Belgium’s third largest city has something to shout about with its striking Médiacité shopping centre, and British retailers are among its most prominent early tenants. John Ryan reports

Liège is a city in the French speaking part of southern Belgium, not far from the picturesque hills and valleys of the Ardennes. However, there is little that could readily be termed attractive about this rust-belt, former steel-making city of about 200,000 people. Arriving by rail, it has the air of a location that has seen better times.

But there are signs that this is about to change. The railway station that brings visitors from nearby Maastricht in the Netherlands and the Belgium capital Brussels to the west, is an astonishing structure designed by Spanish-born internationally renowned architect Santiago Calatrava and opened in September last year at a cost of €312m (£278m). And about 10 minutes’ walk in a straight line from it is the other sign of urban renaissance in Liège - Médiacité.

This is a shopping and entertainment complex that opened at the end of October and is quite unlike any other you are likely to come across. This is hardly surprising, as the presiding creative genius behind it is the Anglo-Israeli designer and architect Ron Arad.

Cutting-edge design

London-based Arad is known, among many other things, for designing one-off pieces of furniture fashioned from sheet steel, and was professor of industrial and product design at the Royal College of Art in London. Médiacité shows many of the cutting-edge design traits that define Arad’s work, but is some distance from the rough-and-ready sculptures-cum-furniture for which he is perhaps best known.

The centre is set back from the right bank of part of the Meuse, the river that runs through the middle of Liège. Viewed from the opposite bank the prospect is remarkable, with a series of what look like red-edged slices of bread from a round loaf that have been layered on top of each other. Except that, in this instance, the slices are made of steel and have glass at their centre and they form the introduction to a curvilinear structure.

Belgian developer Wilhelm & Co hired Arad to create this 1.7 million sq ft mixed-use scheme, aimed at combining shopping, leisure, culture and design agencies on a brown-field site.

In practice, although there are media companies with their offices in the scheme, and features such as a six-screen cinema and an ice rink are planned, it is the shopping that will attract the majority of visitors.

Retailing mix

On the commercial side, a total of 624,325 sq ft has been dedicated to retailing, of which 166,840 sq ft is “leisure”, although a quick walk round does little to reveal what this actually means, other than eating.

Certainly, Médiacité is supposed to be a cite dans la ville (city in the town). And long term this may prove to be the reality. It is absolutely in the heart of Belgium’s third largest metropolis, but for the moment this long ribbon, designed to imitate a river in shape, is about retailing.

And what is interesting is that although it is a considerable distance from the UK, not only has the developer looked across the Channel for inspiration for the centre’s architecture, but it is UK retailers that provide much of the impetus.

Indeed, walk through the main entrance and the first retailers to greet shoppers’ eyes are Primark, on the ground floor, and Sports Direct on the smaller upper level.

There are, of course, a lot of home-grown products and a lot of Euro-retailers such as Jack & Jones, Tom Tailor and Etam Lingerie, all of which have opted to take units. Interestingly, there is also a branch of Mim, next door to a New Look outlet - something of a curiosity when it is considered that both spring from the same stable and that there is a tendency for New Look to dominate at present.

British domination

However, it is the British and Irish retailers that dominate in terms of space. Primark, which has been open since January, provides a single-floor anchor for Médiacité, using a store design along the lines of that it deployed in the north German city of Bremen last year.

This scheme has opened in a depressed part of Belgium at a time when Europe is just beginning to emerge from recession. As such, there are a significant number of “coming soon” hoardings around the centre, with retailers such as Claire’s, all, apparently, intending to set up shop here. However, it looks likely to be a while before it is anything like fully occupied.

That said, it is having an effect on the city; shifting the commercial axis and creating a new centre in a formerly run-down area. And with 17 different catering establishments, it is also providing a contemporary option for diners that was significantly lacking before.

And for anyone venturing into Médiacité, while there are retailing stalwarts such as German media giant Saturn - its first store in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium - and H&M, it is probably the architecture that will capture the attention in the first instance. This is a shopping centre whose internal landscape, with a swirling glass and steel roof, demands to be looked at. It is also an extraordinary addition to the city and a mark of a regenerative process that could yet see Liège being viewed in a different light.

Médiacité facts: the city in a town

  • Size 1.7 million sq ft
  • Retail space 624,325 sq ft
  • Developer Wilhelm & Co
  • Design and architecture Ron Arad, with local assistance provided by Jaspers-Eyers & Partners, the US office of RTKL and the London office of Chapman Taylor
  • Construction Began in June 2007 and the centre opened in October 2009
  • Retail anchors Primark, Saturn and Sports Direct
  • Total investment cost 310m (£276.7m)
  • Total in-mall shop windows length 1,500 m
  • Anticipated annual number of visitors 7 million
  • Major feature The centre’s architecture - internally and externally