Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Passages of Paris

Galerie Vivienne

When we visited Paris this summer, I knew I'd spend some time sightseeing in the city. But I never figured that one of my most fascinating days would be spent hanging out in shopping malls.

Who doesn’t like to hang out at the mall? You can stroll and windowshop, and see the latest fashions displayed in the window. You can sit and grab a casual bite to eat. Maybe take in a show. Meet your friends there, gossip, and people watch.

But why would I spend my Parisian vacation doing something I could do at home?

Ah, but these are Parisian shopping malls! And like most things in Paris, they're very special. The Paris shopping malls I'm going to show you are the very ancestors of the modern shopping mall, and are celebrated in literature and in social theory.

In 1786, Louis Philippe, the very liberal new Duke of Orleans, succeeded his father. He decided to open his family's Parisian palace and gardens to the common people. It was probably a smart move, seeing the anti-royalist fervor sweeping the country. He endeared himself to the revolutionaries by giving food to the poor and took the name Philippe-Égalité to reflect his politics.

The arcades flanking the gardens of the Palais-Royal were remodeled so they could be rented to operators of shops and cafes - and the extra revenue didn't hurt. Theatres were built at each end of the colonnades, and the whole area became the center of social and political intrigue, with people shopping, dining and gossiping. The second floor apartments over the shops were occupied by casinos and houses of prostitution.

The Galleries at the Palais Royal are still home to elegant designer boutiques and antique shops. the cafe Le Grand Véfour, the first grand restaurant in Paris, dating from the days of Philippe-Égalité, is still here today. As you stroll along the stone colonnades, you can peek up at the windows where revolutionary plots were hatched and illicit romance flourished.

As the turmoil of the revolution gave way to the relative stability of Napoleon's imperial rule, the city of Paris instituted improvements in law, human rights, and commercialism.

Passage des Panoramas

In the decades that followed, as the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the Middle Class, ordinary people had more income, and industrialization supplied more things that they could spend their money on.

Passage des Panoramas

Shopping became entertainment, and the streets became its venue. Winter in Paris was cold and the streets were muddy and unpleasant. Real estate developers solved that problem by enclosing shops in covered arcades. Narrow spaces between buildings became passages lined with shops, tile-paved and covered by iron and glass framework that let the natural light in. One of the first of these was built in 1799, next to the Theatre des Varietes. To attract more shoppers, the panoramic views of landscapes were projected in its entry rotundas. It was known as the Passage des Panoramas.

As one commentator, Amédée Kermel, put it in 1831, the arcades were "a shelter from showers, a refuge from winter wind or summer dust, a comfortable and seductive space to wander through", and also "a route that is always dry and even, and a sure means of reducing the distance one has to walk".

Soon, arcades sprang up all over the Right Bank. While in Paris this summer, we toured some of them.

Some of the passages are quite elegant, with exclusive shops and graceful decor, well-kept and preserved. One of these is the Galerie Vero-Dodat, built in 1826. The passageway features a ceiling with painted medallions, broken by sections of skylight.

Its elegant and spacious with shops featuring expensive goods, and at ten in the morning when we went it was quiet.

The nearby Galerie Vivienne is similar. Built in 1823, it features mosaic-tiled floors, carved woodwork, chandeliers, and an arcade that branched off in two directions to nearby streets. The front entry is broad and spacious, with room for dining tables.

Galerie Vivienne

The architectural innovation of the covered arcades provided comfortable places for people to linger and look at items in the shop windows - which, because they were enclosed and protected from the weather, could be large and allow for elegant displays, which invited window-shoppers

Some of the arcades, just like today's malls, were anchored around theatres or hotels. Show-business types hung around the shops and halls, and sometimes audiences would shop or buy refreshments during intervals in the performance.

Passage Jouffroy

One of these is the Passage Jouffroy, which includes among its tenants a wax museum and a hotel. This is one of the later arcades, built in 1846, and it's narrower and busier than the arcades of the 1820s.

Passage Verdeau

The passages fell out of fashion with the renovation of Paris's streetscape by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Under the direction of Napoleon III, he laid out a network of broad boulevards and straightened streets connected to railroad stations and parks and gardens. The twisting medieval streets of Paris were torn down. Now broad boulevards routed traffic, keeping the mud off the sidewalks, and making it easier and more pleasant for pedestrians to get around town. There were street lights and modern conveniences.

Passage Brady

Some of the passages were torn down; others became less fashionable and a bit slummy. In the 1870s the Passage Jouffroy became notorious as a gay cruising area, along with its neighboring aracade, the Passage Verdeau, whose shops now include art galleries and used bookstores.

In 1927, a German scholar named Walter Benjamin began writing a collection of thoughts about urban life and culture. He did much of his writing in the reading room at the Bibliotheque National, which adjoined the nearby Galerie Colbert and its neighbor, the Galerie Vivienne.

Rotunda, Galerie Colbert

Perhaps because of this proximity, Benjamin became fascinated with the covered passages. He began to research their history and citations of them in literature. He explored them and wrote down his own impressions of them.

Benjamin hoped to publish this work, which he called "Passagenwerk" or "The Arcades Project." But the turmoil of the Second World War disrupted his work and his life. In 1940, Walter Benjamin died while fleeing the Nazis, leaving a manuscript of his work unpublished and hidden in the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Let's explore Paris's covered passages, with Mr. Benjamin as our guide.


Pumpkin Delight said...

I just love it there!
Wonderful pictures.

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

I also love the passages in Paris ... which is amazing, as I absolutely hate going into a mall in the U.S. Not only ugly, but they give me a headache, and there's never anything I'm interested in. But the wonderful shoppes and boutiques and galleries in the passages are always exciting and intriguing.

You have some great photos!

mo.stoneskin said...

I love shops in Paris, hate them everywhere else, but also the cafes, I love the cafes!

phd in yogurtry said...

Thanks for sharing so much of Paris. I love these doorways and walkways. The detail in the trim is so pleasing to the eye.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Love these passageways. They provide a welcomed respite during inclement weather when visiting the City of Lights. I will be introducing my cousin to them next week and this is a wonderful blog to share and set the tone. Thanks so much for a delightful and accurate account!