Acme gives contemporary expression to retail architecture at Victoria Gate in Leeds


Chris Foges
Jack Hobhouse

Arcades and department stores – both great nineteenth-century retail innovations – are among the most intensely interior of building types. Turning urban blocks inside-out to bring shopfronts and circulation space into the middle, or eschewing windows to save valuable wall space, they often present a blank expression to the surrounding city. The Victoria Gate development in Leeds comprises a department store and an arcade with suitably sequestered and seductive interiors, but architect Acme has also given both buildings a strong outward orientation, in the form of richly textured facades that riff on local architectural character, and an explicit intention to remake the grain of a neighbourhood that had lost its definition.


Corners of the John Lewis store and Victoria Gate on The Headrow.

The site lies immediately south of The Headrow, a major east-west axis. It forms part of the ‘prime retail quarter’ but had been used as a surface car park for decades, during which time it was a graveyard for the ambitions of many developers. In 2007 it was acquired by Hammerson, along with another car park behind a 200-metre-long building on the north side of The Headrow, and divided into five plots, each the subject of an architectural competition.

One major component, a John Lewis store, was won by Acme, whose founder Friedrich Ludewig delivered the retailer’s Leicester branch while at Foreign Office Architects. Other plots were assigned to architects including BIG and LA-based mall specialist Jerde. In 2008, however, the nascent project was derailed by the financial crisis, and once the dust had settled Acme emerged as overall masterplanner for the two sites.


Entrance to the arcade on Harewood Street.

It split the project into two phases (with development of the northern part to be completed later), ditched a planned shopping centre, and introduced fewer new routes that might suck life from existing streets. The first phase would comprise John Lewis and its 800-space car park, and an adjacent arcade. After more competitions, Acme was appointed to design of all three buildings.

Each has a distinct identity, but with some familial resemblence. With few opportunities for windows to animate the facades, Acme looked instead for a means of articulation that relies on rhythm, depth and shadow. Both John Lewis and the arcade take cues from Leeds’ architectural tradition of rich, sculptural ornament and its historic textile industry, referenced in ‘woven’ surfaces.

Each precast panel, formed in a two-stage process, comprises polished and acid-etched concrete elements, which reflect daylight differently.

John Lewis has a loadbearing exoskeletal diagrid of precast concrete, with each member containing both polished and acid-etched elements to add contrast. The pleated facades of the arcade are rippling, pixelated waves of red brickwork, produced by a marriage of conventional wet trades and advanced computational design. A dark stone plinth nods to a nearby Edwardian arcade by Frank Matcham, and other materials fade in and out of the brickwork in response to diverse neighbours.

Terracotta ribs acknowledge the Victorian Kirkgate market to the south; to the north, pale reconstituted stone corners obey the design code devised by Reginald Blomfield for The Headrow in the 1920s. The car park is economically clad in twisting aluminium fins whose orientation has been contrived to produce a ghostly impression of the John Lewis diagrid. Though it blocks views of its concrete parent from the east, it is a necessary evil, says Ludewig: without parking, customers will opt for out-of-town malls over city-centre shops, however fine the architecture.


George Street facade.

Nevertheless, the pedestrian route now established by the arcade rewards those who choose to approach on foot. From the west, where ornate arcades by Matcham and others are located, shoppers follow the fall of the land to arrive at a wide portal that opens onto two curving avenues below a diagrid roof that folds as it rises to marry with the triangulated facade of John Lewis.

In the interior, Acme has incorporated all of the elements that distinguish traditional arcades from modern shopping centres, as gleaned from its studies of precedents in Paris, Brussels and Berlin. Vertical emphasis is given to the double-height space by gold pendant lights and the articulation of individual shopfronts within a curved ribbon of glass. This undulating band, with gold signage, imposes a discipline which “makes those retailers who are not so sophisticated look pretty good”, says Ludewig. On the upper level, the diagrid pattern of the roof is drawn down onto the walls. A herringbone pattern in the sloping granite floor refers to Leeds’ wool trade.


This lustrous wrapper connotes luxury and stimulates shoppers’ desire, but also performs a neat conjuring trick. A two-storey casino sits above the northern arcade, but as Acme wanted both to share a consistent appearance, back-lit acrylic panels have been installed behind the diagrid ‘roof’ to simulate daylight. A further twist occurs in the middle of the arcade, where the diagrid curves up into a funnel that pierces the floors above to give a view of the true sky. From within the arcade, the casino appears to vanish completely.


Acme’s use of the project to give shape to the surrounding area is equally subtle and persuasive. To the south, the buildings face shabby open-air and indoor markets. Ludewig is full of ideas about how these sites might take advantage of increased traffic, and the location of secondary entrances to the arcade anticipates their redevelopment. He also has his eye on a site immediately to the east, where a hotel might help to bridge the traffic-thronged no-man’s-land between the retail district and the ‘cultural quarter’ around the Yorkshire Playhouse. And then there’s the phase-two site, for which Acme is proposing a mix of cultural and commercial uses. These will be linked to the first phase by a new square, formed by cutting through the Blomfield building on the north side of The Headrow, on axis with the route between John Lewis and the arcade. The combined effect on urban form, density, and order will be transformational. In this project, the attention lavished on spectacular surfaces, inside and out, belies considerable depth.

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Structural engineer
Waterman Structures
MEP consultant
Hoare Lea, Waterman Building Services
Main contractor
Sir Robert McAlpine

Brick-faced precast concrete panels
Thorp Precast
Engineering brick
Ketley Staffordshire
Concrete panels
Aluminium fins
Maple Sunscreening
Glazed roof
Glazed entrances
Seele, Dorma Doors