The Central Arcade, Newcastle
Keywords: Central Exchange, Central Arcade, Grey Street, Richard Grainger, Joseph Oswald, Jane Rendell, Newcastle upon Tyne 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. One response to these anxieties was the building of shopping arcades, exclusive spaces that catered to elite consumers. Shopping arcades represent one of the most specialised forms of retail architecture and were devoted to the display of luxury and novelty goods.
The high point of the arcade’s popularity in Britain came in the 1890s, but Newcastle’s last foray into arcade-building came slightly later. This was an attempt to salvage the Central Exchange, a building that was gutted by fire in 1901. Designed by Walker and Wardle, the Central Exchange (1837) was the visual, if not the commercial, centrepiece of Newcastle's core of Neo-Classical streets. Occupying the triangular site between Grey Street, Grainger Street and Market Street, the building expertly used dramatic colonnaded drums to round the corners. However, it never fulfilled its intended role as a corn exchange, instead becoming a subscription news room. Following this dramatic change in function, the Central Exchange gradually developed into a focal point for Newcastle’s urbane social elite. A succession of coffee rooms occupied space in the corner drums and in 1870 the news room was acquired by the Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts and converted into an art gallery, concert hall and theatre. These functions were in turn brought to an abrupt end by the 1901 fire. The building was reconstructed from within and transformed into the Central Arcade, which became a site of luxury retail.
Joseph Oswald and Son were the architects who carried out the conversion. Oswald ensured that the new arcade had an entrance in each of its three faces in order to maximise accessibility and to maintain a constant circulation of customers. A wide passage running from Grey Street to Market Street formed the central axis. Another passage led to an entrance on Grainger Street. These intersecting avenues were covered with a barrel-vaulted glazed roof supported on cast iron arches. The resulting space was flooded with light, allowing the shop windows to be adequately lit, but as light filtered through the glazed roof it gave the space a vaguely unreal quality. Jane Rendell has explored 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.
Beneath its innovative roof structure, the interior of the Central Arcade was transformed using the full arsenal of Edwardian decorative techniques. The corridors were lined with lustrous faïence tiles manufactured by Rust’s Vitreous Mosaics, Battersea. The main entrances are formed from double-arches with a central column in the Composite Order. A dated cartouche is displayed in the spandrel above, proclaiming the modernity of the arcade and appealing to the public’s thirst for the new. The faïence tiling fuses Renaissance details with Art Nouveau decoration, all executed in rich autumnal colours. Blind Venetian arches are set into the walls above the entrances. The mosaic floor features a Greek key motif, a favourite device of Oswald’s. The shop fronts consist of large expanses of plate glass with fine woodwork and Ionic columns. Glazed tiles were an ideal material for arcades, the lustrous surface connoting both luxury and hygiene. Oswald was an expert in this field, having made extensive use of faïence and other decorative surfaces in public house commissions across the North East. A number of Newcastle buildings embraced the fashion for faïence between 1890 and 1900.
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