10 July 2012

Cardiff's shopping arcades 1856-1902

As I have reported in this blog, many important cities in the world fell in love with city shopping arcades, especially during the second half of the 19th century. They may have differed on a number of key elements but what they shared was a towering glass and decorative metal ceiling, high above the lanes that opened on both sides to classy shops. Small tearooms and wine bars often featured as part of the much loved retail services on offer.

Morgan Arcade Cardiff, from the entrance

The Arcades Project refers to work done by Walter Benjamin on his Arcades Project in Paris, 1927. He considered the arcades to be ‘the most important architectural form of the 19th century’, linking the manifestation of the arcades in Paris to a number of major events of that century: the dawning of a new age of consumerism and the rise of a new middle class. He suggested that the building of the arcades signalled a dynamic change, economic but also philosophical and technological. And, he said, it affected the way  people thought about public life, interpersonal relations and social interactions.

Jennie Savage has completed a similar project for the arcades of Cardiff. So did Nicola James. She was deeply concerned with what the future holds for these arcades as a unique building type in Cardiff, and feared they might be lost forever.

Castle Arcade Cardiff, beautiful shop fronts

The arcades in Cardiff have ornately roofed alleys with lovely shops and occasionally multiple levels. The surviving arcades, all in the heart of the city, can be reached from St Johns St, High St, Duke St, Castle St, Queen St and St Mary Street, plus the Hayes. And what a building spree it must have been; in less than 50 years (1856-1902) Cardiff had all its lovely shopping centres. Royal Arcade was built in 1856; High St opened for business in 1886; Castle Arcade in 1887; Wyndham Arcade in 1887; Central Market in 1891; Morgan Arcade in 1896 and Duke St Arcade, the only truly Edwardian site, started in 1902.

In recent decades, Cardiff’s main shopping streets have been made into tree lined pedestrian malls. Even better, the arcades are under cover - each arcade was and is home to an array of non-chain shops offering items for the home and high class fashion.

The Royal Arcade is the oldest of the city's shopping arcades, situated towards the south of the city centre, adjacent to the New St David's development. Tourists are told to look out for the original Victorian storefronts at #29, 30, and 32.

The best known arcade might be The Castle Arcade 1887. The interior has a decorative first-floor wooden gallery with a wooden second floor overhanging it. The Morgan Arcade 1896 still looks good, with some first-floor Venetian windows and original slender wooden storefronts. Note the first-floor Venetian windows and the original slender wooden storefronts eg #23 and 24. Running parallel to Cardiff's Cafe Quarter, Mill Lane, Wyndham Arcade cuts through to the bottom of St Mary Street.

Royal Arcade Cardiff, glass and iron roof

The Melbourne and Sydney arcades included every known Victorian architectural element in their building programme: three storeys of boutique shopping, gas and electric lighting, ornate cedar staircases, elegant bathroom facilities and hydraulic lifts. And the Paris, Milan and London arcades had stunning ceilings and entrances. The Cardiff arcades were less exotic but they were more plentiful and more in tune with Cardiff's late Victorian city centre.


Parnassus said...

Thank you for the insights into the meaning of the arcade phenomenon. I grew up with arcades in Cleveland, Ohio, which still has at least three, the Colonial, the Euclid and the magnificent Cleveland (or Old) Arcade. The latter is well worth a visit to anyone who goes to Cleveland.
--Road to Parnassus

Patio Blinds said...

Nice place to visit.

Hels said...


I have not been to Cleveland, yet I am sure your shopping arcades are equally as lovely. There was something about the 1870-1905 era that encouraged diverse cities to build beautiful arcades. Shofar I have visited Melbourne, Sydney, London, Paris, Milan and now Cardiff. But I would love to visit Cleveland and write a blog post there.

Hels said...

Patio Blinds

Nice to shop, but also to enjoy the architecture and the decorative arts. Welcome aboard :)

diane b said...

I don't know a lot about architecture but I do admire the architecture of Arcades. The ones in cardiff look nice. The best I've seen are in London and Melbourne.

Andrew said...

While I am not sure about the size of Cardiff, there must be a danger to arcade viability from the large shopping centres that English people are quickly becoming fond of. We in Melbourne are fortunate to have ours in a very central and busy area.

Hels said...


I would agree that Melbourne and Sydney have stunningly gorgeous arcades. But then I saw the European models on which our arcades were based and I almost dissolved in tears.

Galleria Vittorio in Milan is like a palace to commerce *sigh*

Hels said...


*nod* there has been a very great danger to elegant arcades from the large shopping centres; the centres are cheaper and are located out in the suburbs where people live.

In the last 30 years, the arcades might have been bulldozed, so they fought back with new town planning, new tree lined streets, better entrances, more elegant boutiques and gorgeous tea rooms. Of course they may still fail and be replaced by Mackers in the future :(

Jazz said...

The Arcades Project calls Cardiiff the City of Arcades because there are more there than in any other UK city. I like Cardiff, but I wonder how true that claim is.

Hels said...


nod...I have seen that title given to Cardiff in the modern tourist literature, as well. Greater Cardiff only has c860,000 people, yet 8 of its Victorian arcades have been preserved and renovated.

I hope all the money poured into preserving these lovely structures succeeds in attracting local shoppers and tourists. And boosts employment in town.

P. M. Doolan said...

Three things:

I'm not sure if I like how they have apprppriated the name Arcades Project form the great Walter Benjamin. But perhaps he would be happy with this.

I visted Cardiff a few years ago around Christmas for a meeting. I was very surprised by the city, it seem to have so much architecturally, and I remember being amazed by the arcades. I didn't know anything at all about them, so thanks for filling me in.

Finally, a coincidence. You mention Walter Benjamin and you commented on my blog regarding Art and the City. The coincidence is I have set myself a little project - to photograph some of the works of art that are part of the Art and the City exhibition and combine their images with quotes from Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". So, I was delighted to see your reference to Benjamin.

Hels said...


if our eyes are open and receptive, we find links and more links in the various posts. I would not have known about Walter Benjamin's work except that he saw something central and powerful about Paris' arcades. Perhaps they described Paris' soul better than other elements of city life.

Decades later you are quoting Walter Benjamin in a different city and using a different medium. But I love the connection.

Screened Version said...

I agree with the above comment which expresses reservations about the appropriation of Walter Benjamin's project.

I think my concern comes from the fact that it seems to miss the point of a lot of the work of Frankfurt School social criticism.

Benjamin wrote about the Parisian arcades in order to show how something mundane and commonplace, like the commercial space, holds answers to important questions about what it is to live in a developed Western European capitalist state.

In a nutshell, I've understood Benjamin as saying this: With careful attention to the design and the construction of these particular urban spaces, along with observations informed by political, social and other events taking place in their historical context, interesting findings about the early days of capitalism are revealed.

To just use Benjamin's work as a sort of intellectual ace in the pack to justify the existence of Cardiff's arcades against the bigger shopping malls is to miss this point.

The only reason I write this is because I think it would be much more interesting to apply Benjamin's method to a reading of the new malls and shopping areas in the city. While I really don;t like the new malls which dominate the city centre, I can imagine that a work which tries to understand why they have come about, written in a manner similar to the way in which Benjamin discusses the rise of the shopping arcade, would be of much more interest and may even serve to preserve the arcades we know and love.

Perhaps even a continuation of the work of Benjamin, (I'm thinking in particular the passages discussing Baron Haussmann's modernization of central Paris) applied to the modernisation of the Bay into a commercial space could escape the ambiguity offered by aimless ponderings about the aesthetic value of old architecture, and put forward political arguments which could put an end to the domination of our public spaces by huge commercial interests?


Hels said...

Screened Version

thank you for a thoughtful response. I agree that Walter Benjamin wrote about the Parisian arcades in order to show how the commercial spaces tell us about life in a developed Western European society.

The reason I cited Benjamin was because of the/his title that modern historians chose i.e "The Arcades Project". I absolutely did not want to justify the renewal of Cardiff's arcades _instead of_ the bigger shopping malls. Although Jennie Savage and Nicola James may have had different agendas.

Now I must go back to read Baron Haussmann on the modernisation of central Paris, even though it has nothing to do with Cardiff.

Again thanks.

Screened Version said...

Hi Hels,

"Now I must go back to read Baron Haussmann on the modernisation of central Paris, even though it has nothing to do with Cardiff."

You don't need to, there's a lengthy discussion of the affects of Haussmann's rationalisation of inner city Paris in the book you mention. in your post. Near the beginning. If you like I can provide page references.

I mentioned Haussmann because, as I say, he is extensively discussed in the book quoted in your blog title.

Finally, I think you could be mistaken that Cardiff has no lessons to learn from the cultural cleansing which occurred thanks to Haussmann's urban planning. Here's a great article written by Glenn Jordan, curator of the Butetown History and Arts Centre http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2001/mar/14/guardiansocietysupplement5 which I think makes the point well that urban planning is almost always political, and has the potential to alienate marginal and less well off portions of society.

Hels said...

Screened Version

Good reference by Jordan. Many thanks.

Screened Version said...

No problem!

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