Queen Victoria Buildingby Nicole Partridge
Spanning an entire block in the middle of Sydney’s bustling CBD is one of Sydney’s most iconic shopping destinations: the Queen Victoria Building (QVB). Designed by George McRae, a Scottish-born architect who worked for the City of Sydney at the turn of the century, the building – named after the reigning monarch at the time of construction – is a perfect example of American Romanesque architecture. The 180m-long sandstone exterior boasts signature arches and a roofscape that showcases its most dominant feature, a 1.9m glass and copper-clad dome surrounded by 20 smaller copper domes. Construction of the QVB started in 1893 and was completed in 1898, and over the decades it’s been repurposed to accommodate a municipal library, offices and a post office. While the facade of the building retains its original features, the interior has undergone extensive renovations and refurbishments, all designed to recreate the imagery of a grand Victorian arcade.
Today the QVB is home to 170 retailers, boutiques and dining experiences set against a backdrop that captures the beauty and elegance of a bygone era. It’s the attention to detail on all five floors that lures shoppers from all over the world. From wrought iron balustrades and ornate stained-glass windows to hand-cut mosaic tiles and the world’s largest animated turret clock, the craftsmanship is truly unique. Dappled sunlight streaming through the glass and steel barrel vaulted ceiling casts a perfect glow on the upper levels, while chic, well-lit high street fashion and designer stores grace the lower levels of this iconic building. There are also buzzy cafés, restaurants and wine bars.
Each year, the QVB attracts more than 33,000,000 visitors, which is an average of 90,000 people per day, ranging from visiting tourists to local office workers to those who make a special trip to enjoy the centre’s ambiance. A highlight in the QVB calendar is the annual installation of a 24m Swarovski Christmas tree decorated with more than 100,000 Swarovski crystals – a must-see during the festive season. The centre hosts numerous culturally aligned activities throughout the year.
Listed as one of Sydney’s top tourist destinations and dubbed by the fashion designer Pierre Cardin as one of the most beautiful shopping centres in the world, the QVB is an architectural gem and one of Australia’s most successful retail complexes.
Journalist Nicole Partridge interviewed shoppers and workers at the QVB for their take on this iconic retail destination.
When we walked into the Queen Victoria Building earlier this morning, my children, who are 12 and 14, whispered to me, “Oh Mum, this place is very fancy!” They couldn’t believe this was a shopping centre, because the ones we have in Bombay are concrete and modern, whereas the QVB has so much character and charm.
I can understand why it’s so popular. I love the art deco feel and that the centre has been maintained so beautifully. It hasn’t changed all that much from when I was here 17 years ago, although I have noticed a greater variety of shops and some local brands that are completely new to me.
For me, today is about reminiscing. For my boys, it’s about shopping. They’ve already spotted the Hobbyco shop.
I’m not really a shopping person, so other than grabbing a few cosmetics from Mecca, I don’t come to the QVB to shop. But I do have meetings in one of the cafés located within the centre. The eateries are always reasonably priced and have quality food.
After my meetings here, the people I’m with often enjoy going off to explore the shopping afterwards. They’re always really impressed with the architecture and that the centre, particularly on the upper levels, is so peaceful. Having the Town Hall train station underneath makes the QVB really accessible and convenient.
I also love the history and the vibe, especially the special touches like the grand piano, which is available for customers to play. Sometimes I just linger and listen to the beautiful music.
As a child, I remember this building as a monstrosity, and for a long time it wasn’t occupied, but in the last 30 years, it’s been renovated to become a truly unique shopping experience.
I’m at the QVB regularly each month for appointments with my doctor and my dentist. I’ll typically spend a couple of hours strolling around window-shopping or meeting my sister for coffee. It’s such a relaxing place. Occasionally, I’ll buy something special for myself or wander into the museum and gaze at the delightful collection of earrings.
The architecture is wonderful. I love the art deco style and how the vaulted ceiling allows light to stream in and the historic clock that chimes every hour. Online shopping is so boring! It’s so much better to have a face-to-face connection in a beautiful setting.
I’m the assistant manager at Cicchetti Wine Bar. It’s an enormous privilege to work in such an iconic place and one that provides tourists with an insight into Australia’s history. Visitors will often ask me about the building’s heritage, and I always take pleasure in sharing what I know with them.
The centre attracts many interesting people from all over the world, including prime ministers and celebrities, who often visit with their families at Christmastime to admire the huge Christmas tree, the lights and the stunning decorations.
Even though I escaped Romania in 1987 as a political refugee, today I am a proud Australian and immensely proud of this beautiful centre.
Louise: I’ll often say to overseas visitors, “If you have a couple of days in Sydney, you must see the Queen Victoria Building.” For me, it’s like stepping into some fantastical world. There are so many elements that make this place special: the mosaic tiles throughout the building, the arches, the domes and picture windows. The attention to detail is extraordinary.
I often think about the architects and designers who had the original vision for this place. Every now and then, I’ll stop on the stairwell and have a look at the historic photographs of construction. Doreen and I both work in the city, and we’ve been coming here for a number of years – mostly for lunch, but occasionally, we’ll venture into one of the antique jewellery stores. It’s lovely that you can live in this world of fantasy, even if it’s for just an hour in your lunchtime.
When I was a student at Sydney University, I would often come to the Queen Victoria Building with my friends. This is such a distinctive building with a rich history. Nowadays, I can easily spend half a day enjoying the food and shopping.
The QVB has a lot of European brands that are not available at my local shopping centre, such as Coach and Les Nereides. This hat I’m wearing is from one of the unique designer shops. The shopping here is exceptional.
Nicole Partridge is a Sydney-based journalist who works with major media and publishing brands.
This article appeared in Exchange Issue No. 2, which explores the changing nature of the retail sector with contributions and design analysis from leading retailers, developers, consultants and more.Read more