Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Passages of Paris - Illumination and darkness

Passage Jouffroy

When Walter Benjamin considered Paris's 19th century covered shopping arcades, he thought about the technological innovations that made the arcades possible. New construction techniques using iron framing and glass made it possible not only to provide light and airy roofs to protect shoppers, but also to erect huge spaces like the grand exhibition halls and train stations of the 19th century city, and the vast greenhouses and "winter gardens" made of glass.

Gare de Lyon, roof

All these places had in common a sense of being transitory - brought into being for a temporary purpose or to be the environment of a kind of transitory experience - passing from one life to the next. They were otherworldly places - protected from the rest of the world, artificial, with their own weather, their own food and drink, their own amusements. They were a kind of "utopian" world - closed, controlled, public yet completely contrived. They were like "cities in miniature," small worlds of their own. Among Benjamin's notes are quoted passages from 19th Century fantasy novels that depicted Paris in the future - the entire city is imagined enclosed in similar glazed arcades.

Musee d'Orsay, once the Gare d'Orsay

Designers fashioned the new technology to look like familiar things in life. Iron pillars were crafted to look like classical stone columns. Scrolls and railings imitated leaves, twining vines, and floral elements. This continued into the twentieth century, as our railroad cars and autobuses were made to mimic horse-drawn carriages - without the horses. Although it was all new, it deliberately echoed the past.

Galerie Vivienne

Gas lighting was invented around the same time, introduced into Paris in 1801 and adopted universally in the city soon after that. Suddenly people could stay up late, walk well-lit streets, and expand their leisure hours. Gas lighting also made it possible for factories to run multiple shifts, furthering the Industrial Revolution.

Light fixtures in the Galerie Vero-Dodat

Among the first application of gas lighting was to light arcades for evening shoppers and theatre-goers. Light from burning coal-gas was so much brighter than candles it astonished people. And because you could place gas-jets anywhere, and light them remotely by timers, it was easier to illuminate the dark interiors of buildings. The first of the Paris arcades to install gas lighting was the Passage des Panoramas, in 1817. Benjamin imagined the debut of these artificially illuminated environments:
The innermost glowing cells of the ville lumiere, the old dioramas, nested in these arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the very 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 land of illuminated water behind glass. The play of colors among deep-sea fauna cannot be more fiery. But what came to light here were open air, atmospheric wonders. Seraglios are mirrors on moonlit water; bright nights in deserted parks loom large.
The glass surfaces - windows, mirrors, the underside of the glazed roofing - reflected back the gas-jets, multiplying them and further brightening the spaces.

Passage des Panoramas

Unlike a lantern or candlestick, which you carried with you through darkened rooms, gas-lights could stay lit unattended. Artificial light became a permanent part of the modern environment, and transformed it.

"Thus precisely with the approach of night," wrote Benjamin, "distant horizons bright as day open up throughout the city."

Written in 1880 but set in 1867, Emile Zola's novel "Nana," about a theatrical courtesan describes the scene in the Passage des Panoramas, connected to the Theatre de Varietes. Each evening the arcade would fill with people - audience members mingling during the interval, prostitutes and pickpockets preying on them, and gossips, journalists and hangers on. It was all lit up:
Under the glass panes, white with reflected light, the passage was brilliantly illuminated. A stream of light emanated from white globes, red lanterns, blue transparencies, lines of gas jets, gigantic watches and fans outlined in flame, all burning in the open; and the motley window displays, the gold ornaments of the jewelers, the crystal jars of the confectioners, the light-colored silks of the milliners, glittered in the glare of the reflectors behind the clear plate-glass windows....
Yet another technological invention of the time was the friction match - which could be ignited by striking them against a rough surface. It was invented by an Englishman in 1826, and improved upon by others. Suddenly one could carry the means of making fire around in a pocket. And of course, you could buy cigars and cigarettes in the shops of the arcade. Walter Benjamin jotted down the lyrics of a song from a popular operetta:
The cafes are filled
With gourmets, with smokers
The theatres are packed
With cheerful spectators
The arcades are swarming
And pickpockets wriggle
Among the flaneurs.

- "Paris la nuit" by Ennery & Lemoine
"Les Grands Boulevards: Les Theatre de Varietes" - Jean Beraud. The entrance to the Passage des Panoramas is just to the right of the three broad columns.

It became popular to smoke in the arcades, especially in the evening when people attended the theatre, the cafes, and the gambling parlors. Another writer, Julie des Marguerittes, in an 1857 guide book to Paris, describes the atmosphere:
The Passage des Panoramas - is a very temple of smoke, It is, besides a crystal gallery, as full of pretty things as a Crystal Palace. From all its various ramifications, men and smoke pour in – from the Bourse, from the Rue Vivienne, from the Rue Montmartre. The delicious pastry of the far-famed Felix is, towards evening, so entirely impregnated with smoke, as to entirely lose all individuality of a la anything but a la cigarre de la Havane. However, if you come early enough you will like the cakes...
It is easy to imagine the funk of gaslight, tobacco smoke, the scent from Roger & Gallet's parfumerie, and the smell of the washed and unwashed bodies crowding the evening passage.

Passage Jouffroy

After the urban renewal of Paris, undertaken by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann beginning in 1852, many of the passages were torn down, and the remaining ones became less fashionable. All but the most popular passages became sleazy places where second hand goods were sold, and prostitutes and gamblers lingered, and penniless artists read in the bookstalls without buying the books.

Passage Jouffroy

In contrast to the glittering scenes in "Nana," Emile Zola's other heroine, "Therese Raquin" inhabited the down-at-heel world of one of these declining arcades, the fictional Passage du Pont-Neuf, where her family keeps shop:
a sort of dark, narrow corridor running between the Rue Magazine and the Rue de Seine. This arcade is some thirty paces long and no more than two wide; it is paved with yellowish flagstones, worn, uneven, permanently exuding an acrid-smelling damp, and is covered by a right-angled glass roof black with grime.... On fine summer days when the sun beats oppressively down on the streets outside, a pallid light filters in through the filthy panes and lingers miserably in the passage. On foul winter days or on foggy mornings, the glass casts nothing but darkness on the sticky flags beneath, a vile and murky darkness.
Early 20th century writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, was raised in the Passage Choiseul, where his mother had a shop. In "Journey to the End of the Night," he describes a gloomy, crowded passage where malicious shopkeepers gossiped like people in a country village; where dogs pissed on shop windows, and the lingerie seller Madame Hernance also sold sordid, unmentionable items made of rubber to the prostitutes and chorus girls who shopped there.

Passage Brady

Lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall describes the same Passage in her 1928 novel "The Well of Loneliness":
Surely the most hideous place in all Paris, with its roof of stark wooden ribs and glass panes - the roof looks like the vertebral column of some prehistoric monster....up and down this Passage Choiseul pass innumerable idle or busy people, bringing in mud and rain in the winter, bringing in dust and heat in the summer, bringing in God knows how many thoughts, some part of which cannot escape with their owners. The very air of the Passage seems heavy with all these imprisoned thoughts.
Passage des Panoramas, late 19th century

Soon, even the magical lighting in the passages would alter. Benjamin muses about the change that must have taken place with the later innovation of electrical light:
With the kindling of electric lights, the irreproachable glow was extinguished in these galleries, which suddenly became more difficult to find – which wrought a black magic at entranceways and peered from blind windows into their own interior. It was not decline but transformation. All at once they were the hollow mold from which the image of “modernity” was cast. Here the century mirrored with satisfaction its most recent past. Here was the retirement home for infant prodigies.

It sounds a bit like the small and rather dreary Passage Prado today, off Faubourg St. Denis, definitely a low-rent arcade, where cheap clothing and knock-off sneakers are sold.

This was the state of the Passages when Walter Benjamin began his acquaintance with them.


Matthew said...

Thank you! As always, you made me feel as if I were there, in Paris in the 1800s...with the smells and the sights, and the crowds. Fabulous!


The glass ceilings remind me of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

Check out the photos.

cactus petunia said...

By, the way...that first comment was from me. My son was signed into his gmail account on my computer when I wrote it...and I looked at it and thought,"Huh. someone just read my mind."