A bit late for Easter this, but there we go. Last week, shortly after it opened, I went to Trinity Leeds, the insert-hyperbole-about-regenerating-The-North-exclusively-via-retail-experiences shopping centre which opened to much fanfare around the 20th of March. By ‘much fanfare’ I mean that the local news decided it warranted an entire half-hour programme dedicated to it, broadcast from the Fosteresque glass roof¹. So this is my discussion about my own experience of the place, and by discussion I mean ramble.
Aside: interestingly, I note that when Trinity was a ‘quarter’ rather than a ‘trinity’, the architect attached to the project was Enric Miralles of Scottish Parliament/Palafolls Library/Torre Mare Nostrum fame rather than Chapman Taylor of Heathrow Terminal 5 and Drake Circus fame (another shopping centre awkwardly obscured by a church). If this original project had gone through, perhaps there would have been more chance of the glass roof being made of wool. That’s a reference to Miralles designing buildings that look a bit like things vaguely related to the cities they reside in.
Anyway, I was slightly annoyed by a shopping centre warranting that level of coverage. Relatively little time was given over to the employment side of things (something like 3000 jobs created, in a sector which increasingly epitomises uncertain and temporary labour) in favour of marvelling at the shiny-shiny on display; one particular highlight was Harry Gration demonstrating how an interactive ‘gesture wall’ works, but more on this later (worth mentioning that I found it shit, because the number of people passing by made all gestures appear on screen as near-identical beams of light…this probably indicates something about the nature of activity in the corridor where the wall is situated). I was already planning on going to Leeds before this shopping centre opened, ostensibly because two new beer bars had opened and this is much more of a priority for me², but the streams of people entering and exiting were too much to tip-toe around the fringes of; black-hole like, I gravitated towards the event horizon.
Except it was more of a confusion between absolute and apparent horizons; I was annoyed by the actual experience of being in Trinity (except you’re never quite in it; it’s more of a roof over some streets with added walkways thrown in for good measure), by trying to move through Trinity, by which I mean the entirety of being in the shopping centre; the architecture, the ways in which the movements of people are controlled, the layout, the facilities. All the elements are there, but thrown together in a haphazard way, seemingly at odds with the ‘ideal shopping experience’. Is this a good thing? Not really. More uncomfortable, irritating. Not what is expected, but not exciting as a result of this. Peculiar zones rubbing against each other, symmetry gone awry, people unable to fathom how to use the spaces created for them.
You’d think, from the look of it, Trinity Leeds conforms to George Ritzer’s notion of ‘cathedrals of consumption’, that is consumption centres which
‘are structured, often successfully, to have an enchanted, sometimes even sacred, religious character. To attract ever-larger numbers of consumers [they] need to offer increasingly magical, fantastic, and enchanting settings in which to consume’
Trinity is a locus for the purchasing of commodities, and appears to offer the fantastical, not in terms of the shops themselves which are identical to most shopping centres, but in terms of the facilities that it has which others do not; and Land Securities should know all about that³. Some of Trinity’s features – according to the website at least – include concierges, mobile charging stations (coming soon), shop and drop facilities (your bags, not you as ‘the shopper’) and, and I realise this might be considered little more than miniature gilding, seats for people to use whilst waiting for other people to use the toilet. And what toilets they are: as badly designed as the layout of the tiny food court where pedestrian overpasses end in abrupt corners and people bottleneck around ‘awkward’ wheelchair users desperate to find an elusive lift to the exit. To return to the toilets – assuming we can find a way back – to use the cubicles for a shit you have to walk through two rows of back to back urinals, down the middle, as if you are inspecting the troops. This is all very odd. The other features I mentioned are contained within a service lounge type area, conspicuously empty when I walked past, devoid of both shoppers and staff, unlike the 30 or 40-strong queues outside all restaurants in the aforementioned food zone on the top floor (“I’m not waiting three fucking hours for a shitty T.G.I Friday’s” was probably the favourite, and most accurate, observation I overheard). Perhaps things will pick up. There were only 130,000 people through the doors on opening day after all.
ASIDE – Interesting as well that Ritzer has recently moved away from this idea, to ‘new cathedrals of consumption’, the virtual near-infinite expanse of Amazon.com for example. No need for an expensive all-singing, all-dancing locale, when the spectacle can shift to endless commodities; the only limit is what you can imagine yourself owning. Ritzer’s move is prompted, he suggests on his blog, by the noticeable decline and closure of such sites, making Trinity a peculiar proposition, particularly considered the current consumer market and the forever-shit economy we appear to be stuck with as a result of successive short-sighted governments and the systemic detach-collapse-rebuild cycle of our beloved capitalism.
It is also worth dwelling on the religious connection in the name and location. Foremost, we can see that there is a curious juxtaposition between the purpose of a cathedral, religious experience and the actual physical arrangement of space in Trinity: we have the glass ceiling, allowing a view of the Heavens except this is where any attempt at a connection drifts off. The ceiling doesn’t quite work. As interesting a feature as the glass roof is supposed to be, the layout of Trinity actually funnels people in through a central atrium to increasingly dark corridors lined with shops, more a catacomb of consumption. The ‘fantastic’ element is the preserve of one very small section of the building, before shoppers wind through the dingy, half-lit tunnels to emerge back out in Albion Street, which now separates ‘Trinity East’ and its glass dome, from ‘Trinity West’, the rebranded Leeds Shopping Plaza which is still covered in MDF hoardings advertising a new food court and whatever else is going to populate the redesign when it is eventually finished. I find it odd when a space designed to enchant and, ultimately, make people shop, does such a decent job of using walkways and passageways to force them through the building as quickly as possible. Where is the space to stop, to marvel, to dwell on the glory of purchasing on credit.
Trinity is, of course, the name of the church at one entrance to the shopping centre (there are many, many entrances, a panoply of mini-Batu’s with stairs leading to Topshop or Next rather than Lord Murugan’s shrine). Well, The Holy Trinity is what it is called. It is sandwiched between one of the Boar Lane entrances and a several-storey McDonald’s. There is a weird gap around the church, presumably the result of planning conditions, where a number of benches are set out for sitting, but these are squeezed in between the cold walls of the church and the featureless walls of the shopping centre, so unless ‘prison’ is the relaxing vibe they were going for, this seems like a tacked-on attempt at usable space. I walked past this area – well, was dragged past by a sea of shoppers heading for the McD queue – and a girl dressed entirely in black stood in the middle of this unused space, offering hand gestures and a fixed smile as if she was the host at a Shanghai club in the late 1920s. I tried to watch her for a bit, but was pulled inexorably onward. It was incongruous with everything else around me and brilliant for it, space instantly subverted from its supposed use. It reminded me of this photograph of Lee that I took at 4am on the morning Liam was hospitalized in York during my stag do.
The first stones of the Holy Trinity Church were laid in 1722. According to Linstrum, William Etty, the York born artists famous for his nude scenes taken from mythology, was paid nineteen guineas for the design of Holy Trinity Church. The cost of construction for Trinity Leeds is estimated at £378 million (I can only speculate as to the architect’s fee).The church has operated as a gig venue and community arts hub for quite a while, and appears to be working on ways to integrate itself within the development which bears its name. Let’s hope not too many people simply walk past it on the way in to the shops, or to the reclaimed meat-in-a-bun shop which it adjoins; though how many people walked past it before? Probably the same amount.
I’m not suggesting that Trinity is somehow opposed to the idea of consideration and reasoned thought (as Ritzer suggests, these spaces are supposed to be rational), that by boxing in spaces where this is possible (such as the church) and using architectural features to force people to keep moving it prevents anything but passing-through. This would fly in the face of evidence to the contrary; a quiet room for ‘contemplation, prayer and reflection’ will be opening Autumn 2013. What it does instead is demean and degrade public space, or areas where the control, use and appropriation (if deemed appropriate) lies in the hands of the people who use it. They define what happens, rather than owners who mould the space to extract as much money as possible.
Originally, the Trinity Quarter project looked at replacing a number of the tatty arcades that fanned out from the main shopping street, Briggate. There was The Empire, The Burton, Market Street and Trinity arcade itself, as far as I can see (ignoring the Victorian Quarter obviously, with its debt to Burlington, as it has relatively little similarity to the run-down local businesses which occupied these sites in the past). The regenerated approach to Trinity East from the Corn Exchange – which I assume was the site of the old Market Street arcade – is now a series of glass fronted retail units on two levels, the eye-line shops suspiciously vacant except for cardboard cut-out signs advertising the shops on the upper level, already a jumble of ethnic hairdressers and salons, financially ghettoed above the seething masses, where rents are lower, and customers fewer; this is Trinity paying lip-service to local business, providing an adjunct space that in no way matches the bombast of the Dome a hop-skip-jump across Briggate. Redoing this area has enabled an increase in rental costs and the misguided impression that there would be some sort of osmotic relationship between Big Brother (in every sense of the word) next door and an already-sickly sibling. In this case, some effort is no effort at all on the part of the developers. When I walked through, bored staff from the upstairs units were leaning over the railings, watching potential customers stream through on their way to…where else. Regardless of how down-at-heel the old arcades were, they were not simply there for transit, for endless passing-through; they were repositories of old ideas, and plans, and the dregs of the industries on which Leeds made its money, before ‘money’ was how it made its money. I think a similar argument is being made in relation to the Castle Mall in Sheffield.
Oh right, I was going to mention the gesture wall and forgot. Just that it reminded me of a passage from Benjamin (appropriate considering the location):
‘The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass. The play of colors among deep-sea fauna cannot be more fiery’
In the case of Trinity, the wall is simply another bauble that people pass by, on their way to somewhere better, except no-one has quite worked out where that is yet. Amongst the throng, the most common thing I heard from people was ‘how do I get out’. An interior that is architecture as pantomime, a farce of floors that are near impossible to escape from (in the atrium, I was forced to leave through Next because I couldn’t find an escalator that went ‘down’, foolishly assuming it would be on the same side as the ‘up’). If it is designed around flows, and peaks, and history, and indexes, and behaviour patterns, and the needs of local businesses, and consumers themselves then I for one am utterly fucking baffled by the place.
¹ Although it does look a fair amount like the atrium inside the British Museum, there are also parallels with the Sage Gateshead. This is perhaps more apt as the Sage looks like a bug pupa, and the opening photo of this post looks like that bug hatched, and is now slithering its way towards consuming the church
² BrewDogs Leeds, which is tucked away behind the Corn Exchange and was pretty busy on a Good Friday afternoon but had some excellent Cocoa Psycho on, and Friends of Ham on Station Road which was very busy on a Good Friday afternoon and had an excellent Mikkeller Coffee Stout on.
³ Land Securities, the owners of the centre, have numerous other such sites dotted about the UK including The Galleria and Lakeside in the South and, you would think in direct competition to Trinity, the White Rose Centre on the outskirts of Leeds. Cornering the market I think that is known as.
Tags: arcades, brewdog, cathedrals of consumption, Easter, enric miralles, george ritzer, Land Securities, leeds, Look North, mikkeller, public space, sage gateshead, sheffield, shopping centre, shopping plaza, the holy trinity, trinity leeds, walter benjamin, william etty