Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Trafford Centre

This blog begins as a weak response to Alan De Botton's book, 'The Architecture of Happiness'. I really enjoy De Bottons work, and the above title is no exception: however I want to expand on his work [and also on Eco's seminal work on Ugliness and Beauty in art] to discuss notions of Ugliness and the Sublime within architecture.
Are notions of ugliness simply a matter of taste?

Why can we gain so
much pleasure from decay, dis/mis-use, abandonment, banality, pastiche, etc. . . .all of which are usually viewed negatively

The works may not be intended to be anything but functional - yet as a by-product there is something attractive about them. In other cases they may be designed and considered by the designer/client/user to be beautiful/pleasant, and yet considered distinctly naff by others [i.e. design professionals, such as architects]. This is the case with the Trafford Centre, as shown in these photo's. The Trafford Centre is one of the largest shopping centres in Europe, located in Manchester, England. The interior is a neo-rococo style with ornate classical columns, friezes, murals and plastic privet hedges 'trimmed' into obelisk topiary. The experience of shopping here is not unpleasant. I enjoy the hoards of people, the noise, the commerce and fanaticism of dedicated shoppers on a grey, wet [typical] Manchester weekend. Clearly here, like all retail environments, the setting, design and space of the building are carefully considered - nothing is left to chance and teams of marketing analysts dedicate substantial research into retail space and the customer experience. The people behind the Trafford centre have chosen to adopt classical motifs as appropriate architecture - this is an interpretation on ecclesiastical scales with the Medicci's wealth. The large-scale murals of cherubs and angelic beings clinging to whispy clouds set against the bluest of skies is not something I've seen outside of European cathedrals.
It is not restrained minimalism.
It is flamboyant mannerism.
Is this shopping claiming to be a religious experience? Or is it about 'bling' culture, where this kind interior design is considered wealthy, exclusive and desirable?
Probably a bit of both.
It is banal retail space in 'fancy-dress'. The central 'street' creates illusion of pomp, extravagance and carnival masquerade, whilst borrowing from the Victorian arcade-American Mall.
Most architects would consider this to be completely terrible. Perhaps it is. People like it. Perhaps it is better than poor attempts at good design, the predictable, tedious shop fitting.
Another less interesting approach is the large shed with main door and signage stuck to the front - as discussed by Venturi in 'Learning from Las Vagas'.
My conclusion so far is that whilst for most visitors - the design goes largely un-noticed. For others, it is repulsive and they will avoid the space anyway. For a small few, it is an amusing setting, overly sickly, enjoyably distasteful and a place to spend money in John Lewis' and T.M Lewin.

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