The Passages

To enter the Paris Passages is to tunnel back in time. They are constructed of iron and glass and are like veins running off the main arteries (aka boulevards). They are the veins of commercialism, seduction and mystery. If you happen to be looking at some hot tamale walking towards you on the left, you may indeed miss the passage inviting you on your right.

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When one does see the entrance, and chooses to enter (for passages are all about choice), one is immediately enclosed in iron and glass. Straight lines, curlicues, rectangles, squares; the bright day dims and the eyes adjust. The ceilings, constructed of thin iron beams and plate glass, rise begin at the top of the tall walls and mount to an apex. Some of those mounts are curved, some pointed. You are enclosed, hemmed in and one has to literally tunnel your way out. One is literally tunneling into the past because most of Arcades (passages) date from the turn of the 19th c. to the Restoration in mid-century. The names of the Arcades themselves trace from their original owners or intent. For instance, the Passage Vero-Daudet was constructed by two butchers, the Passage des Panoramas (1799) originally had two panoramas on either side of it and the Passage de Desir led to ‘houses of ill repute’.

Most have not been significantly altered in 150 years, spare some change; a wall replaced here, a plate glass window there. The stone pavement is cracked but still bears the clicking heels of Parisian shoppers. Most have rows of windows that open onto the promenades on the outside but into hidden rooms where whores plied their trade. Funnily enough, the Arcades allow a reversal of commercial psychology noted by Clouzot & Valensi,

“At this turning point in history, the Parisian shopkeeper makes two discoveries that revolutionize the world of la nouveaute: the display of goods and the male employee. The display, which leads him to…garland his facade like a flagship; and the male employee, who replaces the seduction of man by woman—something conceived by the shopkeepers of the ancien regime—with the seduction of women by man, which is more psychologically astute (The Arcades Project, Benjamin, p. 52).”

Down below are the broad and in-your-face display windows. But this is not to say that they are gaudy. In fact, they are the exact opposite. They were designed to first entice the haute bourgeoisie as places to stroll and buy. When you are walking on the street, a passage is easily missed. You might not even know, unless you know how to find them on the map or word has gotten out, know that they are there. They have no gaudy signs, no neon, on their exteriors. Some are very, very discretely engraved with their names, or perhaps, the name is tiled on the pavement. One could easily walk right by and miss all of the potential purchases, the secrets and mysteries that are waiting off this corridor or that one.

WB says that our technology and its forms come, first from organic forms but second, from our dreams. The Arcades are ‘temples of intoxication’ (ibid, 60-61). What’s true of technology could be true of Art. It is not difficult to see the advent of the fractured/shattered nature of Impressionism, the New Expressionists, the Futurists, the Cubists, the Surrealists, the German Expressionists and finally, the New Abstract Expressionists (e.g. Warhol, Pollack, Roth, etc.). Art is a sane response to the insanity of Industrialization and commercialization. One can see their dialogue in the Arcades.

The shapes that Iron Construction allowed, allowed a fanciful environment to emerge that transports with the ‘religious intoxication of big cities’ (Baudelaire) in their cathedral-like, glass ceilings that sheltered the consumer as she shopped. She could imagine being, with the curlicued wrought iron work and glass-tiled floors (in places), extensive plumbing and dedication to specialties (‘Queen of France, Her Majesty Industry’-Fournier). The whole experience is chosen—unique to those who could afford it.

There are quite elaborate plumbing and drainage systems so that there is always in the Arcades a feeling of moving away down corridors and a making room for the new. The pipes drain the waste away, the passages hustle the stroller along, one falls into the visions on display. For example, in the Passage Caire one enters into a straight on hallway but then suddenly there are several possible routes to choose from and choose one must. One will get lost the first few times. As the corridors appear and disappear, as this display or restaurant takes your attention, as someone is disappearing around a corner. One has to double back, perhaps, to purchase. One exits in a completely different place. To find one’s way home, it is easier to purchase. The windows are Hansel’s bread crumbs.

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~ by Thom on June 20, 2011.

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