Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Shopping arcadia?

click photo to enlarge

What do you think of malls - giant malls? Do you love them or hate them? Millions must like them, but I loathe them. Dark thoughts descend on me when I enter one! Is it the acres of cars around them and the sham architecture? Or the excess of everything within? Maybe it's the inhuman scale of the buildings, the constant state of brightness in the circulation areas, and the tacky themes that are used to differentiate centres and sections within them. Probably it's a combination of all these things.

The Leyland Arcade, Southport, shown above, which opened in 1898, all glass, cast iron, mahogany, stained glass and plaster reliefs, is one of the prototypes of the modern mall. From the humble beginnings of small arcades like this the super-malls of Manchester's Trafford Centre, or Sheffield's Meadow Hall developed. Yet, despite this lineage, when I enter a Victorian arcade I'm invariably delighted by the experience. Why is this? I guess it's partly to do with scale - they are much smaller in area, the shops are smaller, and you can get round most in a short time. The style and materials used - modern for their day, and built to last - are also factors. But it's also to do with the light. They are top-lit by natural light, and so the quality of it varies according to the season and the time of day. Consequently the visual experience is much more rewarding. Arcades are usually part of a wider shopping area, and complement it with the qualities they offer. Modern super-malls replace the high street and traditional shopping areas, and that is another reason to dislike them.

My photograph is taken from a balcony in the arcade. I chose this location so I could include the two shopping levels and the handsome cast iron and glass roof. The early morning winter light meant some indoor lights were turned on, adding to the scene, and I waited for some foreground figures to appear silhouetted against the polished floor to give interest to this part of the picture. It's possible to find architecturally better arcades than this one in Southport, but what this photograph demonstrates to me is that even a run-of-the-mill example has qualities that make it a pleasure. Can the same be said about modern malls?

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen