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London could be getting a massive new art gallery… on Oxford Street

The old Debenhams flagship store might become a creative space under a new proposal

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell

Central London is now full of empty offices and shuttered shops. The capital’s local councils are desperate to attract visitors and tourists back into the heart of the city once we’re allowed to commingle again (and spend money, obviously), hence brilliant wheezes like Marble Arch’s big artificial hill. Now there’s a new proposal to repurpose one of these monuments to collapsed commercialism. 

Oxford Street’s huge empty Debenhams might become London’s newest art space, if plans from Westminster Labour get the go-ahead. It was announced in January that the chain’s flagship store would not reopen after the pandemic, with the loss of 140 jobs. Several of the company’s other retail outlets will also not reopen. The vast store covers seven floors, with nearly 400,000 square feet of floorspace. There is no commercial interest in the building, and Oxford Street has seen a trend over recent years of large retailers leaving the area, forced out by high rents and online competition. Basically, no one really wants a giant shop right now, even on the UK’s most famous shopping street.

The ‘Oxford Street Art House’ would take over the entire building. Westminster’s Labour councillors are suggesting that the store’s basement could become maker spaces, the ground floor would be a shop and a new home for Marylebone public library, and the remaining five floors would be gallery spaces, including fashion, photography and movie galleries. On top of that, there would be a roof garden, and loads of cafés.

It sounds ace, and much more fun than a big store full of bedding and squash racquets. There is a precedent as well. A huge empty office block at 180 The Strand was converted into a fantastic art space back in 2016. In that case, there’s no doubt that the repurposing of the building and its location have greatly contributed to its atmosphere and the impact of the work it shows. With Oxford Street and the surrounding area currently undergoing a £150 million regeneration scheme, it would be great to get a bit of the old art and culture in there. And a roof garden, of course.

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This is how Camille Walala wants the West End to look when it reopens.

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