I’ve written before about the British refusal to adapt daily life to our famously capricious weather patterns, but it seems this might just be a modern failing. Check out the concept rendering for almost any new building and you’re practically guaranteed to see it bathed in stark sunlight under ocean-blue skies, while a scattering of slim and happy citizens stroll, in shirt sleeves, from one piece of open air street furniture to another. I’m beginning to suspect that all architects work out of one huge office in California.
Luckily, the Georgians were more practical in their outlook. Despite their cast iron constitutions, it seems they had no desire to trudge up and down in the pouring rain when they didn’t have to, and so they invented the shopping arcade.
These precursors to modern malls are actually a French creation – the Galerie du Palais-Royal (opened in 1786) afforded Parisians the chance to swap the chill and mud of the city streets in favour of warm, gas lit passages under glass roofs, furnished with classical architecture. It was such a hit that by 1850, Paris boasted no fewer than 150 arcades, housing everything from brothels to printing houses. Today, fewer than 20 remain b ut they’ve become home to an eclectic assortment of independent shops and oddball attractions, most notably the Musée Grévin, Paris’s answer to Madame Tussaud’s.
In addition to wax recreations of the great and the good, Musée Grévin is home to Le Palais des Mirages – a light and sound spectacular originally constructed for the Exposition Universelle in 1900, in which mirrors, lights and synchronised sound combine to transform a Victorian parlour into a constantly shifting fractal puzzle.
Paris’s arcades were such a success that the concept was exported to cities across Europe, including Budapest, Moscow and Brussels. They also became popular in the UK, although most of them succumbed to the blitz or the equally uncaring bulldozers of property developers in the ’50s and ’60s. A few still survive though, most notably right here in Cardiff, which boasts no fewer than six.
Like their Parisian counterparts, they’ve become havens for smaller, independent retailers, most of whom have been squeezed out of the high street by soaring rents (or stores that are deemed too important to have to pay rent at all). The properties in the arcades are too cramped to interest most of the larger national chains – some of them are no bigger than an average living room – but what they lack in scale they make up for in charm.
Particular favourites of mine include the New York Deli, which has been a staple of the High Street Arcade for 25 years. Run by an American expat, it not only serves the best filter coffee in the city but sandwiches as big as your head, made to order. The nearby Morgan Arcade is home to Spiller’s Records, which opened in 1894, making it the oldest record shop on the planet. And the Royal Arcade houses Wally’s Delicatessen, a family-run Austrian deli, specialising in imported foods, that looks like something from Disneyland’s Main Street USA.
The arcades have been a key part of the city’s character for over a century now and serve as an important link to a past that is increasingly hard to find. Since the dawn of the new millennium, Cardiff has been undergoing a renaissance – the construction of the Millennium Stadium, the creation of the Welsh government and the arrival of BBC Drama with shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock have all lent the city a newfound sense of purpose and energy. But the influx of money and status has led to a wholescale remodelling of the city centre that’s swept away much of its previous character.
But the past has taught us a few lessons. The most notable addition to the city centre in recent years is the huge St David’s 2 shopping centre – a multi-storey urban mall, centred around a glass ceilinged Grand Arcade. It may be ten times the size of its forebears, but it does mean the good people of Cardiff can now walk from one end of the city centre to the other without having to break cover.
Then again, plans for the new Central Square commercial district outside the Millennium Stadium look like something from downtown Dubai; everyone’s wearing sunglasses, the streets appear to be paved with marble and no one’s tripping over the open gutters.
So perhaps there’s still some way to go before we finally embrace the realities of the Welsh climate. Until then, you’ll find me safely under cover, waiting for the rain to stop. I may be here some time…
Header image: Cardiff’s High Street Arcade by Walt Jabsco
Footer image: Cardiff Central Square concept, copyright Rightacres Property
The pictures of the High Street and Royal Arcades were taken by yours truly. See below for Creative Commons licencing details.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License