Sunday 7 September 2008

Passages Couverts

Boulevard Montmartre in the 2e runs east-west between métro stations Richelieu-Drouot and Grands Boulevards. To north and south of the boulevard extend a network of shopping arcades (passages couverts). There are 4 such clusters to be found in Paris of which this is one, comprising the Passage des Panoramas, the Passage Jouffroy and the Passage Verdeau. These locations have long been a great source of fascination to Parisian intellectuals and flâneurs, valued for the strange and esoteric selection of goods on display as well as for the alternative routes that they offer through the city.

They are structures that lack any external facade (other than an entrance portico), thereby overturning some of the basic rules of architecture. In this sense they have as much in common with a tunnel as they have with a conventional building. Unlike a tunnel they possess cast iron ribbed, glazed roofs that even on a dull day of incessant rain can be depended on to admit a generous amount of daylight. With bright tiled floors and reflective glass facades, the light is doubled and redoubled. The noise and clamour of Parisian street life is left far behind and pedestrian progress is unimpeded by conflicting streams of traffic. It’s not long before you begin to suspect you may have entered a parallel form of existence.

Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant has appeared before in these notes and should be referred to sparingly lest one is accused of seeking an unearned note of intellectual respectability so caution is called for here. Aragon celebrated the idiosyncratic life of the Passage de l’Opéra at a time when it was due to be demolished to permit the inexorable advance of the boulevard Haussmann in 1924. For Aragon the passage represented an alternative universe of infinite possibilities, a closed world where bourgeois conventions had no force and a Surrealist playground where the absurd and the ridiculous, the bizarre and the pompous, the monumental and the trivial were continually colliding with one another.

Each of the arcades featured in these photographs has an individual flavour. Passage des Panoramas, on the south of bd. Montmartre has a simple pitched glazed roof and a floor of cracked paving stones. It starts brightly with a flurry of restaurants and dealers in vintage postcards, stamps, coins, medals and printed ephemera but at the extremities it peters out into two dark and neglected corridors where rainwater drips down the damp but perfectly tailored collar of the passing flâneur. The carefully preserved vintage signs for Stern Graveur supply a note of distinction.

Passage Jouffroy with an entrance on the north side of bd. Montmartre in the 9e is the longest of the three. There is a central section where it turns through two right angles and descends a short flight of steps before continuing in the same direction at a lower level. At this point are the entrance to the Hôtel Chopin and the exit from the Musée Grévin. The passage is broader and lighter than Passage des Panoramas with a vaulted roof and a more eclectic range of retailers. This is the place to purchase antique dolls and toys, dolls’ houses and accessories, walking sticks, canes and animal skins, movie memorabilia and vintage posters. The second (and shorter) section is narrower with shops on the left and false shop fronts to the right where a book seller (Librairie du Passage) displays a wide selection of reduced-price books on art and design. There always seem to be interesting books to be found here.

Walter Benjamin’s intimidatingly huge book (or 1,000 page collection of notes, clippings and drafts) published under the title The Arcades Project has many interesting observations based on the author’s heroic effort to comprehend the vast sweep of human history by means of intensive scrutiny of the cultural values of the 19th. century bourgeoisie but as a linear read, it’s a major challenge. Embedded in the aggregation of raw data are many real gems. For Benjamin, the Parisian arcades represented a focal point for the examination and understanding of the way that commerce shaped the history of the period.

The Neoclassical entrance to Passage Verdeau is just across the road (rue de la Grange-Batelière). This passage has a cooler, uncluttered look lined with galleries and rather forbidding dealers in water-colours, prints and old photographs. Of course, it being August, le congé annuel had brought the shutters down on a fair number of businesses. Even on a wet day traffic was light and the long and deserted perspectives began to assume a melancholy air.

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