Paris and Walter Benjamin: Photos of the Arcades

Here are some photos I have taken of some of the nineteenth-century arcades (or covered passages) of Paris – the paradises of the flâneurs or strollers of the time, and constructions which, apart from their intrinsic interest, have been immortalised thanks to Walter Benjamin’s remarkable study ‘The Arcades Project’. The photos can also be found, with captions, in the first photograph album that appears when you open this blog.  These images complement my essay:

 

‘The Passageways of Paris: Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project” and Contemporary Cultural Debate in the West’, in Modern Criticism, ed. Christopher Rollason and Rajeshwar Mittapalli, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2002, pp. 262-296; rev. version at:

http://yatrarollason.info/files/BenjaminPassagesYatraversion.pdf

(Internet), 2002; shorter version in Spanish, ‘El Libro de los pasajes de Walter Benjamin, la historia no lineal e Internet’, trans. Andrea Sekler, Mapocho: Revista de Humanidades (Santiago, Chile: Ediciones de la Dirección de Bibliotecas, Archivos y Museos), No 66, July-December 2009, pp. 13-31; on-line at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/BenjaminES.pdf [for the Spanish version, see blog entry for 7 January 2010].

 

 

Extract from my text:

** ‘What is an arcade? In its classic sense, the term denotes a pedestrian passage or gallery, open at both ends and roofed in glass and iron, typically linking two parallel streets and consisting of two facing rows of shops and other commercial establishments – restaurants, cafés, hairdressers, etc. “Arcade” is the English name: in French the arcades are known as “passages”, and in German as “Passagen”. The modern arcade was invented in Paris, and, while the concept was imitated in other cities – there are particularly fine mid-nineteenth century examples in Brussels – the Parisian arcades remain the type of the phenomenon. Benjamin quotes a passage from the Illustrated Guide to Paris, a German publication of 1852, which sums up the arcades’ essence: “These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need”. ** The construction that is generally accepted as the first example of the Paris arcade proper was the Passage des Panoramas, opened in 1800 when Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul, and still in existence. There had been earlier partial precursors in Paris. The “Galeries de Bois” or Wooden Galleries inside the Palais-Royal – the former Royal Palace and residence of the Orléans branch of the royal family – offered, from 1790 until their demolition in 1828, a traffic-free space where a multitude of traders served thronging crowds under a wooden roof, and which, in literature, is the subject of a celebrated description in Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions), Balzac’s classic fictional exposé of Parisian society published in 1843. However, the Passage des Panoramas was certainly the first of the purpose-built glass-roofed arcades, and, therefore, of the arcades proper. This arcade, situated just off the rue Vivienne near the Bourse or Stock Exchange, to this day contains a multitude of small shops and restaurants, and culminates in the back entrance to the Théâtre des Variétés. Most of its successors were constructed between 1800 and 1830, i.e. through the Napoleonic period and under the post-1815 Bourbon monarchy, as restored after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo; a further handful saw the light during the “bourgeois monarchy” of Louis-Philippe and the Second Empire under Napoleon III, the last being built in 1860. All these arcades – in their heyday they numbered between twenty and thirty – were located within a relatively small area of the city, on the right bank of the Seine. In the process that gave rise to them, landowners – aristocrats, bankers or large-scale traders – bent on speculation bought up and demolished old or empty properties, thus creating substantial vacant lots between streets, on which the arcades were constructed.’

**

Note added 18 November 2008

I have added a photo at the bottom, of the glass roofing of the Passage des Panoramas as seen from a room at the Hôtel Vivienne in rue Vivienne, which abuts on to that arcade. The hotel’s cat is a flâneur and likes to stroll in the arcades.

**

 

Note added 12 December 2008:

On my last visit to Passage des Panoramas, I noted with sadness that STERN, the engraver’s establishment which had been there in that arcade since 1834, had closed for good. Benjamin’s ghost will be displeased …  I had already included a close-up from STERN’s window in my montage above (third in first row): here now is another shot of that same window, together with two more, taken in spring 2008 when STERN was still going strong and featuring my friend Stephen Scobie, award-wining Canadian poet and Professor (retired) at the University of Victoria, Canada.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One response to this post.

  1. I love Walter Benjamin and I’ve been trying to visit Paris forever to see the Arcades. I think you may have finally given me the extra ooph I needed! Thanks
    here is my “walter benjamin” blog: thearcadesproject.tumblr.com

    Reply

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