An arcade in LondonPhoto copyright: Malcolm Pemberton 2012

An arcade in London
Photo copyright: Malcolm Pemberton 2012

An arcade is fundamentally a covered walkway, often lined with retail shops and, according to Wikipedia, the first one on record was the Passage du Caire in Paris, which was constructed in 1798. Considering the era, it is not surprising that someone came up with this kind of solution, as the problems were many. For example, back then, there were no flush toilets or sewers and often the ‘night bucket’ was emptied the easy way by hurling, from an upstairs window,  its contents out onto the cobbled or even unsurfaced  street below.  Another street hazard was the then ubiquitous horse and cart, which could splash walkers with mud, or worse; the cart was a pretty ‘green’ vehicle, but the horse was not exactly emissions free.

Place Saint Louis - A medieval archade in Metz.Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Place Saint Louis – A medieval arcade in Metz.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.

At that time, the connection between urine, poop and other biological waste and disease was not understood. If at all dangerous, such hazard was only connected to the terrible smells, the ‘bad air’, which was part and parcel of city life. Butchers, without the aid of refrigerators, brought the live animals directly to their shops where they were then slaughtered. All the blood and unwanted fluids were just swilled out into the street with a bucket of water. Unwanted solids would, at best, be taken by wheelbarrow to a common dump, with many a piece falling off onto the road on the way.

Then, of course, whilst stepping oh so very carefully through all that lot on the way to get your groceries, it might also be raining, which would turn the whole street into a slippery, muddy hell. In hotter, sunnier climes, you might be seeking shade from the blazing sun (whilst also enjoying the stench of rotting body parts on the street).

So, a great solution to all this was the arcade. The arcade would generally be a little above street level, paved with cobbles or slabs, and probably not used as a communal dumping ground. Its roof would be supported on, for example, arched pillars, on which also the upper floors of the building could rest. It was already common for upper floors to be wider than the ground floor, and this was to do with building in wood and protecting the ends of the vertical beams from damp.

Another kind of arcade, as shown in the main picture above, spanned an entire street with glass, protecting the shoppers from the rain and, when also closed off with doors at the ends, creating a truly indoor space. So successful has this idea been that many streets in Europe have been covered like this, particularly in the Victorian era when cast iron and glass were all the rage. After that the next step was to purpose build ‘arcades’ in the form of massive covered shopping malls, glassed over to let in the sun and create a light and airy feel.

Arcades continue to be a feature of modern architecture, protecting shoppers from the sun and rain. Some ideas are so good that they come to stay.