Westgate Alliance (Landsec and Crown Estate)
Major redevelopment and expansion of the city centre shopping mall (BDP and others, 2017).
“a casebook example of deft urban intervention” Ian Latham, Architecture Today
Westgate Oxford is a new, enlarged shopping centre incorporating the site of the former Westgate Centre (Douglas Murray, 1972) and some of its structure. It has more than doubled the retail floorspace of its predecessor, providing 100 new shops, some 25 restaurants, cafés and leisure spaces, and a cinema, in four large buildings. A smaller fifth building, an apartment block (Building 1a, One Abbey Place, Glenn Howells Architects), provides 59 one and two bed flats and incorporates the entrance to the underground car park (1000 spaces). This is a big deal for Oxford, not only bringing the city’s first John Lewis store but changing the geography of retail in the city centre.
In line with recent developments in other cities, Westgate Oxford set out to be an integral part of the city’s public realm. Like the much larger Liverpool One (2009) it was masterplanned by BDP, with each main building designed by a different firm of architects, within the constraints of a tightly defined framework, while BDP was responsible for public spaces and common elements (roofs, floors, bridges, parking).
The main connection to the city is from Bonn Square and the partly pedestrianised Queen Street, to the north. Here an ageing postmodern-kitsch entrance was replaced by a massive curving stone façade and the well-proportioned North Arcade (Building 4, Dixon Jones), a serious piece of urban design evokes the original city arcades of the nineteenth century. Importantly, the wall succeeds in integrating the new centre into the south side of Queen Street, where full pedestrianisation should eventually cement the link. A glass lantern designed by Daniela Schönbächler defines the northwest corner.
North Arcade is terminated by Middle Square, flanked by two larger shops and a supermarket, which is followed by the more conventional mall space of South Arcade (Building 3, Allies & Morrison), with a broad gallery and bridges at first floor level covered at a high level by a glazed roof, so it feels spacious and flooded with daylight. At the far end of this mall Leiden Square opens to the right, still under the high glazed roof, with the John Lewis store (Building 1, Glenn Howells Architects) enclosing the west end, with the final building (Building 2, Panter Hudspith) completing the complex to the south. Escalators lead to a third level roof terrace with restaurants and a cinema, as well as good views over the city. At the links between the four buildings, smaller lanes lead off to minor entrances, with an open connection to the old street of Turn Again Lane. These links are clearly intended to integrate the mall with surrounding streets and spaces, but in practice this is only partly successful: bus, train and car connections all tend to push visitors to the north (Bonn Square) and south (underground car park) entrances, while the adjacent streets are mainly residential.
From the outside, the mall is predictably massive, in relation to the scale of surrounding buildings and spaces. On Speedwell Street, and the parallel Thames Street bypass route, the facades look suitably scaled, and use of brick patterns and irregular windows (real and false) help to humanise them. From a passing vehicle, the Glenn Howells building looks homely but dominant in golden brick, while the Panter Hudspith building creates a trompe l’oeil ‘urban scene’. The east and west elevations pick up the vertical rhythm of the surviving (concrete) structure of the old mall, but with the lightness of contemporary construction. Taken as a whole, Westgate Oxford can be seen as a further development of recent trends in shopping mall architecture, designed and built with considerable thought and care, and with much architectural merit – for enthusiasts of this building type, it is a very good and innovative shopping mall.
So what do the shoppers think of it? According to a BBC News report, 9 million of them visited Westgate in the first six months, more than the operators’ forecasts but leaving industry analysts disappointed (BBC, 24.4.18). To date, as it approaches its first anniversary, it has received a modest number of reviews on TripAdvisor (270), with 52% rating it ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’, and an average score of 3.5. However, compared with other shopping malls in England it seems to be somewhat under-appreciated – a random selection of others, from Lakeside (1990) to Westfield Stratford City (2011) shows typical scores of 4.0 or 4.5, and good/excellent ratings of 80 – 90%. From comments, few visitors to Westgate are overly concerned with the architecture: while some mention qualities like openness, spaciousness, light, and airiness, most comments address the retail ‘offer’, parking and facilities (an early batch of critical comments focussed on cold air temperatures and draughts in the first winter (e.g. “like a windtunnel”). Perhaps more people will eventually see beyond the “shoppertainment” that Westgate Oxford purports to offer (Guardian, 27.10.17) and enjoy the “deft urban intervention” of its architects’ collective ambition.
References: Ian Latham, ‘Retail collaboration’, Architecture Today, 284, Jan. 2018, pp 40-51.