Most people do not plan a day of their holiday around visiting a shopping mall. Then again, the builders of the Trafford Centre, based along the Manchester ship canal, realised that building a shopping mall was not going to be enough. When I visited it, I was left making comparisons with the Palace of Versailles, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Alexandra Palace, and Crystal Palace. I was meant to be buying some shirts.
The Trafford Centre was first proposed in 1986, but a decade-long fight over planning permission meant it would not open until 1998. John Whittaker was chairman of Peel Holdings, which owned the land – originally used by Ford to open its first Model T car factory outside of North America – and he explanation, to the “Financial Times” in 2011, why the Trafford Centre isn’t a carbon copy of the Manchester Arndale, the existing centre based file miles away:
“When we first started the architects said, ‘you shouldn’t be doing all this and giving it all the razzmatazz and showbiz, leave that to the retailers. Make it plain, make it clinical, make it white and hospitalised and let them do the work’. So then we put in the paintings, we put in the real gold leaf, we put artefacts everywhere, paintings. It is the people’s palace. It is something to attract shoppers... to give them the Dallas effect.”
Starting with the most obvious differences, white Is the one colour I never really saw in the Trafford Centre, replaced by a minty green more often associated with the upscale London store Fortnum & Mason – if I did see white, it was because a shop used it. This is paired with terracotta-coloured marble-effect columns – that is, wood painted to look like marble, but is the only artifice found in the centre, apart from the unfeasibly tall fake palm trees. Brass railings and marble floors, both of which seemingly carry on for miles are found in most shopping centres of a certain vintage or, at least, you did – once mall near to me, the Cascades Shopping Centre in Portsmouth, was similarly decked out when it opened in 1989, but successive refits have left it literally lacking lustre.
What marks out the Trafford Centre the most is the bigger design elements, quoting from rococo, Art Deco, Baroque, Egyptian Revival and Art Nouveau. This postmodern free-for-all is entirely appropriate, playing up to the flourishes found across shipping warehouses in Manchester, although played to absurd levels – marble statues of animals, painted ceilings depicting the local area, an indoor fountain that can spit water up two floors in height, murals that could have been found on a wall in Pompeii, various sculptures of people both inside and outside, along the rooftops, and golden eagles disguising drainage pipes. The central glass dome is said to be bigger than the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
In the Trafford Centre, you cannot move for some element of art, some decision made. Even when I stopped for lunch, I was sat across from an almighty golden chandelier, which I passed while descending a marble staircase, having walked through a food court designed like an ocean liner, which was attached to a New Orleans street scene. I was everywhere at once – no wonder I needed to sit down.
The scale of the structure reminded me of Alexandra Palace in London, a Victorian recreational centre currently home to an ice rink, concert venue and exhibition centre. Like Crystal Palace, originally built for the 1851 Great Exhibition, and destroyed by fire in 1936, Alexandra Palace has constantly had to find new uses for itself. The Trafford Centre is big enough to include play areas, a cinema, a video game arcade and an aquarium among its shops, but what if retail begins to retreat like it has at other, less fortunate shopping malls? There were a few empty shop fronts, disguised very well – my eyes were distracted enough – but it did beg the question of what use the building would have otherwise.
If I had only wanted to look around the shops, the Arndale would have been enough during my trip to Manchester. The city of Manchester has faith in its continued success as an ultimate destination, as its Metrolink tram service is building a new line which terminates outside it. John Whittaker wanted to build a people’s palace, and that is how to view the Trafford Centre. I forgot to buy those shirts.