public feedback and criticism, the inaccessibility of the Broadmarsh Centre plans suggest that Larkham and Lilley’s point about passive consumers rings true. Over the course of the public inquiry into the Broad Marsh redevelopment, the council maintained that the plans had been sufficiently publicised as per the Town and Country Planning Order of 1963 (under which permission for the Broad Marsh scheme was granted).

In this sense then, a model for the Broadmarsh shopping centre that reveals so little is revealing in itself. By the late 1960s, opposition to large redevelopment schemes was gaining momentum amongst the public. As demand for greater, more impactful public participation grew, support for vast modernisation projects such as the Broadmarsh Centre, began to wane. Part of the objectors’ argument against the Broad Marsh scheme was that, if the public had been properly informed, they could have saved Drury Hill and other historic areas before it was too late. (By the time of the inquiry, demolition work had already begun in the area). The objectors were unsuccessful in arguing their case and, as we all know, the Broadmarsh Centre went ahead.

So could a more detailed and publicly available model have changed the course of the Broadmarsh Centre? Would a shopping centre as maligned as the Broadmarsh Centre have been constructed in the way that it was, if so? Given that the council were unwaveringly committed to viewing this new shopping centre as a fundamental of Nottingham’s brighter future, that seems unlikely. The architectural model for the new shopping centre was never intended to provoke public debate, but to demonstrate that the council and developer were – to paraphrase Larkham and Lilley – the experts who knew best.


Comparing one architectural model of the Broad Marsh area with another, we can see how the public is engaged in shaping their environment in two very different ways. In the Heatherwick Studio model for the Broad Marsh site’s future, we can visually evidence how the demands and needs of the public have been considered. That said, it is crucial to heed caution – as Wainwright has done. This future vision for Broad Marsh may have germinated from public participation, but the architectural model displayed at the Summer Exhibition could still come to stand for Heatherwick Studio as the detached expert. As it stands, the model says more about the designer’s self-positioning as an expert in retrofitting, and less about how the Broad Marsh area will actually function.

At the centre of this new vision is the conviction that the wrongs of twentieth-century planning can simply be swept away – and that what comes next will successfully create ‘the most vibrant and community-spirited place’ in a way that the shopping centres of yore could not. This is all well and good, but breezily-worded soundbites and whimsical matchstick box models cannot guarantee success. Unlike the fleeting displays and models of planning exhibitions bygone, the Broad Marsh plans must be grounded in something a little more concrete.

*Broad Marsh is used here to distinguish between the Broadmarsh Centre, calling the area by its historic name.

1. To paraphrase Simon Gunn, ‘The rise and fall of British urban modernism: planning Bradford, circa 1945-1970’, Journal of British Studies, 49.4 (2010), pp. 849-869 (p. 856).
2. Robert Freestone, ‘All of London’s a stage: the 1943 County of London Plan Exhibition’, Urban History, 43.4 (2016), pp. 539-556 (p. 550). 
3. Peter J. Larkham and Keith D. Lilley, ‘Exhibiting the city: planning ideas and public involvement in wartime and early post-war Britain’, The Town Planning Review, 83.6 (2012), pp. 647-668 (pp. 650-1).
4. Exhibitions and the Development of Modern Planning Culture, eds Robert Freestone and Marco Amati (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 3.
5. Larkham and Lilley, ‘Exhibiting the city’, p. 653. 
6. Larkham and Lilley, ‘Exhibiting the city’, p. 651.