Shopping Arcades: Exclusive Spaces for the Elite Consumer

Towards the end of the nineteenth century anxieties about the nature of urban space were becoming widespread. Across Europe suspicions arose about the safety, hygiene and moral integrity of the city. The building of shopping arcades was a response to thes

Keywords: nineteenth century, urban space, the city, shopping arcades, Jane Rendell, Burlington Arcade, Royal Arcade, Royal Opera Arcade, John Nash, John Dobson, J.F. Geist, Walter Benjamin, elite consumer, public space, middle class consumers Towards the end of the nineteenth century anxieties about the nature of urban space were becoming widespread. Across Europe suspicions arose about the safety, hygiene and moral integrity of the city. The building of shopping arcades was a response to these anxieties, an attempt to regulate and sanitise urban space.

Shopping arcades represented one of the most specialised forms of retail architecture. Devoted to the display of luxury and novelty goods, they catered to affluent consumers. The form developed specifically as a ‘means of marketing the products of a blossoming luxury goods industry.’ Most arcades were speculatively built by private developers – they were privately-owned zones within the public realm. To support this function, the internal spaces had to be controlled. Arcades were patrolled by beadles who controlled access to the space and regulated behaviour within it. It can be argued that arcades constituted a sanitised form of urban space for middle class consumers in which the controversial and unpalatable elements of the street had been suppressed.

Royal Opera Arcade, London.

Arcades had been popular throughout the nineteenth century. The Royal Arcade in Newcastle was designed by John Dobson and built by Richard Grainger (1831-2), closely following the design of John Nash’s Royal Opera Arcade in London, but on a larger scale. The long interior space was covered with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and lit with glazed domes. The walls were lined with Corinthian columns. The elegant design prompted the local press to hyperbolically state, ‘We do not believe that, as an Arcade, this of Newcastle has its equal in Europe or in the universe.’ Running between the southern end of Pilgrim Street and Manor Street, however, it was poorly located and was never successful as a retail space. Location was vitally important for shopping arcades and many were severely disadvantaged by being placed too far from prosperous parts of town or by failing to act as significant through-routes. The Royal Arcade led away from the central shopping district, opening onto an unsavoury part of town, where the sharp incline of the site necessitated a vertiginous flight of steps, which would have deterred many potential customers. The Arcade was soon taken over by second hand furniture dealers, which was a sure sign of decline.

Royal Arcade, Newcastle (demolished)

Jane Rendell explores the psychological implications of arcades, arguing that the theatrical atmosphere encouraged a suspension of normative conventions. Glass was a vital component: its transparency allowed goods to be displayed and protected, while its reflective properties allowed shoppers to view themselves. Arcades represented an ‘interpenetration of public and private space’ and thus blurred the boundaries between interior and exterior. Although arcades were primarily designed for female shoppers, Rendell has shown that the Burlington Arcade was located in an upper class male district and was frequented by prostitutes. Along with shop girls, these women were objects of desire for men who frequented arcades in order to consume images of femininity and, by extension, women’s bodies. The ambiguous space of the arcade thus had the effect of relaxing social and sexual mores.

Burlington Arcade, London

For more discussion of retail spaces, see:

https://knoji.com/britains-first-department-store/

https://knoji.com/life-in-a-victorian-department-store/

https://knoji.com/the-sphinx-in-the-city-womens-experience-of-urban-space/

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