About Wales revisited
Looking at towns, finding visual interest, excitement (and sometimes despair) in the detail of our streets and buildings, leads to fascinating discoveries, and makes us think about the kind of places in which we live, shop, work and play. This is an extract from the March 2011 edition of About Wales. A simple photo-shoot turned into an obsessional look at arcades, mainly, but not exclusively, in Wales.
This overview is followed by an essay by former trustee, Derek Jones, and associated with an on-line gallery
The germ of this essay came when a book on Cardiff’s arcades landed on our desk – Jennie Savage’s Depending on time. Jennie, says Peter Finch, is an artist obsessed with the minutiae of city life, and this book, part of a larger multimedia project, focused on the city’s traditional arcades at a time (2008-9) when the giant St David’s 2 development was under construction. We reviewed Jennie’s book in our pages.
With this stimulus, we set out to explore, firstly, Cardiff’s arcades, and then, as many arcades as we could find! The exploration took in Wrexham and Swansea, Newport and Bridgend, Ammanford and Ystrad Mynach. Nick Roe and Derw Thomas took most of the photographs.
The passages of Paris provided the archetype both for the arcade as covered lane, lit from above, filling the spaces between older buildings, and for the arcade as a glorious architectural statement. This approach found its apogee in the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II in Milan, which celebrates the unification of Italy in 1861 under the House of Savoy as much as it does the luxurious living prised by the Milanese grande borghesia.
In Paris, many arcades were lost as the city was redesigned by Haussman; and the grands magasins emerged to offer yet another means of meeting the needs of the rising middle classes. But department stores could live side by side with arcades, as is proven by the experience of cities across the world.
Arcades continued to be constructed up until the first war – throughout northern Europe and across the world. There are smashing examples in Melbourne and Sydney, The Hague and Brussels, Providence, Rhode Island and Cleveland, Ohio. Closer to home, there are surprisingly many to be found in British cities; not just the posh ones in London, and not just in the great provincial cities such as Leeds and Manchester. There’s a terrific example in Southport (the magnificent Wayfarers’ Arcade).
Jennie, however, was influenced in her approach by the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin. And his magnum opus, as Derek Jones explains below, used the history of the Parisian arcades as part of a grandiose, if inconclusive, exploration of urban life at a time when a new consumer capitalism was reshaping the city and the European world. Benjamin never finished this exploration – committing suicide (or murdered by Franco’s police) as he fled occupied France in 1940 – but his insight that an exploration of this new way of shopping offers a means to probe both the building history and the social history of the modern city in the early stages of its growth is revelatory.
Arcades, whether swaggering examples like the Piccadilly or the Burlington, self-conscious developments by proud Cardiffians (the Royal or the Castle), or intriguing entrances to a warren behind the city street, tell us a lot about the needs and aspirations of our predecessors and the way they remade towns and cities.
It seems that arcades (whatever their remote connection to the souq or the bazaar) were initially both a means of intensifying urban land use and unlocking value in the rears of building plots; they created upmarket places to shop and stroll away from the crowds and filth of the early nineteenth-century street – dangerous and dirty places in cities that had not learned to manage their waste or police their poor.
We thought it would be interesting to juxtapose images of our historic arcades with a few shots of their successors – the covered malls that grew up in the centre of late twentieth-century towns and cities. In Cardiff, St David’s 2 is the most recent example. Its builders claimed to celebrate and bring up to date the Victorian model – a pitch echoed by the Regent Arcade in Cheltenham, the Sanderson in Morpeth, and the Grands in Cambridge and Wigan. Whether it’s closer in spirit to the traditional arcade (or even the Galleria in Milan, as someone suggested to me) or to Meadowhall and other examples of out-of-town shopping malls is open for debate.
By and large we’ve let the images speak for themselves. How you respond to the comparison is what counts, not an imposed critique. But there is space in which to question whether these recent examples of covered shopping have the capacity – in a century’s time – to capture the imagination or delight the eye, let alone survive as shopping destinations in the way that many older arcades continue to do.
True, the cutest examples are often conserved in a way that offers a bit of pastiche Victoriana – but they’re none the worse for that, and they can provide an appropriate home for the sort of specialist and independent outlet – fashion, music, cheese, books – that’s out of place in clone town. But I also like the ones that feel a bit edgy, that are neglected spaces, that might even be a bit dangerous. In Bridgend’s Nolton Arcade, or the Market Arcade in Newport, there’s a different world. Here’s a place, as there should be, in the town centre, for little caffs that serve coffee not cappuccino, egg and chips rather than panini or cupcakes; a place for the tattoo parlour and the fancy-dress shop… I’m not sure what the future holds for places like this, but I’ll be sad if they go, and I’ll be a bit sad if they get dragged upmarket at the expense of a loss of character. Anyway, judge for yourself… and take the opportunity to explore these themes further in our on-line galleries.
Theatre of the street
If you hang around on street corners you are generally thought to be up to no good. Young people, for whom streets are theatres, are routinely moved on by the police. The police have, so far, taken no notice of me when I have visited Welsh towns for this magazine; but I do stand on street corners making notes and I have, to that extent, been regarded with some suspicion, if not, sometimes, hostility – who is this stranger and what is he up to? I have never, so far, been directly confronted, and I would, if it ever happened, have some difficulty in explaining myself.
Not so Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), whose life’s work as philosopher and social commentator was largely derived from his devotion to the idea of the flâneur.
There is no English equivalent for this word, but it means, roughly, a stroller, one who saunters. This sounds like a very lazy, self-indulgent occupation, but Benjamin is far from self-indulgent. He walks around Paris in order to understand the place, to see what it tells him about society. And, interestingly, for this edition of About Wales, the primary focus of his attention is the Parisian arcades, those extensive and typically nineteenth-century architectural expressions, of which Paris was the pioneer.
For his massive, unfinished, book (over 1,000 pages), The arcades project (English translation, Belknap Press, 1999), he juxtaposed his own observations of the arcades, and those who passed through them, with quotations by his contemporaries which interpret their meaning.
Benjamin is not, I grant, everybody’s cup of tea – though next time you have a cup of tea in the Cardiff or the Wrexham arcades, you might like to reflect that this particular architectural form has spawned a veritable encyclopaedia of place. Benjamin wrote that arcades are
…a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature.
Nor is this empty rhetoric; Benjamin celebrates visual detail:
…the shoemaker has painted different-coloured shoes, ranged in rows like battalions, across the entire façade of his building. The sign for the locksmiths is a six-foot-high gold-plated key… On the hosiers’ shops are painted white stockings four yards high, and they will startle you in the dark when they loom like ghosts…
The Parisian arcades are, in Benjamin’s eyes, an education. Those of us who are inclined to sneer at window-shopping (I confess that I have been guilty of this – perhaps it is the result of many hours being dragged round the shops by my mother) – should reflect that shop windows have been designed; browsing may well be, for some people, a first step towards an appreciation of the buildings which house the goods we desire or dream about. If that was true in the 1930s when Benjamin was strolling round the arcades, it is perhaps much more true today as the art of shop-fitting becomes ever more sophisticated.
In another sense, however, that kind of sophistication is a denial of life. Consider the following example of anarchy, quoted by Benjamin:
Men were at work repairing the pavement and laying pipeline, and, as a result, in the middle of the street there was an area which was blocked off but which was embanked and covered with stones. On the spot street vendors had immediately installed themselves, and five or six were selling writing instruments and notebooks, cutlery, lampshades, garters, embroidered collars and all sorts of trinkets….they are simply wizards at making a virtue of necessity.
That’s the kind of happening in which a flâneur is most at home!
This edition of About Wales uses photography to capture the interest and delight of arcades. It’s interesting, therefore, that a modern writer, Susan Sontag, follows Benjamin’s method, identifying the photographer as ‘an armed version of the solitary walker, reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno; the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes’ (On photography, Allen Lane, 1978).
Benjamin, of course, is primarily interested in what the arcades teach us about the development of forms of consumption and the growth of capitalism.
In this respect it may be instructive to look at the Cardiff arcades with his method in mind. What do we learn about our way of life from the fact that the Castle Arcade specialises in boutiques, delicatessens, fancy dress, books and clothes; or that the High Street arcade features mostly designer clothes, vintage clothes, and jewellery; or, to take a third example, the Morgan Arcade, which offers fair trade food, and organic herbal skin care? Something is being said here, implicitly, about a, perhaps residual, hunger for something other than the goods on display in large department stores. Personally, I find that rather heartening.
I am less heartened by what remains of the Wrexham arcades. In part, it is because they are more passages than arcades, and there is little sign that the town is taking them seriously as places within the town. One of their highlights, a Viennese pâtisserie, closed down some years ago, and other shops are boarded up.
The Central Arcade still has a furniture and curio shop, a small ‘bangles and beads’ emporium, and, invitingly, just visible, Covent Garden greengrocers, and a ‘traditional family butcher.’ It is of course useful to have a place for key cutting, a hair and nail studio, a jeweller, a watch maker, an optician, and. extraordinary survival, a ‘temperance bar’ – but there is very little here to make you turn your head. Now more of a passage than an arcade, it is in serious need of care and attention.
This would be worth the effort. Wrexham has, so far, resisted the encroachment of superstores and other outlets for mass shopping. It has despatched Boots, Marks and Spencer and Debenhams to Eagles Meadow, and both Sainsbury’s and Tesco are even further out of the centre. There is the potential now to reveal what has long been hidden, and to remake Wrexham as a place to observe what Bertold Brecht called ‘the theatre of the street.’
Giles Peaker, Fragments of the Passagenwerk: the arcades project (www.othervoices.org: accessed 3 March 2014)
Jennie Savage, Depending on time, Safle, 2009; pp. 152, illus., £9.99 ISBN 978-0-950820155.
Arcades Project: Depending on time (accessed 3 March 2014)
Matthew Griffiths, Nick Roe, Derw Thomas