On the night of 25th September 1940, a middle-aged German-Jewish academic took his own life with an overdose of morphine in the Hotel de Francia, Portbou, on the Spanish side of the Pyrennean border. He’d been hoping to flee to America following the Nazi invasion of Paris where he’d been working in exile on a variety of grand works, the grandest of which – in the spirit of continental disregard for disciplinary boundaries – was a project of literary, cultural, economic and social criticism based on the Paris arcades. Walter Benjamin never saw his great work completed, and his files remain an enigmatic, tantalising prospect – published much later in the century, very much unfinished and uncompiled, they took the form of over 1,000 pages of notes, theories and above all, quotations.
Benjamin had been studying Paris’ nineteenth-century arcades for the previous 13 years. These were glass- and iron-covered walkways lined with shops selling everything from secondhand books to jewellery and everything in between. To Benjamin they were emblematic of his claim that Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century (something the geographer David Harvey picked up on down the line). They reflected the elegance and glamour of what Paris became in that century (before this the city was notorious for its stench – try Suskind’s Perfume for a hint of this) as well as the complete absorption of capitalist ideology. These were sites of consumption, often conspicuously so, so much that they gave rise to an entirely new breed of urban dweller, the flaneur, the people-watcher. Benjamin wielded Marx, Fourier and Baudelaire in his analysis, attempting to capture a way of life through glimpses and reflections.
Such continental elegance is not something you’d readily associate with Wolverhampton. Yet the turn of the twentieth century saw the opening of three such arcades in this industrial town. I suppose there was some element of outright plagiarism in the design of these sites, to suggest that this smoky Midland town could aspire to the opulence of a Paris at the height of its Bohemian glory. But perhaps some civic hubris too – after all, Wolverhampton was an imperial city now, stepping back from its role as a grimy workshop for the country to let these new colonies take that role. The long recession of the 1870s to 90s was over, Wolverhampton began to boom not on the back of Black Country coal (a declining industry by this stage) but with high technology and marketeering – cycles, motor cars, banking and finance. Some Parisian glamour perhaps seemed fitting for such a place.
At the end of the century, the centre of Wolverhampton would still be navigable to a visitor from 200 years earlier. Bell Street to the South, Victoria Street to the West (formerly Cock Street), Dudley Street to the East and Queen Square to the North (formerly High Green), with St John’s Street running through, formed a block which today makes up the bulk of Wolverhampton’s shopping facilities. Back then it was a mixture of workshops, shop frontages and impossibly tangled residential courts. By the time of the Great War though, the maze of buildings between St John’s Street and Dudley Street had been cut through by Central Arcade; the dense section to the rear of the Star & Garter hotel had been punctured by Queen’s Arcade; later on they would be joined by covered arcades each side of Victoria Street.
Nevertheless, much of the tangled urban fabric remained until Wolverhampton’s modernist golden age of the 1960s and 70s. Just as the Parisian arcades were shimmering, artificial images imposed onto the complexities of everyday reality, so Wolverhampton’s imitations cut smart, orderly, commercial routes through formerly less-navigable territory. I use “territory” on purpose. Central Arcade, for instance, cut through several of the residential courts that Wolverhampton was noted for – these enclosed, secretive, little worlds were hidden behind the main thoroughfare and were the domain of the poor, the working class that couldn’t escape the city centre. They were often the target of fear and blame as well as redevelopment such as the arcades, or the 1877 Improvement Scheme that swept away Carribee Island.
By the interwar years, this dense mass was pierced through. Although the mania for ventilation as the cure for all ills had mostly blown over by now, symbolically at least, the need to push airways of civilisation through crowded areas was still seen as important. Enclosed but for access to shops though, these were ‘representational spaces‘ more than anything that would greatly alter spatial practice in these districts; avenues of capitalism.
Central Arcade was built in 1902 by one E.J. Charles of Birmingham. Compared to the crowded courts it pushed through, it was rather select, featuring the King’s Hall restaurant, brass bands on Sundays and a selection of good quality shops.
Queen’s Arcade opened c.1908 in Queen’s Square, featuring like Central Arcade ornate iron and glass ceilings, elegant shop fronts and grand entrances. They were forerunners, in a way – among the many major redevelopments in Wolverhampton town centre in the 1960s, the biggest was probably the Mander Centre. Celebrating the Mander family that ran the varnish works on the site, this was a huge (orange) shopping centre that changed the face of the town centre. Like the arcades, and like Beatties opposite that swallowed up the long arcade to the West of Victoria Street, it hid the tangled backs of buildings on Dudley Street and Victoria Street behind a safe, generic commercial facade.
Central Arcade was incorporated until its untimely demise by fire in 1974. The photo below shows how the arcade drove through the surrounding buildings (rather than flattening them, like the Mander Centre’s behemoth), attempting to create a little oasis of luxury in the midst of the bustling industrial town.
I have my doubts that Walter Benjamin ever made it as far as Wolverhampton, but he would have known exactly what he was looking at. For him, the arcades of Paris symbolised the triumph of capitalism over space, an allegory for the story of the nineteenth century. In its own small way, perhaps Wolverhampton can tell us something about the nature of the British commercial instinct and the relationship of space, people and money in the industrial town.
The ever-helpful Wolverhampton History site has an article on Central Arcade.
Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project is the key text, but in terms of capital’s attempt to dominate space, try also David Harvey on Paris and Henri Lefebvre on space.