Logo Participation Factory

The Phenomenon of Old Department Stores: the Battle between the Past and the Present

Can old department stores compare to polished shopping malls and online markets? Can their spaces be considered cultural monuments? Can the public beat the developers and help save old department stores? How can their spaces be used? Participation may be the answer. 

The first department store in the world was opened in London in 1796, while in the Czech Republic we had the first department store opened in 1871. The first department store is the Haas House, located on Na Příkopě Street in Prague, which currently houses the clothing company United Colors of Benetton and is protected as a national cultural monument. However, not all old department houses are so lucky, and although they often reveal architectural gems from behind their shelves, dilapidation and demolitions are taking place. 

Department stores used to be built in city centers and located in lucrative locations, which is where their main value lies today due to minimal investment in maintenance. Hence they normally need expensive refurbishments that can be more labor-intensive and costly than demolition and construction of a new building. However, they enable us to preserve architectural and historic value for future generations, to maintain the function of buildings that sustain everyday life in and around centers. Besides these department stores are places for cultural enjoyment and tourism. 

Many beautiful historic buildings have succumbed to demolition for more commercially viable uses by investors. This is not the case with the first republican department store Brouk a Babka in České Budějovice, which is now called the Broukárna. Thanks to an investment of several tens of millions, the building, which is not listed, is profitable. The building houses a clothing shop, a bar, and offices.  For example, the Brouk a Babka department store in Liberec, which has been in operation for more than eighty years, is described as a pearl of functionalist architecture. The reconstruction carried out by the former owner years ago can be considered one of the most impressive reconstructions of functionalist buildings in the country.

Another interesting building is the Breda department store, which welcomed its first customers in 1928. It was the largest building of its kind in the country that impressed visitors with its modernist architectural design. Thanks to the support of the public and the Society for the Rescue of the Breda Department Store, the city of Opava decided to buy the building and is now getting suggestions for possible ways of using the space to best reflect the wishes and needs of inhabitants of the city and its surroundings. A comprehensive participatory process supported by the Participation Factory will allow stakeholders and the public to propose and share their own ideas about what the building should be used for. The ideas for the building function and a pam of citizens’ needs will then become the basic starting point for the future management of the building. 

The dilapidation and demolition of historic department stores isn’t relevant only in the Czech Republic. In the UK, more than 50% of the country’s historic department stores have reportedly closed since 2015. In the light of this trend, Great Britain saw a successful petition against a proposed demolition of the Marks & Spencer department store on Oxford Street in central London. Architects, historians, and conservation experts from Save Britain’s Heritage are calling for the modernization and adaptive reuse of historic department stores across the country to help create new historic status for Britain’s former merchant palaces.

Due to the growing climate crisis and the related need to introduce a new approach in the construction industry, demolition should be a last choice. The modernization and promotion of innovation of old buildings must become a norm in accordance with the highest current sustainability standards. There is a shortage of space for the construction of new buildings and much more attention must be paid to the impact of emitted carbon created by new construction. Therefore, we need to make every effort possible to reuse and rehabilitate the buildings we already have.

Finding a new purpose and a sustainable solution to fill in the building spaces should be supported by public participation. A new function, designed directly by the people who will use the space, will contribute not only to improving the quality of life and people’s relationship with the environment they are surrounded by, but also to increasing trust between the city’s residents and its city hall, local organizations, and governmental institutions.



Image source: architonic.com

BBC Culture. A history of the department store [online]. 2015. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/culture/bespoke/story/20150326-a-history-of-the-department-store/index.html

Breda žije [online]. Available from: https://bredazije.cz

First Republic department stores. StavbaWEB [online]. 2018. Available from: https://www.stavbaweb.cz/prvorepublikove-obchodni-domy-19730/clanek.html

KOVAŘÍK, Tomáš. Dilapidated and protected department stores from the socialist era, part one: the glitter and the glory [online]. 2019. Available from: https://www.estav.cz/cz/8031.chatrajici-i-chranene-obchodni-domy-z-ery-socialismu-lesk-a-slava

LEBOVÁ, Valentina. Historical buildings with a new face: the cultural heritage of old Prague [online]. 2022. Available from: https://www.lp-life.cz/historicke-budovy-s-novou-tvari.

NILAND, Josh. An English department store demo could create a new special historic status for former retail palaces across the UK. Archinect: news [online]. 2022. Available from: https://archinect.com/news/article/150321509/an-english-department-store-demo-could-create-a-new-special-historic-status-for-former-retail-palaces-across-the-uk