Shop and Awe: Victoria Gate and the fantasy machine of postmodernism

A few months ago, on Thursday 20th October, I wandered around Leeds’s newest retail spectacle, Victoria Gate, which had just opened its doors to considerable local media buzz. Driven – the popular narrative went – by the appeal of a flagship new John Lewis store (which Leeds had tragically been deprived of for too long, apparently), the development had attracted considerable attention, and crowds of people flocked into its arcades and shops, herded in by a team of security guards accompanied (temporarily) by a gold carpet and live band. This sense of occasion and pageantry seemed also to have infected the national press: Rowan Moore, the Observer’s architecture critic, was unrestrained in his praise for the new development, hailing it in slightly preposterous, hysterical language as a “cyber-heraldic, robo-gothic” monument evoking “shop and awe”. Leaving aside the ecstatic language of the article (although “the Edwardian ornament of curlicues, volutes and marbleised pilasters is cross-fertilised with the John Lewis elevations to breed diagrid vaults, diamond-patterned walls, herringbone floor patterns, chandeliers like futurist pinecones and rippling bands of shop windows in convex-straight-convex rhythms of glass” at least goes some way to describing the complex), Moore’s crassly uncritical celebration of this new postmodern stage for luxury consumption prompted me to take a closer, and perhaps more critical, look. Now open for five months, to top off the hype machine Victoria Gate has also just been named ‘best shopping centre in the world’ at the international real estate conference MIPIM.

In this, the first of two pieces, I try to understand Victoria Gate and its architectural forms as symptomatic of a broader condition of urban postmodernity by exploring the broader landscape of ideas which it occupies. I aim to follow this up with a second piece reflecting on how this postmodern condition inflects the built environment of cities in ways that often result in particular – and socially unjust – spatial outcomes.

Exterior of Victoria Gate, showing ‘brick’ and ‘stone’ cladding

 Firstly, however, it may be useful to situate Victoria Gate in its historical (and geographical) context, especially since its architects claim that its design explicitly references Leeds’s historical Arcades (and, less directly, its textile-based industrial past, although since it is entirely unclear to me what these references actually are, I won’t go into that here). It is therefore worth orienting our investigation with some brief notes on those arcades and their meaning.

Inspired by similar constructions in Paris and Brussels, between 1878 and 1900 eight arcades were built in Leeds, five of which remain (two cross-cut each other to form part of the same large development, which at the time also included a theatre, restaurants and offices[1]). Built partly as a solution to Leeds’s main shopping street, Briggate, becoming too crowded with tenements and shops, the new arcades were built at a time when the city was seeking a new civic identity, especially after being granted city-status in 1893. Setting the pattern for many of the city’s subsequent flagship retail developments, the new civic identity being constructed via the arcades was one that chimed more with the pursuits and interests of the burgeoning bourgeoisie than those of its working class inhabitants. Tellingly, most of the city’s first arcades were built around or alongside theatres, as well as hotels, cafés and restaurants that aimed squarely at an upper class consumer base.

These structures were celebrated by the local press, with the Leeds Mercury describing their ‘elegance and attractiveness’ as a ‘credit to the town’. In what the Mercury saw as a necessary aesthetic corrective to the plain, dirty and ugly buildings of industrial Leeds, the Cross and County Arcades (part of what is now Victoria Quarter) were decorated in a particularly luxurious style, signifying a more general vision for the city’s image by the local government. The design features of the Victoria Quarter, from its marble columns to its ornamental cast-iron balustrades and arches, its frescoed ceilings and glass roof, typify a new emphasis on ornate ornamentation, monumental scale, and – as Walter Benjamin presciently pointed out in his study of the Paris arcades – the incorporation of exterior public spaces into interior space to produce hybrid forms of public-private luxury.

For Benjamin, the Arcades are emblematic of the development of certain cultural properties of late nineteenth century capitalism (although perhaps slightly less so in Leeds than in Paris). For him, they are the most important architectural form of that century because they clearly characterise its preoccupations in a number of ways. Most obviously, the concentrated accumulation of commodities in such spaces was attendant with the growth of an all-encompassing ‘consumer culture’; a society-wide “cult of the commodity” (p. 8) that renders such spaces sites of perpetual stimulation and distraction.

Benjamin uses the term ‘phantasmagoria’ to evoke the dream-like and magical properties of these kinds of enchanting consumer experiences – accomplished as much by the architecture of the arcades as by the constellation of luxurious commodities one might find within them. The physical structure of the arcade should therefore be understood not only as the privileged space of consumption, but as an ‘experience’ to be consumed in itself – the pre-eminent site and medium of the ‘dreamscape’ of consumer culture.

This preoccupation with shopping-as-experience can also be found very explicitly in the pronouncements of Victoria Gate’s developers, as well as in the press copy heralding its arrival: Moore’s Observer piece, for example, approvingly quotes the centre’s architect Friedrich Ludewig: “you have to create places that people want to touch, want to feel, want to be in. The retail is almost secondary. Experience is everything.”

One of Victoria Gate’s ‘palazzos’

It is here that we meet the postmodernism of the Victoria Gate project. Ludewig presents this experiential quality as a corrective to both the stale modernism of twentieth century shopping centres – which perhaps lost something of that ‘dreamscape’ quality as they became more and more ubiquitous, homogenous, and placeless with the growth of Fordist mass-production and the extension of consumer culture beyond the bourgeois elite to the masses – and to the way in which city-centre retail is losing ground to internet shopping.

The classic modernist mall (see for instance Victor Gruen’s Southdale Centre, arguably the first enclosed suburban mall – but most of us are familiar with any other Arndale or Westfield or Merrion centre) in some ways functions as a reducing or evening space; consequently, one of the key elements of the backlash against modernist urbanism that gave rise to postmodern urban forms was a critique of such simplified functional spaces. This critique accuses the shopping mall of reducing the urban life of the street to only one of its dimensions; consumption[2]. The classic shopping mall is seen as a conforming space, a culturing medium in which the activities of shopping float – a non-place urban interior that gives a uniform coherence to the retail spaces that on the street would otherwise be part of that formal and social mix that gives cities their dynamism and liveliness. (It is no wonder that gigantic shopping malls can exist just as easily miles outside a city centre, surrounded by acres of parked cars, as in a city centre). The modernist mall reduces the layered semiotic richness of the urban streetscape to a singular aesthetic (generally a relatively bland one, alas) and thus a single simplified socio-cultural sensibility.

In response to these one-dimensional visions of conformity, architects and urban planners have developed urban forms that in some ways attempt to reintroduce aspects of the ‘spontaneous’ streetscape. Victoria Gate’s stylistic eclecticism is part of this lineage. Its developers’ particular tactic is partly to hark back to a nostalgic, ‘authentic’ version of an in-person consumer experience as represented in the Arcades: the architects are keen to call it an ‘arcade’ with a ‘palazzo’ instead of a ‘shopping mall’. But it does this in the form of a 21st century pastiche, carrying its signifiers of luxury consumption into a post-modern era.

In some ways, this is bound to fail – reproducing history in pastiche can never capture the kinds of archival pleasures and aesthetic charms one might experience in encountering its actual artefacts. This is not to crassly valorise some notion of historical ‘authenticity’, but rather to point out that the entanglements of time and memory with such places are a key element of their aesthetic experience – in the postmodern mode, however, the semiotic richness of these elements is flattened and reduced to a simplified referent that reads as ‘History’ without actually attaching to its memory.

In the words of Margaret Crawford, describing the architectural pastiche of the world’s biggest[3] and most bombastic shopping mall in Edmonton, Canada (complete with real tigers and fake plastic sharks, and the ‘simulated decay’ of fibreglass columns), “past and future collapse meaninglessly into the present; barriers between real and fake, near and far, dissolve as history, nature, technology are indifferently processed by the mall’s fantasy machine”. More recently Owen Hatherley has repeatedly made the point that this fetishisation of ‘flat’ historical moments through architecture, the stripping out of any nuance and meaning, is central to a capitalist project of consumption. What is at stake here, and what is lost in this moment of nostalgia, is both the memory of the violence and poverty of actual history, and the possibilities for alternative presents (and thus futures) that might be unearthed by more meaningful engagements with history.

In Victoria Gate, the replica and simulation of the particular historical element of the Arcades collapses and complicates memory in an especially ironic way, given that the Arcades were the architectural forerunners of modern(ist) shopping malls in the first place. But ultimately these references are empty and indifferent, merely a foil for the mall’s image-production of luxury consumption; indifferent, too, to its actual contemporary context, and its own economic effects – for instance on struggling poorer traders and customers in neighbouring Kirkgate Market.

In another way, however, Victoria Gate’s inevitable failure to live up to the promise of its historical referent is more straightforward: it is a much more cost-effective spectacle, designed and built to minimise costs and maximise profits for its developer. If you pay attention you can almost see where corners have been cut in construction quality: for example you might notice how much of the elaborate exterior brickwork is actually moulded plastic cladding. This has two implications: first, the cheapness of construction belies the fact that for all its aspirational branding, Victoria Gate is still most definitely a shopping mall (even Moore admits as much), inserted squarely (a department store and its car park are still fundamentally modernist boxes, after all) into a relatively mundane capitalist mode of accumulation driven by property development and mass-market consumption. Secondly, however, this very element of its design hints at certain other characteristics that have been said to define postmodernity and its commodity cultures: simulation, plasticity, shallowness, and ephemerality – in stark contrast to the undeniable material reality and ‘rawness’ of a concrete modernist mall.

Ceiling/skylight detail 

Of course, ‘postmodern’ has always been a contentious term, subject to all manner of obscure definitional debates even just within the fields of architecture and urban studies. However, there is a rough consensus, in these disciplines at least, that “the typical post-modernist artefact is playful, pluralist, self-ironizing and even schizoid [and…] reacts to the austere autonomy of high modernism by impudently embracing the language of commerce and the commodity” as Terry Eagleton[4] defines it. Its typical posture is one of ‘irreverent pastiche’, a ‘contrived depthlessness’ that mocks and undermines the certainties – but also the political will, the depth of feeling, the sincerity of the belief in a better world – of modernism.

Postmodernity is roughly coeval with new regimes of production and accumulation under late capitalism: a shift from Fordist mass production epitomised by the industrial factory producing widgets, to a post-Fordist mode of ‘flexible accumulation’. This, in turn, roughly corresponds historically to what we have come to know as neoliberalism, a regime characterised by flexibility and mobility in production processes, labour markets, and patterns of consumption, as well as the predominance of financial markets, and a shift from skilled manual labour to unskilled service work in the advanced economies. Postmodernism in art, architecture and design generally seeks an accommodation with these kinds of new economic patterns. For Frederic Jameson, the hegemony of late capitalism and the institutionalisation of its regimes of accumulation is buttressed by the production of a distinct ‘cultural logic’, the playful, insincere, and ironic posture of postmodernism.

In contrast to the Modernist movement, many variants of which attempted to manifest a break with the existing social order and looked forward to a better world – a utopian spirit it attempted to prefigure in the built environment through architecture – the pervasive rationality of postmodernism (not so much a ‘movement’ as a loose assemblage of dominant logics, in Jameson’s terms) has mostly abandoned any such idealistic ideas and returned cultural production to the service of commerce. Architecture, as one of the most overt expressions of this cultural alliance with the commodity, can be seen in spaces such as Victoria Gate to not only accommodate this ‘consumer society’, but to facilitate and encourage it through the deployment of visual and spatial elements. As David Harvey points out, architecture in the postmodern era seeks a “creative and active rather than passive role in the promotion of new cultural attitudes and practices consistent with flexible accumulation” (p. 258).

In Leeds, we can read the story of this shift from Fordist to flexible modes of production, and their architectural coordinates, across the city’s shopping centres: from the stalwart concrete modernism of the Merrion Centre (1964), all straight lines and boxy towers[5], to the more expressive St. John’s Centre (1985), with its (albeit restrained) hanging gardens and pink marble corridors, to the recent Trinity Leeds (2013) which snakes its corridors through several blocks of the city centre like the tentacles of some enormous retail beast anchoring itself into the very structure of the city, crowning its central plaza with a wavy glass-and-steel dome left open at the edges and entrances (presumably, showing that the inside is outside and the outside is inside in a seamless hybrid of public and private consumption).

The oldest of these, as well as a couple of more unremarkable malls built in-between, tend to correspond with an older system of mass production – now seen as spaces of a much more commonplace and mass-market consumption than they might initially have seemed – a stolidly square consumer experience in contrast to Victoria Gate’s more hip and exclusive luxury. The architecture of Victoria Gate, meanwhile – following the example of its antecedents in the arcades – intrudes more spectacularly than ever into the consumer experience, putting its stylistic elements at the forefront and posing the space itself, rather than the commodities within, as the true draw and appeal. And more directly – pastiche and historical simulacra aside – the explicitly aspirational branding of the Victoria Gate ‘experience’ attempts more than any previous mall to hide its naked profit motives beneath a veneer of ‘class’, in all its various and entangled meanings.

John Lewis section of Victoria Gate, seen from across the outdoor market

It is not difficult to see where this celebration of the spectacle of the commodity corresponds with Benjamin’s critique of consumer society, in which culture and aesthetics (into which we can incorporate the sensory experience of retail spaces, its visual artefacts and architecture) collude with the capitalist mode of production to support a way of life focused on consumption of goods and services as well as mass images and spectacles.

For Adorno, this cultural predominance of commodity relations functions as a form of social control, operating to influence people to integrate themselves into the consumer ‘way of life’. The ceaseless panoply of ‘free’ choices in the marketplace, alongside the ideological quality of ‘newness’ and the perpetual yearning for it, obfuscates the alienation and domination of contemporary life, while the colonisation of everyday life by this consumer culture masks both its own foundation and the possibility of real alternatives. As Henri Lefebvre, describing the “derisory and untragic misery” of the urban inhabitant, argues, “the picture of this generalized misery would not go without a picture of ‘satisfactions’ which hides it and becomes the means to elude it” (p.159). For all its confectionary spectacle, Victoria Gate ultimately remains a relatively flat space, devoid of any semiotic meaning save for the celebration of the commodity (including the commodification of (public) space, and the broader commodification of the city as an element of civic branding), conjuring instead the empty temperament of an architecture through which the phantasmagorical ‘ghost’ of consumer society continues to haunt social life.

In part 2 of this piece, I aim to delve more in-depth into the physical space of Victoria Gate, to uncover the ways in which elements of social control prevail not only in the symbolic effects of architectural design, but in the built environment itself.


[1] These arcades were further expanded in 1990 to become the Victoria Quarter, by enclosing Victoria Street into an arcade with an impressive stained glass roof. The Victoria Quarter was recently bought and refurbished by Hammerson’s, the developers of Victoria Gate, as a kind of ‘front door’ for its own development.

[2] It is somewhat ironic that Gruen’s explicit motivation for his prototypical mall was to counter the US’s growing car culture and provide sociable spaces for suburban residents – as ultimately the proliferation of malls became a key driver of this automobile-driven suburbanisation and the social aspect was forgotten.

[3] At the time – it has long been superseded by a number of malls in Asia, although it remains the biggest in North America.

[4] Eagleton, ‘Awaking from Modernity’ (Cited in David Harvey’s The Urban Experience, p. 257).

[5] The Merrion’s attachment to modernism is also reflected in the occupation of its attached office tower by Leeds City Council – now undergoing refurbishment to transform it into yet another glass-and-steel showpiece for the city, complete with fake-red-brick plastic cladding, presumably referencing Leeds’ industrial heritage.

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