The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Department stores

John Lewis – Aberdeen

Nominated by: Euan McCulloch
Have C20 acted upon before? yes
Region: Scotland
Former names: Norco House
Dates from: 1966-70
Built for: Northern Co-operative Society
Architect: Covell, Matthews & Partners (Brian Falk, lead architect; Michael Thomson, site architect)
Listed: No
Conservation Area: No

John Lewis, Aberdeen

Credit: Bill Harrison, Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)

What became the John Lewis Aberdeen store was built in 1966-70 by Covell, Matthews and Partners – architects of the post-war development of Manchester Piccadilly and modernist buildings for the University of Strathclyde – as a department store for the Northern Co-operative Society, a local, independent consumer co-operative trading in Aberdeen and its surroundings from 1861. Named Norco House, it was acquired by John Lewis in the 1980s, refurbished, significantly altered and extended (with the loss of part of the original store)  and re-opened in 1989. Probably the most distinctive post-war building in the centre of Aberdeen, it presents as a four-storey, squat, Brutalist, stepped ziggurat. Its elevations above the ground floor display windows are formed from sculptural and expressive angled vertical concrete ribs with continuous clerestory windows. It contrasts with the smaller scale buildings opposite but its modernism doesn’t sit at odds with the defining grey of the ‘Granite City.’ It represents the last wave of independent, stand-alone department store design in Scotland prior to the emergence of shopping centres.

The store, located in Aberdeen’s retail core, was the most northerly of John Lewis’ chain and was outperforming its peers in Edinburgh and Glasgow in 2010 but retail headwinds took their toll in more recent years, with the switch to online being accelerated by the pandemic. The store closed during lockdown and did not reopen after restrictions eased. John Lewis confirmed its permanent closure in July 2021.

The building was considered for listing in 2007 as part of a Historic Scotland listing survey of Aberdeen city centre but despite its elevations being judged of special interest it was rejected due to the extent of alteration to the building as a whole. It was considered again in 2019/20 and although the George Street and St Andrew Street elevations were confirmed to be of special interest at Category B, it was rejected for listing because of the potential impact on the building and its setting of pending nearby development proposals. John Lewis said in July 2021 they were reviewing options for the future of the site. The site is in use as a temporary Covid vaccination centre but its long term future seems very uncertain. Its large size presents particular problems for adaptation and there are currently no planning proposals. Last update: November 2021.

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