Architecture of Ugly: The Trafford Centre

photo: alamy

photo: alamy

Manchester's Trafford Centre has something to offer everyone, even if you don't care much for the high fashion, established brands, and tech upgrades. Love it or hate it, and there are plenty of opinions on both sides, you can hardly ignore it. It is a structure that inspires awe and admiration, confusion and disgust.

Since opening in 1998, it has become a staple of the cultural and material landscape of Manchester, and something of a shopping Mecca across the north west. It is surrounded by 12,500 parking spaces, attracts 35 million visitors each year, and is home to 280 stores, restaurants, and services. When it opened it was roundly met with fears that a mall on this scale so close to the city would devastate small businesses in central Manchester, but these days the fear is that online retail will kill the appeal of visiting a complex like the Trafford Centre. A new extension is currently under construction, Barton Square, which will house, among other names, a gigantic Primark.

Even so, internet shopping is no substitute to the sensory assault of a visit to the Centre itself. On our student paper here in Manchester, one contributor wrote rather breathlessly in praise of how “you are truly transported to a different age. Each step is a different country, a different period, a different inspiration.” Manchester Confidential put it responded rather differently: “It’s breath-taking in its sheer hideousness, in its lack of craft, in its failure to provide a single element that’s present.” I stand firmly in this latter group which sees the Trafford Centre as a monstrosity. At the same time, I take great enjoyment from huge kitschy buildings that offer much to think and write about.

Writing on the 20th anniversary of the Trafford Centre in 2018, the Manchester Evening News was more sympathetic in its appraisal, drawing attention to the way that the aesthetic choices link the Trafford Centre to local history, but even this is a little tenuous. Supposedly, the indoor trees remind us of the forest that once stood in this area “and reclining figures with trumpets herald a new era for the site”. Hardly local history. The main feature linking this place to the surrounding area is the red Lancashire rose imprinted on many wall sections and the steam ship in the food court which alludes to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal.

The intended glitz comes off tacky, rather than grand. Unironically, the Centre is an exercise in surfaces; everything that appears to be marble is just coloured fibreboard concealing the steel girders which are a staple of any modern building. The materials are themselves not what they present themselves to be. This hardly matters, though, for the Centre is a temple of appearances, of advertising, of all the salvation that one can acquire with a little money.

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According to Wikipedia, the architectural style of the Trafford Centre, if it can be said to have a single style, is ‘rococo’ or ‘late Baroque’. Rococo is “exceptionally ornamental and theatrical”, characterised by flowing curves, natural shell shapes, pastel colours, marble surfaces, grand frescoes. But the Centre is more than this, and displays an overwhelming mix of architectural styles. Greco-Roman statues and pillars are abundant, along with a form of Greek key that runs along the walls. Painted frescoes of vaguely mythical scenes adorn the higher wall sections, telling unrecognisable stories of some strange, alternative past, complete with obligatory cherubim. Nude marble women stretch out across the water features.

The combination of giant faux lampshades and huge chandeliers with the tall leaning palm trees gives off an air of Victorian imperialism, a touch of the exotic taken from the far-flung corners of empire and brought home. Over the meeting point of the Centre’s two arms is a dome of ecclesiastical proportions, where arches, columns, and a frenzy of frescoes climax in the heavenly light from a glass roof. No wall or ledge escapes a flourish or a lick of gold leaf.

The food court, the largest in Europe according to the Manchester Evening News, is also host to head-spinning influences from across space and time. Chinatown, New Orleans, North Africa, and ancient Egypt are all represented around the facade of a giant 1930s cruise liner, which appears to crash into the culinary medley. I suppose this is to heighten the experience of travelling across the globe sampling the various cuisines. The decking of the ship provides the seating area for customers, and is complete with a swimming pool that you’re not allowed to swim in. Above the foot court, the ceiling is painted darkly and pricked with small lights to resemble the constellations. You get the feeling that the purpose of the Trafford Centre is to provide everything you could possible want. It denies you of any reason to leave; even the night sky has been brought inside to complete the totalising cosmology of the building.

“The place thinks it’s being democratic with its colourful excess when it’s just being condescending.” That’s Manchester Confidential again. I can’t help feeling a little insulted at the idea that this is what some board of designers or mall owners thinks I should aspire to. I would say that I like to dwell on architecture more than others, and so maybe it doesn’t bother other people the way it bothers me. But the Trafford Centre demands attention drawn to itself, both in the scale of its sweeping grandeur and down to the most minute frescoed detail. I think it would be hard not to notice.

The description on the Mancunion student paper quoted above calls to mind the World Fairs of late empire, when exhibitors would gather from various countries to showcase the consumer and luxury goods from their national industries. In 1851, the British government hosted the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, a temporary structure of glass and iron not dissimilar from contemporary shopping malls (and which gave its name to the football team, incidentally). Purveyors of wares at this expo could gorge on the sights of new technologies as well as exotic materials from the far reaches of the empire.

In the vast structure of the Trafford Centre and its variety of products and services, it seems to reflect something of the 1851 Great Exhibition. As with the Crystal Palace built for that world fair, the Trafford Centre lays out all for the benefit of the observer, the consumer. In the same way that the Great Exhibition presented the material gains of empire ravaged from a patchwork of colonies, so too do the colossal shopping complexes of today bring together all manner of technologies and cuisines and consumables from the corners of the world. The colonial master at the centre of empire has been replaced by the customer in the heart of global consumerist networks.

Does it go too far to suggest that consumerism is a new form of colonialism? It relies on a power imbalance in the world, whereby goods are produced where labour is inexpensive and then marked up for sale in privileged markets. It encourages a superficial engagement with the wider world, in which we can pick and choose the food we want all year round or have the latest styles from across the globe. The food court is even called The Orient, a hazy term that has a long history of use among Western academics who make rash generalisations about the people and societies from North Africa through the Middle East and as far as China. The concept of the Orient was elaborated as part of European imperial knowledge production to exercise intellectual, as well as military and economic, power over these regions.

It is hard to see beyond the narrow confines set by consumer philosophy. We have almost all but forgotten that the way we live now is not how people have lived for the majority of human history. Consumption has become a lifestyle. It has become an unquestioned ideology. Ruth and I attempt to live minimally, only buying what we need rather than anything we want. We try to buy fewer possessions, and take greater caution with the purchases that we do make. A common repost to such a lifestyle is: “If everyone did that, then the economy wouldn’t function.”

That is the extent to which consumerism (consumption as the purpose of existence) is embedded in modern Western society. We are unable to image a present without the gods of consumerism. Indeed, if everyone did stop buying at the current rate, then the economy likely would falter, because it is built on the premise that people will continue to buy in greater and greater volume. How many times have we heard dark days heralded as consumers spend less?

One day, this might become a sign of the times we live in, the same we way marvel at the makers of Stonehenge or geometry of the pyramids. The generations that come after the collapse of consumer society will dig through the ashes of a scorched planet to find where their ancestors came from. These shopping malls will tell them of their decadent forebears, for whom nothing was out of reach, for whom consumption was not a means to an end or a fact of life, but the reason for existence, the purpose of life itself. Perhaps they will think us backward, in the same way as we have condemned so many who came before us. The Trafford Centre is one of the material remains of our legacy.