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Acme's Victoria Gate shopping centre raises the bar for northern shopping

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The success of this new Leeds shopping centre will not be in its design but Acme’s Victoria Gate unquestionably raises the bar in terms of what a 21st-century shopping experience should be, says Richard Waite 

The new £164 million Victoria Gate development in Leeds city centre, a high-end retail destination with its striking John Lewis anchor store, was never going to be everybody’s cup of Yorkshire tea. Some reactions have been surprisingly severe. I overhear one of the first-day visitors describe it as ‘tacky’. Another moans online that ‘it looks dangerously like the second coming of Dubai luxe’.

Yet for the handful of critics there are many more who have been wowed by this polished new arrival towards the top of town. An office worker on a lunch-hour tour of the complex shortly after the doors open tells me, unprompted, that she thinks the architecture is ‘great’. Her three colleagues are equally impressed as they weigh up the car park’s cladding.

A few days later, on a separate trip with the family, my seven-year-old son offers his own critique: ‘It is classy.’ (Though he may have actually muttered ‘glassy’).

Familial bias apart, he is certainly closer to the mark than the discontented first-day grumblers. Acme’s creation may be slickly theatrical, but this isn’t paper-thin gaudiness for a gauche but moneyed clientele.

It isn’t bling. We have been very honest with our materials. 

Friedrich Ludewig

Refreshingly candid and sporting gold Cuban heels, Friedrich Ludewig, a director at Acme, says: ‘It isn’t bling. We have been very honest with our materials. It is how you use them.’ He is referring in particular to the floor of the development’s centrepiece double arcade, an almost lozenge-shaped top-lit ‘mall’. Architecturally it is a triumph.

As the arcades slope gently away from the 1901 Frank Matcham-designed Victoria Quarter arcades – the main inspiration for this scheme – the gleaming floor tiles elegantly glide out from the middle in a herringbone pattern, alternating in ever darkening greyish hues (13 shades of grey, apparently). The effect is Art Deco-esque sophistication. However, these granite tiles, shipped in after a 1:1 mock-up in China, were among the cheapest on the market.

Meanwhile the double-curved glazed façades and consistent gold-on-black signage, a trick carried over from the adjoining Victoria Quarter, also sing classiness. As Ludewig says: ‘The curved glass was non-negotiable. The result is that it even makes those [retailers] who are not particularly sophisticated look pretty good.’ The articulated arcade roofs and the Acme-designed lighting, which lead your eye into the shops, ooze refined style.

Opened last month in time for the Christmas rush, Victoria Gate is split into three parts: the arcade, the beacon-like John Lewis, and a multi-storey car park. The 26,000m2 scheme is the beachhead for a much wider development which has been on the drawing board in various guises since 2006.

As you head eastwards down the Headrow towards Terry Farrell’s 1993 Quarry House, you hit the clever brick-panel-clad arcade block, sat below a massive but still unfinished casino (by Fuse Studio), followed by the John Lewis store, then the massive bolt-on 800-space car park. Acme’s competition-winning scheme for the flagship shop (AJ 01.03.13) envisaged the store as a standalone structure without its car-filled bustle. That came later.

The long-awaited John Lewis building itself is almost civic, like the town hall at the other end of the Headrow, but built in concrete rather than stone. The store, with its noble, structural concrete diagrid, bookends the Headrow-long terrace by Reginald Blomfield, the architect behind London’s Regent Street.

Acme has not shied away from ornamentation on its exterior

Richard Waite

Acme, which emerged out of Foreign Office Architects in 2007, has not shied away from ornamentation on its exterior (internally it is standard fare). Its well-crafted, tactile façade patterns are, allegedly, drawn from Leeds’ textile-producing history. In fact the whole development pays homage to Leeds’ past and its people – although not fully, in my opinion, to the city’s street layout.

Neither this nor Chapman Taylor’s already-dating Trinity Shopping centre (opened in March 2013 and based on designs by Enric Miralles) have attempted to mimic the Stirling Prize-shortlisted Liverpool One, with its blurred where-does-the-shopping centre-end-and-the-city-begin urban grid assimilation.

Essentially an enclosed block with three big weather-resistant doors – a lesson learned from the draughty and doorless Trinity – the Leeds scheme is not quite as generous to the city as the old Victorian arcades. Unlike the nearby Thornton’s Arcade, its internal streets will be locked between 11pm and 7am.

What’s more there is no permeability through the shops in the arcade. High-end retailers are not interested in the off-chance of a random purchase by someone cutting through to catch to a bus. Exits at either side of a store are also harder to police.

At the eastern end, the multi-storey car park with its twisting aluminium fins and internal mesh (to stop those with suicidal thoughts, apparently) is stylish but unmissably large. Local architect Adam Clark of Halliday Clark is a fan of the scheme, but is saddened that this steel-framed structure seems to ‘bury’ the rest of the well-proportioned project, especially when viewed from Quarry Hills and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The impression, he says, is that this is the development’s back end.

He adds: ‘While it is understandable that this aspect of the scheme is not an active frontage of the store, it still resonates with the unfortunate scale and blandness provided by the former police station on the same site.’

Elsewhere, however, important vistas have been retained, such as the view from the Headrow to the ornate 1904 Kirkgate Market Hall by Joseph and John Leeming.

Future generosity has been built in too – the entrances align with prospective new routes. The project is, after all, only the first phase of this larger development which will stride across the Headrow and – permission allowing – punch through the Blomfield terrace to the north. Acme is masterplanning that as well, though other architects are expected to join the team.

In essence Victoria Gate is trying to suck the city centre eastwards, and in the coming years the rest of Leeds will have to react. Its immediate neighbour, the happily gloss-free Kirkgate Markets, is already feeling the glare from the swanky, chest-puffing newcomer next door.

I’m not here to gentrify the market. We want to be good neighbours.

Friedrich Ludewig

Those in charge of Victoria Gate would love to see the markets selling more locally sourced, high-grade non-GM Yorkshire produce, rather than cheap tea-towels, two-for-a-pound punnets of blackberries and bags of broken biscuits. As Ludewig says: ‘This is the rougher part of Leeds … but we are working on it. A fresh food market would work quite well here.’ So does he want it to become, say, another Borough Market? ‘I’m not here to gentrify the market,’ he fires back. ‘We want to be good neighbours.’

The façade facing the market, with its mix of corbelled brickwork and pristine, buttery terracotta panels – an attempt to echo the frontages on the nearby Vicar Lane – is probably the weakest of all the elevations. Ludewig admits the colours are a ‘bit too yellow’, though he is confident they will weather. There have been some late changes to the roofline too: Cor-ten-clad restaurants were recently added, raising the height along George Street to three storeys.

Though not perfect, Victoria Gate has unquestionably raised the bar in terms of what a 21st-century shopping experience can be. The structures exude elegance and confidence. But ultimately the scheme’s success will not be down to its design.

As a Yorkshire-based doubter by default, I worry about other external factors: the impact of Brexit; the ongoing battle with internet shopping; whether out-of-towners can be bothered to schlep uphill from the city’s station to go to the Nespresso shop – and the questionable level of demand for luxuries. Perhaps the never-knowingly-undersold John Lewis store will make this scheme work.

As for the rest of the precinct, as my wife says: ‘It really is a lovely building. But now I’ve seen it I’m in no rush to go back. I can’t afford to buy anything there.’

Site plan

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Ground floor plan

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Brick details

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Facade detail

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Source: Jack Hobhouse

Interior axonometric

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

The arcades’ curved plan form ensures that John Lewis and most shopfronts are visible from the western arcade entrance, and promotes an equality of both arcades, neither one more dominant than the other.

Each shop has centrally placed doors with radiused windows each side designed to give as much visibility to the window displays as possible. Our desire was for frameless glass shopfronts with as much transparency as possible, and glazing that was relatively flush from the sill to the top of the balcony balustrades. This was helped by the inherent structural stability of the curved glass units. Working with engineer Waterman Structures and Lindner Facades, we designed the glass to be self-supporting, taking only restraint from the first-floor slab edge .

Posts take the load and forces of the glazed doors with their cast-bronze handles. The mirror-polished, stainless-steel cladding helped the posts to disappear visually. The radiused glass shopfronts are repeat modules with straight intermediate panels to accommodate variance and tolerance on site. The size and tightness of the radius we were able to achieve was influenced by the glass specification and limitations of processing. Shop windows are laminated, annealed low-iron glass; upper balustrades and doors are toughened and heat-soaked.

Internally, units have stud partition fire-rated party walls. To avoid an awkward meeting of partition and glass, we introduced a mirror-polished, stainless-steel-clad T-section which encapsulates fire boarding and is visually unobstrusive. Mirror-polished, stainless-steel perforated panels have PA speakers behind and provide cabling routes to the upper levels. Graze uplighters sit above the shopfronts with a main cabling route beneath steel cover floorplates. LED strips beneath the powder-coated metal stall risers gently light the granite floor.

Catherine Hennessy, associate director, and Ana Arebola lead designer for interiors, Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Source: Jack Hobhouse

Client’s view 

The launch of Victoria Gate marked the completion of a journey to deliver a game-changing regeneration scheme. Leeds now has something that no other city in the UK or Europe has: a destination that has set new standards for retail. The only major retail scheme to launch this year, Victoria Gate goes beyond the commercial aims of delivering the largest premium retail and leisure venue in northern England; its opening moves Leeds up to third in the UK’s retail rankings of best place to shop.

This new element of Leeds’ built environment has given the city a renewed sense of pride. On handing over the stunning arcades and the long-awaited John Lewis to Leeds, we have been overwhelmed with the reaction; it seems the people of Leeds love it as much as we do. Two thousand customers were welcomed through the doors in the first 15 minutes alone, and over half a million shoppers have visited in the first week, with social media awash with glowing responses.

I am proud to have delivered a number of regeneration schemes at Hammerson. The Bullring, for example, undoubtedly changed the nation’s view of Birmingham as a destination, and I have no doubt the same will be true of Victoria Gate for Leeds.

Acme, which designed this sensational 21st-century retail arcade and flagship John Lewis building, has created something that I’m sure quite quickly will become synonymous with Leeds and an icon its own right. Its relentless attention to detail has created a truly breathtaking retail environment which has sparked new life into this part of the city, without compromising on its unique history and heritage.

Robin Dobson, director of retail development, Hammerson

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Source: Jack Hobhouse

Engineer’s view

The diagrid form of the John Lewis façade is pierced with diamond-shaped windows at varying locations on each floor. We mapped the proposed windows on to the façade to attempt to identify vertically aligned solid strips where columns could be introduced. The proportion of windows and the fact that they stagger meant that there were very few locations where vertical columns could be introduced without them crossing windows – an unacceptable outcome. We were able to avoid columns clashing with the windows by inclining the columns to align with the joints in the diagrid façade.

We initially designed the diagrid columns in reinforced concrete to match the reinforced concrete floor slabs but the resulting columns were too wide and also awkward to cast in-situ. We therefore developed two options: the first used precast concrete columns with steel shoes forming the nodal intersections; the second used steel columns with welded nodes and more traditional bolted column splices. We then worked with Sir Robert McAlpine to refine and optimise the column splice details and slab junctions for each option before we settled on the steel perimeter columns. The steel was simpler to erect and easier to connect to the reinforced concrete slab. The steel diagrid also offered some interesting structural opportunities. The diagrid nodes all occurred at floor levels and triangulated, so we were able to use the diagrid as a truss to create column-free spaces at each entrance and also to span over the loading bay entrance.

While developing the perimeter diagrid frame, we also developed the façade panel with Acme and through close dialogue with Techcrete. We wanted to minimise the number of panels and to reduce the likelihood of panel joints being visible. The optimum cladding panel shape was an inclined parallelogram, but this leaning form would be unstable until bolted to the frame. Techrete confirmed there would be significant cost and programme benefits to installing the cladding panels if Waterman could provide a system of corbel supports and restraint fixings along each edge of the panels. We were able to accurately co-ordinate all of the corbels and restraint brackets on to our steelwork model with Acme and Techcrete by using overlays of each of our Revit 3D models. This was of particular help on the building’s curved corners and on the perimeter staircases where the geometry needed careful co-ordination and design.

We were concerned that small variations in installation tolerances could have a compound impact on site as the façade was progressively installed. However, the accuracy afforded by the team all using compatible BIM models helped achieve the required tight tolerances, avoiding the need for costly site modifications.

Charlie Scott, director, Waterman Structures 

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Source: Jack Hobhouse

Project data 

Start on site April 2014
Completion October 2016
Gross internal floor area 26,000m2 retail
Form of contract Design and Build
Total project cost £164 million
Architect Acme
Client Hammerson
Structural engineer Waterman Structures
MEP consultant Waterman Building Services
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Project manager Gardiner & Theobald
Approved building inspector Building Control, Leeds City Council
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
CAD software used Revit

Victoria Gate by Acme

Victoria Gate by Acme

Source: Jack Hobhouse


Arcades external brickwork Brick-faced precast concrete panels by Thorp Precast. Bricks by Ketley

John Lewis external diagrid panels Acid-etched and polished concrete by Techrete

Car park fins Anodised aluminium by Maple Sunscreening

Arcades glazed roof Steel structure with fritted laminate glazing by Seele

Internal curved shopfronts Low-iron laminated clear shopfronts and balustrades, black laminated glass and powder-coated metal curved stall-risers by Lindner Facades

Arcades granite flooring Stone supplied by Marshalls and installed by Andrews Tiles

Arcades glazed entrances Seele with Dorma Doors

Arcades GRC entrance columns Adept Cladding Solutions and BCM GRC

Arcades external mirror-polished stainless-steel doors Anodised aluminium doors by Drawn Metal

Arcade pendant lights ViaBizzuno, Toscari, Matter of stuff

Spiral metal stair case Metallic Fabrications

John Lewis external lights Kemps Architectural Lighting

Arcades LED ceiling Towertech

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