I’m very pleased to feature this new guest post by Martin Shepherd on a significant but neglected scheme. Martin is currently a student on the MA in Architectural History programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. He was formerly an NHS hospital pharmacist with a career in clinical practice and management.
An extended essay on the development of the Victoria Centre will be published in the Journal of Historic Buildings and Places in Spring 2023.
In 2022 the Victoria Centre in Nottingham celebrated fifty years since it opened. Throughout this time, it has occupied a pre-eminent place in the urban infrastructure of the city, comprising both a large-scale high rise social housing development and the city’s primary retail location. It continues to occupy a dominant position in the urban grain of the city, a feature that is reflected in its assertive place on the municipal skyline.
The Victoria Centre has an intriguing architectural and social history which echoes many comparable but better known, and celebrated examples of urban megastructure that sought to bring together aspects of living, work and recreation into unified structures.
For many of Nottingham’s residents and visitors, the architectural character of the city is most visibly and forcefully characterised by its two large planned indoor shopping facilities – the Victoria Centre (Fig.1) and the Broad Marsh.
Figure 1: Victoria Centre from Milton Street looking East. Source: Author
For the Victoria Centre, the fiftieth anniversary of its completion in 2022, comes at a time when the reputations of social housing and shopping developments of the same age (whose design was possibly driven by similar modernist architectural and social ambitions) are being positively re-appraised (for example Trellick Tower, Dawson’s Heights and of greatest relevance the Brunswick Centre, all in London). I suggest that now is an appropriate time to re-consider this little researched and overlooked example of a modernist integrated urban retail and social housing development. Reassuringly in his recent comprehensive survey of modern British architecture, Owen Hatherley echoes this view, describing the centre’s housing as an ‘an image of ruthless modernity’ which he claims is rivalled only by Park Hill in Sheffield. (1) Fifty years after it opened perhaps the Victoria Centre’s time has come.
Figure 2: Victoria Station in 1930. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Figure 3: Indicative Victoria Centre development site. Source: Inspire Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL//2/185/300/8/64
Nottingham Victoria station (Fig.2), located just to the north of the city centre, opened in 1900 and closed in 1967. The 20-acre site (Fig.3) was purchased from the owners British Rail by Capital and Counties Property Company Limited. (2) Working with architects Arthur Swift and Partners (3), a scheme was presented to Nottingham city planners in August 1964 for the re-development of the station site with a ‘comprehensive development comprising shops, offices, warehouses, entertainments including sports facilities, theatre and cinemas, public houses, hotel, market and ancillary accommodation etc., in association with residential, bus station and car parking’.(4)
The lead architect for the scheme was Peter Winchester.(5) His modernist ambitions for the site were largely predicated both on its overall size and the depth of the railway cutting and the possibilities which this combination offered: (6)
By servicing shops and all facilities from underground and by producing a 20-acre traffic free area in the heart of a busy city. A city scheme will serve as a shopping, working, living and leisure and recreational centre… a city within a city.
Arthur Swift emphasised the explicit connection between the scheme and the recently published Buchanan report which had advocated the separation of car traffic and pedestrians,(7) and highlighted the integrated nature of the scheme, combining retail, commercial and residential/social elements:
We are fortunate in that the station has been closed, leaving us with a hole in the ground – which means that we can really practice Buchanan – put cars down there … This must be a new city centre – this is a complete entity; we have provided every amenity … Most city centres fail because they have ignored residential accommodation, sporting facilities. We have provided every amenity that the public require.
Elsewhere Swift reported his enthusiasm for the integrated nature of the scheme in particular the housing element: (8)
I am extremely happy that eventually my recommendations to include a number of flats on the roof of the scheme were accepted.
Compromise and Completion
Work on the centre commenced in September 1968, and the opening ceremony was performed in April 1972 by Conservative Environment Minister Geoffrey Rippon.
In stark contrast to the original plans, the final building showed significant changes with much of the ‘civic’ content being lost including the concert hall, public plazas, sports facility, and swimming and Turkish baths, leaving a two-storey shopping mall and an imposing five-slab-block residential complex of varying heights (seven to twenty-three storeys) –along with the intended 3,000 space underground car parking and bus station.
Records from the city planning committee show that the submission may have prompted thoughts of the need to abandon its previous laissez faire approach, in favour of the adoption of integrated urban planning for the city. Approval for the scheme was granted based on a significant reduction in the allocation of retail space from 644,000 sq ft to 385,000 sq ft. This was ‘to ensure that the amount of floor space devoted to each of the various uses proposed is not excessive, having regard to the size of the site, and the needs of the city, and having regard to the existing and likely provision for shops elsewhere in the city’. In this latter point the Council was clearly minded of its commitments to the planned Broad Marsh development to which it gave approval in December 1965.
Local architects argued however that the developers had held too great a sway in determining the final content of the centre in light of the city corporation having ‘no detailed development plan for the city’. They noted the profound downgrading of the scheme, ‘from the earliest proposals to the present ones we have seen a steady process of elimination of the recreational and entertainment facilities.(9)
Figure 4: Victoria Centre main entrance 1973. Source: picturenottingham.co.uk
Images of the newly completed centre show a unified structure encompassing all three elements – housing, retail and offices (Fig. 4). Despite the original aspiration for the centre to be woven into the urban fabric, there is a strong sense that this has not been fulfilled and that it sits somewhat awkwardly in the context of the surrounding areas.
Victoria Centre Municipal Housing
Paradoxically none of the published reviews of the Victoria Centre at the time of its opening made any mention of the municipal housing elements included in the scheme (Fig.5).
Figure 5: Victoria Centre Residential blocks looking South. Source: Author
Despite the somewhat hands-off approach that was adopted by city planners to the original development, there was subsequently a clear commitment to retain a social housing element in the final scheme, and it is the inclusion of this feature that sets the Victoria Centre apart from other British city centre development projects of the same era. It is in part a demonstration of the level of commitment evident in the city to support the expansion of municipal housing. Between the wars, 17,095 council houses were built, more dwellings per head of population than most cities outside Nottingham.(10)
By the 1960s the city had embarked upon the development of high-rise solutions to its social housing challenges, driven in part by government subsidy. The construction of the Victoria Centre flats clearly forms part of this approach. And yet the aspirations of Winchester in his vision of a wholly integrated structure were clearly not realised. The operation and development of the retail facility were undertaken entirely in isolation to the housing. In this respect there are strong parallels to be drawn with the history of Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre which was completed in the same year as the Victoria Centre. While the original intention had been for the Brunswick Centre housing to be offered for private sale, the changes in the economic make-up of the scheme during the late 1960s led to the housing being taken over by Camden Council. The disconnection between the housing elements and the recently gentrified retail aspects at the Brunswick Centre echo strongly the conditions found at the Victoria Centre.
Figure 6: Victoria Centre residential internal corridor. Source: Author
Figure 7: Victoria Centre two-bedroom flat internal view. Source: Author, courtesy Andrew Ellis
Externally, the high-density, austere housing development of 463 flats at the Victoria Centre is either largely invisible from the surrounding streets, or dominantly present. The flats are all single height and aspect, accessed from narrow internal corridors and limited to one- or two-bedrooms, therefore catering for a limited range of occupants.(11) The internal ‘street’ has no natural light and neighbours are largely oblivious to one another. Moreover, the corridors are angled at times, obscuring the view behind corners (Fig.6). The conditions are minimal and lacking in architectural as well as social interest. There is no provision of private outdoor space or direct access to shared outdoor space at the Victoria Centre (Figs 7 and 8), although in Winchester’s original proposals there was the intention to include such external spaces for the residents, but these were not fully realised. The only external space that can be accessed by residents is a fourth-floor roof deck with a small community garden and a number of large, raised planters that could be used to create green space but they are undeveloped (Fig. 9).
Figure 8: Plan of Victoria Centre Flat two-bedroom. Source: Inspire Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL/2/185/300/8/64
Figure 9: Victoria Centre fourth storey roof terrace. Source: Author
The flats can be accessed only through the shopping centre itself, with six lifts designated ‘residents only’ that are situated adjacent to those used by shoppers entering the centre from the car parks below. The selection of potential tenants is determined by an ‘allocation’ policy ‘because of the location of the flats and sensitivities around its city centre location’. The policy limits access to the flats based on a number of criteria including age restrictions on children under sixteen years. The original occupants of the flats would have been allocated from council housing lists. Right to buy arrangements were suspended by the council in 2017 since the remaining life of the lease was less than fifty years, having originally been ninety-nine years at the time of construction.
Figure 10: Victoria Centre Main Entrance. Source: Author
Since its opening the centre has undergone several refurbishments, the most recent of which was completed in 2015. This included substantial, unsympathetic changes to the main and Milton Street entrances which have regrettably damaged the cohesion of the centre frontages (Fig.10). The application of coloured pebbledash render to the housing blocks in 1994 has similarly had a detrimental effect on the visual unity of the building (Fig.11), while the application of mirrored solar film to the windows of the flats means that there is no external perception of life going on within the tower blocks. The original sections of the proposed residential blocks (Fig.12) suggest an internal corridor positioned every two storeys with a subsequent ‘scissor’ design for the flats which could have provided maisonettes with dual aspects.
Figure 11: Victoria Centre flats showing coloured pebbledash render added in 1994. Source: Author
Figure 12: Section through original Victoria Centre proposal 1964. Source: Inspire Nottinghamshire Archive CA/PL/2/300/64
The architectural roots of the Victoria Centre are firmly embedded in the modern movement of the mid-1950s and its ambitions for the urban renewal of British cities. The development was however ultimately a product of opportunism and a misplaced belief in the capacity of a private developer to successfully achieve such renewal without a high degree of publicly-led planning and oversight. Although the utopian ambitions of the Centre’s designers were seriously compromised, there can be no doubt that the Centre has been and remains highly successful not only as the principal focus for Nottingham’s major retailers for the last fifty years, but more significantly as a rare example of a popular, high density, high rise municipal housing development in a city centre. Furthermore, in the context of architectural history, it is an overlooked example of hybrid modern architecture that transcended mere urban regeneration by its fostering of city living for council tenants. It deserves to be placed alongside better known and celebrated examples of such structures.
At the time of its fiftieth anniversary however there is a need for particular reflection on the future of the housing element of the Victoria Centre. While the shopping mall is in a process of re-invention in response to post-pandemic consumer behaviour, the restrictive spatial ordering of the housing seems unlikely to meet the needs of the council tenants of the future: the lack of easily accessible exterior space is particularly problematic. There is also clearly a case to be made for research into the experiences of those living in the Centre. While there have been modest, largely cosmetic improvements made to the flats, the limitations are clear and without further intervention to upgrade them, the Centre, notwithstanding the warm appreciation of Owen Hatherley, risks becoming just another example of the nation’s deteriorating stock of social housing.
(1) Owen Hatherley, Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer, (London, 2021), 352-354.
(2) Capital and Counties were at the time also involved in the development of the modernist Eldon Square shopping centre in Newcastle. It is the current owner of the Covent Garden Estate, London.
(3) Formed in 1953 the practice had offices in London, Dublin and Edinburgh. In addition to the Nottingham centre the practice, undertook large scale work on Hastings Civic Centre (1967-69) and Ballymum New Town, Dublin (1965-68) in largely Brutalist styles. Swift spent three years at the Nottingham University School of Art and Architecture, followed by a short time with the city engineer’s department. Victoria Centre Takes Shape Bulletin No 4 (October 1969), Capital and Counties Properties Ltd.
(4) Planning Application Capital and Counties Properties Ltd – Nottinghamshire Archives CA/PL/2/264/7/72.
(5) Following the award of his Diploma in 1958, Winchester had worked for the following two years as one of the ‘young Turks’ in Basil Spence’s practice at a time when Spence was working on the ‘science city’ development for the University of Nottingham, and so may have had some familiarity with the city from that time: Peter Winchester, presentation recorded at the symposium Sir Basil Spence re-viewed: the architect and his office, held at the Old Blue Coat School, Coventry (29 August 2008). Peter Winchester (warwick.ac.uk) Accessed April 5 2022
(6) P. Winchester, ‘Nottingham Centre’ in ‘World Architecture Volume 2’, ed. J Donat, (London,1965), 65.
(7) Ministry of Transport, Traffic in Towns: a study of the long-term problem of traffic in urban areas (Buchanan Report), (London,1963).
(8) ‘Victoria Centre Takes Shape Bulletin 4’, October 1969, Capital and Counties Property Ltd.
(9) ‘Nottingham Victoria Centre’, Architecture East Midlands.
(10) Chris Matthews, Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses (Nottingham, 2019), 25.
Alexandra Rook said:
I’m somewhat astonished at the statement that this overbearing development is considered by the author as being “significant[ly] as a rare example of a popular, high density, high rise municipal housing development in a city centre”, given the monotype of flats, the terrifyingly anonymous access corridor, lack of open space (even to a balcony) & a further statement that ”there is clearly a case to be made for research into the experienced of those living in the Centre” I wonder how this can be reconciled with the earlier statement. It would be interesting to know at least what occupancy rates there were ie turnover & vacancy levels.
Municipal Dreams said:
Chris Matthews responds: ‘I agree there are lots of misgivings about the design and I’m happy to be corrected on what I am about to say but generally tenancy rates have been good for the building because it is affordable and central. It is very convent for couples without children, the elderly, or single occupants who work in the city centre. It’s also built on a very strong in-situ concrete grid frame, so it is actually very sturdy, maintainable, and has lasted a lot longer than most of Nottingham’s 60s/70s high rises.
I agree that is far from perfect, but architecturally it is interesting to consider how this building can be improved upon, especially when you have such a strong mega structure. It would be very wasteful, costly and difficult to demolish.
I authored the book Homes & Places: A History of Nottingham Council Houses, and interviewed tenants and councillors. Following this I worked on a design and study project with students The University of Nottingham School of Architecture, again this involved tenants from Victoria Centre flats. During the course of this work I was supplied with historical data from Nottingham City Homes. This is not to say anybody is right or wrong here, but this is how such views have arisen. Hope that helps!’
Simon Matthews said:
Excellent piece. Well done.
Anne Williams said:
I lived in a flatshare in the Victoria Centre in 1972-3. We were all art students at Trent Polytechnic School of Art & Design, so it was perfect for us. I think we were on the 14th floor and it must have been west facing as it was very hot on sunny days. We were starry-eyed about exiting into ‘our’ own shopping centre, me especially as I had a part-time job there in Miss Selfridge. And, in the design spirit of the times, I celebrated by furnishing my room with a Habitat duvet in a bright green cover. Living the life!
Many of the new build “brutalist” schemes of the 70s had flats that were convenient to live in and let to flat sharers. The barrier block in Brixton (Southwyck House) had large Parker Morris + size flats that the LA allocated quite freely to local applicants. There was also a surplus of council flats in inner London through to at least the end of the 70s as the population of the city declined.
Jerry Clough said:
I had several friends who lived in the Vic Centre flats from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s. Most were single young professionals in their late 20s: a post-doctoral fellow, a couple of librarians, and a few students. Few of them drove, let alone ran a car and the city centre location was great for getting to work, but also made it easier to change jobs without having to move. Equally they valued the location for social reasons.
I don’t think any stayed more than 6-7 years, either moving away or buying a house. At the time such friends saw getting a council flat as a stepping stone to owning their own property, but a big step up from where they’d lived previously, typically, in a bed-sit or shared house.
I got the impression that tenants knew each other: perhaps they used the same local pubs, or had mutual colleagues. There was some mingling on the roof-tops after parties: I certainly recall being part of a crowd watching sun-rise over Colwick Woods one Sunday morning on about the 14th floor!