Victorian dragons

15 03 2013
1. Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1901-04.

1. Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1901-04.

Leeds’s Kirkgate market hall is one the best surviving Victorian retail buildings. Opened in 1904, it still retains much of its original decoration, including the numerous cast-iron wyverns (two-legged dragons) on the ground floor (1) that are in fact brackets that support the gallery level above. These outsized monsters are a curious legacy of the Victorian fascination with the grotesque and a reminder of a vanished way of thinking about the value of the decorative in civic buildings. But what do these particular wyverns mean? Surely not mere whimsy, ornament for ornament’s sake? After all, this was a public building, built with hard-earned public money. Why did Leeds’s civic authorities deem it necessary to include wyverns in the people’s market hall?

2. Halifax market hall, 1896.

2. Halifax market hall, 1896.

In fact, these wyvern motifs were specified by the architects of the market hall (John and Joseph Leeming) in their original competition drawings for the project and developed from similar ones they used in an earlier market hall in Halifax (2; 1896). In the late nineteenth century, dragons and their wyvern cousins were both common heraldic motifs in Britain and were also associated with industry; in 1845 the Midland Railway adopted a wyvern as the crest in their unofficial coat of arms, believing it to be the symbol of the ancient kingdom of Mercia, or the Midlands as it effectively was in the Victorian era; the company incorporated cast–iron wyverns into luggage rack supports, bracket signals, and the spandrels at Hellifield railway station (31880).

3. Hellifield railway station, 1880.

3. Hellifield railway station, 1880.

Despite their appropriation by the Midland Railway, wyverns and dragons were generally perceived in the Victorian period as a menacing symbol associated with the devil; it was John Ruskin, in Fors Clavigera – a series of letters, published in the 1870s, addressed to British workmen – who drew on the sinister associations of dragons when he directly equated them with what he regarded as the hellish consequences of rampant industrialisation. Significantly, Ruskin was prompted to make such an association after he discovered the motif of a cast–iron dragon/serpent on a metal bench (4) whilst walking in the picturesque Lune Valley in Lancashire; he reacted in horror to what he perceived as a satanic emblem fouling one of the loveliest beauty spots in the English countryside.

4. Bench in Valley Gardens, Harrogate, c.1880s.

4. Bench in Valley Gardens, Harrogate, c.1880s.

5. Cast-iron bracket from the sixth edition of Macfarlane's catalogue, 1882.

5. Cast-iron bracket from the sixth edition of Macfarlane’s catalogue, 1882.

Despite Ruskin’s chagrin, cast–iron dragons and wyverns were a common motif in both Victorian street furniture and seaside architecture, as seen in many designs included in Walter Macfarlane’s catalogues in the 1880s (5), which were probably inspired by their earlier adoption by the Midland Railway. In contrast to Ruskin’s emphasis on their sinister implications, cast–iron dragons were often associated with the “exotic” cultures of the Far East, particularly in seaside architecture (6); the wyverns adopted by the Midland Railway and the architects of Leeds’s market hall, however, were more likely viewed as symbols of protection, industrial power, or as denoting ancient indigenous mythic pasts.

6. Wyvern bracket in the shelters on Ryde pier, 1880s.

6. Wyvern bracket in the shelters on Ryde pier, 1880s.

Moreover, the significance of the wyverns in Leeds’s market hall (1) is heightened by their repetitive use – an inherent characteristic of cast–iron reproduction. Here, repetition lends both added emphasis to the sense of civic power articulated in this building and also a direct visual sign of the material abundance that the new market hall promised to the city’s citizens. Thus, the lavish ornamentation of market halls like Leeds’s not only symbolised the promise of abundance, but also enacted it in its spaces by creating a more abundant supply, lower prices, and higher quality in meat and poultry.





Dreaming spires: Victorian chimneys

3 01 2013
1. Robert Rawlinson's fantastical array of industrial chimneys as seen in The Builder, 25 April 1857, p. 23.

1. Robert Rawlinson’s fantastical array of industrial chimneys, The Builder, 25 April 1857, p. 23.

‘A tower is the creation of another century. Without a past it is nothing’ (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 25)

In 1853, The Builder pictured industrial Manchester ‘getting up the steam’ (2) – the city’s skyline filled with an almost impossible number of chimneys belching smoke and so tall that they dwarfed even Manchester’s church spires. Sublime – even Gothic – in their blackness, these chimneys were nevertheless strictly utilitarian in appearance: identical stacks of brick attached to equally stark mill and other factory buildings. Yet, only five years later, in 1858, The Builder pictured a new vision of industrial chimneys as a dreamscape (1). Assembled by the engineer Robert Rawlinson, these fantastical designs were chimneys that mimicked historical precedents, whether medieval Italian campaniles, Moorish minarets or the more recent clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. Rawlinson believed, in common with most Victorian designers, that history gave aesthetic meaning to structural form; according to Rawlinson, instead of ‘chimney’ being a ‘by-word for hideous structures’, it should be in tune with the models of the past that ‘have stood for ages as monuments of beauty.’

2. 'Manchester, getting up the steam', The Builder, 1853.

2. ‘Manchester, getting up the steam’, The Builder, 1853.

Yet, Rawlinson’s designs do more than simply dress up chimneys in attractive disguises; rather, they draw building into a potent kind of dream. As the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard has emphasised in The Poetics of Space (1964), towers are more than simply structures; rather, they are primal images of verticality that illustrate the verticality of the human being. So, in our dreams we always go up towers (whereas we always go down into a cellar). Towers are images of ascension, the endless winding steps inside them leading to dreams of flight or transcendence. Chimneys may not in themselves be fertile dream spaces; yet, because they’re designed solely to carry polluting fumes above the city, they are almost pure images of verticality. By cloaking chimneys with images of the past, Rawlinson joins the pure vertical expression of industry with a whole succession of former dreams of ascension. He also humanises the industrial by bringing it within the compass of the verticality of the human being: people may not be able to literally ascend chimneys but, cloaked in the former dream images of bell towers and minarets, they can now do so in their imagination.

3. The Abbey Mills pumping station as seen in The Illustrated London News, 15 July 1868, p. 161.

3. The Abbey Mills pumping station as seen in The Illustrated London News, 15 July 1868, p. 161.

4. Chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks, c.1870

4. Chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks, c.1870.

There are numerous Victorian chimneys that followed Rawlinson’s example: from those that adorned the extravagant Crossness (1862-65) and Abbey Mills pumping stations (3; 1865-68) in London, to the more diminutive but no less aestheticised chimney of the Edgbaston waterworks in Birmingham (4; c.1870), one of a pair of water towers that were thought to have inspired the title of J. R. R. Tolkein’s second book in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, perhaps nowhere was Rawlinson’s dream more closely realised than in Leeds’s Tower Works (5), where the steel pin manufacturer T. R. Harding brought together fine architecture into the industrial workplace in the form of three extraordinary chimney-towers: the first (right; 1866) based on the 13th-century Lamberti tower in Verona; the second (centre; 1899) inspired by Giotto’s 14th-century campanile for the Duomo in Florence; the third (left) a 1920s re-imagining of one of the numerous medieval defensive towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany.

5. Tower Works, Leeds showing the three chimneys based on Italian towers.

5. Tower Works, Leeds showing the three chimneys based on Italian towers.

6. Candle Tower (2009), Leeds, next to the Tower Works.

6. Candle Tower (2009), Leeds, next to the Tower Works.

This gathering of chimney-towers in Leeds’ Tower Works demonstrates that structures – even those with an essentially utilitarian purpose – can dream. For what else are these chimneys but towers brought into a new constellation of meaning, assembled from the fragments of the past, and born in the imagination? And even today, when our own megalomanic skyscrapers seem to abolish the kind of verticality that chimes with human being, there’s still a sense in which imagination still plays a part in the conception of some of our tall buildings: whether the Candle Tower (6, right; 2009) near the Tower Works (nicknamed the ‘leaning tower of Leeds’), or Manchester’s Beetham Tower (7, right; 2006) – a structure that, despite its sleek modernity, nevertheless still answers the age-old appeal of the tower, as seen in its early Victorian forebear on the Rochdale Canal (7, left).

7. Beetham Tower (2006) next to a early Victorian factory on the Rochdale Canal.

7. Beetham Tower (2006), Manchester, next to an early Victorian factory on the Rochdale Canal.





Palaces of commerce: Manchester’s Victorian warehouses

14 11 2012

Warehouse (c.1865), 1 Central Street, Manchester

Manchester is a city known for its cotton mills, but it is its textile warehouses that remain the distinctive element in its street-scape and make it unlike any other city in England. From the mid-19th century onwards, the marketing of textiles came to dominate Manchester’s economy. For this reason it is the commercial warehouses, built by the manufacturers, wholesalers, independent merchants, traders and packing companies during the century after 1840, that are the most potent visual symbols of the city’s Victorian character.

Warehouse buildings of the 1820s and 1830s had little architectural pretension and they tended to follow Manchester’s mills in adopting a strictly utilitarian approach. As trade further accelerated and the city’s merchants became wealthier, the architectural style of warehouses changed, the merchants aspiring to premises of more impressive appearance to reflect, to potential customers, their growing stature. From the 1840s, they achieved this by adopting the Italian palazzo style, inspired by the 14th and 15th-century architecture of Florence, Genoa and Venice. The palazzo style was justified primarily on associational grounds: Renaissance street architecture in Italian cities were seen as developing in line with their expansion as centres of trade, just as Manchester was in the mid-19th century.

1. Edward Walters, warehouse (1855-56), 36 Charlotte St, Manchester

 

A typical surviving early example is Edward Walter’s warehouse fronting Portland and Charlotte Streets, built from 1855-56 (1). The windows here are indicative of the function of each floor of the warehouse – the large windows on the first floor light the main showroom, while the top-level windows are both smaller and more numerous as this is where the lightest and most delicate goods would have been stored and inspected. Each storey is boldly defined by a stone string-course, as are the lines of the window arches, and the parapets on the four corners of the roofline serve to emphasis the vertical dimension as well. The clear visual emphasis on ‘massiveness’ here is in keeping with the projection of an image of strength and solidity, but it also reflects wider principles in Victorian architecture at this time, which were dominated by the influence of John Ruskin and his writings on architecture.

2. Travis & Mangnall, Watt’s Warehouse (1851-56), elevation from Chorlton St

3. Cast-iron staircase in the interior of the Watt’s Warehouse (1851-56)

In the 1850s, some warehouse designers, such as Travis and Mangnall, who designed the Watt’s Warehouse in Portland Street (2), began to move away from the Palazzo Style. Now the Britannia Hotel, the Watt’s Warehouse was a vast building built for S. & J. Watts, the largest wholesale drapery business in Manchester. His enormous warehouse – 300-ft long and nearly 100-ft high – is more eclectic in its architectural style. The general outline resembles the Fondaco dei Turchi in Venice, but each of the six floors is given a different treatment, ranging from Italian Rennaissance to Elizabethan and culminating with wheel roundels in the roof towers. Inside, the warehouse had four large internal wells and a system of circulation which segregated customers, staff and porters. The original sumptuous cast-iron staircase is preserved (3), with its cantilevered bridges spanning the six floors, all made out of richly ornamented cast iron.

4. Dugdale’s Warehouse (1870s), Princess Street, Manchester

5. Corner view of Charles Clegg’s warehouse (1869) at 101 Princess Street, Manchester

From the 1860s until the turn of the century, Manchester’s warehouses proliferated in a wide variety of architectural styles, the best preserved now clustered along Princess Street. A high proportion of these warehouses were by the architects Clegg and Knowles, with Charles Clegg the leading designer, and all are roughly the same height of four or five stories with almost no gap between the frontage and the street. Of the many surviving examples, we have Dugdale’s warehouse from the late-1870s, in a loose Gothic style with an open arcaded parapets and tall chimneys (4); Charles Clegg’s 1869 warehouse at 101 Princess Street in an immaculate Renaissance style with brick with sandstone dressings (5); and 74 Princess St, built in 1880 in the Scottish baronial style by the architects Corson and Aitken (6).

6. Corson & Aitken’s warehouse (1880) at 74 Princess St, Manchester

Many of these Victorian warehouses have now been converted into flats, hotels or restaurants, their former use now difficult to detect from the outside. Yet, such is their number and sheer bulk that some inevitably remain in a kind of architectural limbo, either part-occupied or awaiting redevelopment. In an early warehouse by Edward Walters on Charlotte Street (1855), a group of tenants have only very recently redeveloped its interior. On my first visit in early 2012, amidst piles of rotting wood and the original cast-iron columns, were traces of the building’s last tenant – the textile retailer, Lilian Stewart Ltd, who, like many others in Manchester, gave up the business in the 1970s (7). With the company’s name still seen on one of the doors (8), the space suddenly became imbued by the still-living past, filled with unexpected possibilities and stories waiting to be told. However, on returning six months later, that space was already transformed into a whitewashed shell in preparation for its new life as a luxury apartment.

7. Interior of Edward Walter’s warehouse (c.1855) at 34 Charlotte Street, Manchester, in early 2012.

8. Interior of Edward Walter’s warehouse (c.1855) at 34 Charlotte St in early 2012.





Dream spaces: railway stations and the beyond

1 11 2012

The curving roof of York station’s train shed

From their beginning, railway stations were often perceived as having a dream-like quality. For some – particularly early travellers – the station was like a nightmare, particularly when seen at night, when the sight of steam locomotives seemed to emblematize the destructive or apocalyptic energies the railway seemed to have unleashed. Margaret Oliphant’s novel The House on the Moor (1861) was probably the first to actually use the word ‘phantasmagoria’ in relation to the railways, which she applied in describing the shifting spectacle created by a steam locomotive rushing through a country station at night. In later years, large iron train sheds became phantasmagoric for a number of reasons: for The Builder, ‘London Bridge recalls a nightmare or troublesome dream’ because of the ‘menacing girders’ of its enormous viaduct, ‘its impossible approaches, tortuous bridges, fearsome alley-ways, and cavernous entries'; while, for Filson Young, the light-filled train shed at Liverpool Street was counterbalanced by its ‘dark catacombs’ – hidden spaces that were full of the discarded remnants of hurried travel – ‘strange shadows, gigantic and discarded toys’ – where ‘you feel you have wandered into another age’.

Tunnel under the viaduct at London Bridge station

These nightmarish transformations of railway stations were generated by a long-standing anxiety about the loss of individual consciousness in the face of the railways, which transformed previously autonomous individuals into ‘atoms, pulsing, coalescing and dispersing across the network’, or ‘living parcels’ as John Ruskin had originally put it in 1848. In addition, Walter Benjamin has argued that the prevalence of dream imagery in relation to iron structures like railway stations was not merely a metaphorical transposition, but a material one, where collective dream imagery was actually inscribed in the spaces themselves.In this sense, the perception of iron train sheds as nightmarish temples, their wrought-iron arches as the vaults of caves, or their girders as menacing objects, transformed their presumed ‘solid’ materiality into one that dissolved the boundaries between the real and the imagined, creating new ornamental configurations of material, structure and atmosphere.

Caverns near Liverpool Street station

If some found the obliteration of individual consciousness perceived in railway stations as nightmarish, others embraced it as a stimulating dreams of a different sort that hinged on the individual’s linking with, what Henry James termed, a ‘larger way of looking at life’. Here, nighttime views of railway stations produced not nightmares but an ecstatic connection to a greater whole. So, George A. Wade, in his 1900 article on ‘famous railway stations’, described the ‘brilliant illumination’ of York’s train shed at night, which he viewed from the medieval walls of the city, watching ‘the grand curve of the rails through the station, with the northern expresses dashing towards Scotland’; while Paddington’s train shed became magical for The English Illustrated Magazine when seen at night, where the ‘innumerable coloured lights’ blurred the hard outlines of the iron structure, everything dissolving ‘in motion [and] rush, swish, and darkness’.

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’ (1862)

St Pancras Station, The Builder, 1916

Finally, when The Builder published its account of London’s railway stations in 1916, it also included a lithograph showing an up-to-date view of St Pancras’s vast train shed. If the article drew attention to the softening of the ‘utilitarian … ugliness‘ of London’s termini by ‘the machinations of soot, fog, gas coal, and company’, the illustration pictured something of this softening in its rendering of the vast iron-and-glass roof, one that does indeed make it appear to be dematerialised by the clouds of steam rising from the engines below. Updating William Powell Frith’s mid-Victorian panorama of Paddington station (1862), this lithograph simultaneously magnifies the train shed, which here fills almost the entire image, and softens its utilitarian aesthetic so that it appears to dissolve into the sky beyond the vast pointed arch. And unlike Frith’s carefully differentiated crowd, the travellers in this image are truly a ‘mass’ – that is, the crowd that had become synonymous of urban modernity, and rendered here as an almost solid undifferentiated block of black ink. In short, this image creates a new aesthetic out of St Pancras’s utilitarian iron, in effect a dematerialized ‘mass’ ornament that emerges out of the dissolution of conventional perceptions of iron’s material solidity.





Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830

 

                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.





Paddington station: function & fantasy

21 09 2012

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’, 1862 (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Paddington station (1852-54) became an iconic symbol of the Victorian railway largely on account of its prominent place in William Powell Frith’s vast canvas The Railway Station (1862), which became one of the most popular paintings of its time when exhibited in 1862. Alongside Frith’s representation of a crowd of passengers waiting to board a train is Paddington’s train shed itself, elevated from an ugly product of industrialization to occupy centre stage in high art, filling almost the entire upper half of the canvas. The oblique viewpoint chosen by Frith, looking diagonally across the train shed, serves to open up the space of the station and to reveal its architectural detail – the painting still probably being the best record of Paddington’s appearance when newly built. Frith himself didn’t paint this part of the canvas, employing another artist, William Scott (1840-1903) – a specialist in architectural subjects – to painstakingly render Paddington’s iron-and-glass interior.

This division of labour gives the painting a curiously disjointed appearance, the mass of figures in the bottom half seemingly severed from the upper half by the hard line of Paddington’s longitudinal iron girders, which, due to the oblique perspective, seem to bisect the canvas. In addition, the repetitive ironwork of the train shed, in effect a mass of identical units, contrasts sharply with Frith’s careful composition of the crowd beneath it, which, although at first sight seem to be an undifferentiated mass, is nevertheless ordered in discrete compositional groups and balanced by a strong sense of order. Perhaps, in juxtaposing Paddington’s ironwork with the human drama of the crowd, Frith was attempting to humanize the station’s mass-produced ironwork and its association with mechanical uniformity and the railway’s brutal reordering of the natural rhythms of human life.

Wrought-iron arabesques in Paddington’s glazed end-screens.

Indeed, it may have been the reassuring effect of Frith’s painting that led to Paddington’s elevated status in the expanding pantheon of metropolitan termini. Barely commented on in the building press when first opened in 1854, The Building News, in an 1868 article on London’s terminal stations, thought that the arrangement of Paddington’s interior ‘gives it intricacy and picturesqueness, and conveys an idea of something approaching comfort.’ This acceptance of Paddington’s radical new aesthetic may have also been a product of the station’s having become, in the intervening years since its opening, an accepted part of everyday urban experience. Indeed, writing only a month after the station opened on 29 May 1854, The Leisure Hour already regarded it, along with London’s other new termini, ‘as much a matter-of-fact affair as a cup of tea’. Yet, in the same article it also pointed to an entirely different kind of perception of the station. Imagining ‘a respectable mandarin of Peking’ (still using pre-industrial methods of transport) suddenly being dropped down into Paddington’s interior, the newspaper wondered at the phantasmagoric effect it would have on him: ‘How he would stare at the flaming gas-lights, at the glittering roof, with its light cross-work of iron bamboo! How the sudden appearance of the monster engine, with its goggle eyes of fire, would bewilder the brains of the chinaman!’ If, for this first-time visitor, Paddington was ‘a dream conjured up by the fumes of opium’, even for the natives who had got used to it the foreigner’s experience was still a mirror of their own when they had first encountered the railways, which after all represented ‘a dream once, and that not very long ago’.

Cast-iron tracery on Paddington’s arched wrought-iron roof ribs.

Moreover, as The Leisure Hour went onto state, no matter how much a part of everyday experience, railway stations like Paddington still had the capacity to invoke a dream-like state if viewed in the right way. By breaking from the rush of travel and stopping to contemplate, one might notice ‘the pleasant sunlight shimmering softly through the arching roof … and the glistening rails winding onwards for miles, and converging to a point in the far perspective’. Just as in Frith’s painting the eye is led out from right to left across the canvas and out of the station to the limitless country beyond, so any onlooker in Paddington’s train shed, in the right frame of mind, might once again experience the original dream of the railway.

Looking down the central span of Paddington’s train shed in 2011.





Arcadian dreams in Paris

4 09 2012

1. Galerie Vivienne

Entering any one of the seventeen surviving arcades in Paris is like stepping into an alternative world, one cut off from the noise and bustle of the metropolitan street – a space of stilled calm, filled with diffuse light filtered through the faded glass roofs above. Here, it’s possible to idle, contemplate and browse, removed as you are from the unending circulation of vehicles and onrushing people outside.

2. Dome in the Galerie Colbert

3. Shopfront in the Galerie Véro-Dodat

Arcades originated in Paris in the late-eighteenth century, emanating outwards (eventually to the whole world) from the Palais Royal, where, in 1786, a long wooden gallery lined with shops became the first covered passage of the modern era. Of course, any visitor outside Europe will know that the Islamic bazaar is much older – medieval in origin; yet, the first Paris arcades were different from bazaars in that they created a new physical environment for a fast-developing consumer culture. Rather than the brick and stone of Islamic bazaars, the arcades in Paris were some of the first buildings to use the new technologies of iron and glass in the construction of their roofs, as seen first in the Galerie Colbert (2; 1826) and Galerie Vivienne (1; 1827). During the nineteenth century, arcades would develop from narrow covered streets to monumental civic monuments, such as the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II in Milan (1865-77) or the GUM in Moscow (1888).

4. Ornamental clock and ceiling in the Galerie Vivienne

5. Sign in the Galerie de la Madeleine

Paris’s arcades became famous largely through the writings of one man: Walter Benjamin, a Jewish-German émigre who, in the 1930s, found in these spaces a ‘world in miniature’ – that is, a microcosm of urban capitalism. By the time Benjamin began reflecting on the arcades, they had largely sunk into dereliction, being superseded in popularity by the vast department stores likes Printemps (1881) and the Galeries Lafayette (1912). During time off from poring over books in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Benjamin would wander in the nearby arcades, finding in their poetic dereliction sites ripe for the kind of ‘profane illumination’ that he believed could shatter the shiny surface of commodity culture.

6. Reflections in the Passage des Panoramas

7. Toy shops in the Passage des Princes

If he were alive today, Benjamin would no doubt be perplexed to discover that he was in large part responsible for the preservation of many of Paris’s arcades. From the 1980s onwards, and coinciding with a great flowering in the reputation and influence of Benjamin, a large number of the city’s arcades have been renovated or restored. One of the most ornate – the Galerie Véro-Dodat (3; 1826) – still has its original richly-ornamented wooden shopfronts, cast-iron lamps, lyres, and genies sitting on cornucopias, chequerboard tiles, and painted ceilings; while the nearby restored Galerie Vivienne (4; 1827) has three different entrances and a sumptuous interior of mosaic flooring and other ornaments symbolising material success (laurel wreaths, sheaves of wheat and palm trees), wealth (horns of plenty), and trade (Caduceus of Mercury). Here, some of the original shops still survive, such as the Siroux bookshop, opened in 1828, from which I bought a small guide to the Paris arcades.

8. Passage du Prado

9. Entrance to the Passage du Grand-Cerf

It might seem like Paris’s arcades have now become sites of nostalgia – museum pieces that have been cut off from the kind of historical reflection Benjamin practised in their spaces. It’s as if Benjamin himself has become just one commodity amongst others, as proclaimed by a barbershop sign in the Galerie de la Madeleine (5; 1847) which takes its name from the venerated writer. Yet, in exploring all seventeen surviving arcades today, one cannot help being stunned by their atmospheric richness and distinct yet indefinable sense of localised identity. So, on the one hand, the Galerie Vivienne exudes a sense of nostalgia for the personalised luxury commodity of yesteryear; on the other, the labyrinthine Passage du Panoramas (6; 1799 & 1834) stands almost empty, its enormous mirrors making this emptiness seem all the more melancholy. Meanwhile, the Passage des Princes (7; 1860) is immaculate, pristine and entirely filled with new toy shops, while the nearby Passage du Prado (8; 1925) is a smoke-filled haven for immigrant North-Africans, its rather severe Art Deco ironwork now framing a space more like an Islamic bazaar than a Parisian arcade. And opposite the airy, light-filled and bustling interior of the Passage du Grand-Cerf (9; 1828) is the dingy, empty Passage Bourg-l’Abbé (10; 1828), avoided by most and home to nothing but boarded-up shops, where an isolated image of a Mediterranean seascape daubed with a stroke of white paint raises many questions but answers none; a key, perhaps, to the elusive meaning of these spaces – one that must be teased out from their discarded objects.

10. Picture in the Passage Bourg-l’Abbé





Cryptic space

17 08 2012

Entrance to the crypt under Canterbury cathedral

‘The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls …walls that have the entire earth behind them’

-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Underneath the apse of Canterbury cathedral (and in common with most large Christian churches) is the crypt, the oldest part of the building, constructed in the 11th century. In an almost exact reversal of the gem-like Gothic space above ground, the crypt is dark and severe. In one corner, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, constructed at the beginning of the 12th century, is an extraordinary testament to the power of cryptic space. Here, the column capitals are carved into a variety of grotesque forms, some devil-like, others more like mutated animals, as if the unconscious mind has here been given free reign; while above are the remains of a fabulous wall painting of Christ in glory, surrounded by beatific saints and angels. It’s as if two contradictory modes of the imagination – the utopian and dystopian – have been allowed to come together in this space, both being freely expressed but confined to the secretive world of the crypt.

Capital, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, Canterbury cathedral crypt

Wall painting in Saint Gabriel’s chapel

The English words Crypt and cryptic come almost uncorrupted from the Latin world crypta meaning concealed or private; and it’s this sense of the word that holds the key to understanding the potential richness of cryptic space. According to Gaston Bachelard, in his famous meditation The Poetics of Space (1958), domestic underground space (the cellar or vault) is first and foremost the ‘dark entity’ of the house, one that ‘partakes of subterranean forces’. For Bachelard, the underground is the one space the can never be rationalised: because it’s always in the dark, it’s a space that becomes a repository for the unconscious, a force that ‘cannot be civilised’ no matter how much we’d like it to be. Moreover, the unconscious itself is usually imagined in cryptic spatial terms – it’s the secret, concealed part of us, the bearer of hidden meanings.

The crypt under Oxford Castle, together with a re-enactment of the founding of the university

Restaurant in the crypt of St John’s church, Smith Square, London

Cryptic spaces have always been subject to attempts to rationalise their darkness. Crypts are often described as foundational spaces. Indeed, Canterbury’s crypt is said to be the foundation on which the present cathedral was built, while that under the Oxford castle is now quite literally cast as the space in which its world-famous university was founded, with monks offering the first clandestine teaching there over 900 years ago. Visualising the crypt as a ‘foundation’ fixes its otherwise obtuse meaning and transforms it into a mythic space, but one that is nevertheless rooted in its rationalisation. In present-day equivalents, many of London’s church crypts have now been converted into restaurants – St Martin in the Fields, St Mary le Bow, St John’s in Smith Square, to name but a few. Here, the potent mystery of the crypt is reduced to simply a novel spatial experience – a new background to an everyday activity – but perhaps with the element of secrecy still drawing the illicit in the form of hushed, private conversations.

‘Sound II’ in the crypt of Winchester cathedral

Yet, despite the increasing rationalisation of cryptic spaces, they nevertheless have a stubborn hold on the imagination that resists this process. Oxford castle’s crypt is widely perceived as the most haunted space in the city, with regular ghost-hunting tours promising to reveal its occult presences that lie far beyond the rational and reasonable world above ground; while the crypt under Winchester cathedral contains another ghostly presence – not an apparition but Antony Gormley’s striking sculpture Sound II, a life-size cast of the artist’s body contemplating a bowl held in its hands. When the crypt floods, as it often does, the sculpture appears as if hovering over the deep, the figure longing for the bowl to be filled by the rising flood. It’s a simultaneously gentle and disturbing symbolic representation of the imaginative potency of the crypt that, even as it evades comprehension, nevertheless haunts the mind for a long time after it’s seen.





Mass ornament: Parisian love padlocks

3 08 2012

Love padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris

On the extraordinary cast-iron extravaganza that is the Pont Alexander III in Paris are a group of padlocks attached to the legs of an ornamental crab. At the time I saw them, I thought they were isolated tokens of eternal love offered by daring tourists – small padlocks inscribed with hearts and the names of the enamoured couples. Only the next day, approaching the Pont de l’Archevêché, just south of Notre Dame, did I realise the full significance of these love padlocks. From a distance, the bridge sparkled and gleamed in the bright sunlight; only closer did I see that its simple lattice railing was covered in a multitude of padlocks, completely obscuring the structure behind. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of multi-coloured padlocks hung down in great bouquets of metal, many with coloured ribbons attached, overlooking that great emblem of Parisian romance, the cathedral of Notre Dame. Only a scattering of locks adorned the other side of the bridge, facing an altogether lesser symbolically-charged urban landscape.

Love padlocks on the Pont Alexander III in Paris

Only later that day did I discover that these Parisian love padlocks are part of a world-wide phenomenon, with the first appearing in cities in the early 2000s and now adorning a diverse range of urban structures, including Tower Bridge in London, Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne, the Ponte Milvio in Rome, the Butcher Bride in Ljubljana, and the ‘Mother-in-law’ bridge in Odessa. In all cases, lovers fix their locks to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public monument and, in an action symbolising their everlasting love, throw away the key. Despite periodic clampdowns by municipal authorities – many of Paris’s padlocks were removed in 2010 – there seems to be an unstoppable momentum behind these tokens of eternal passion.

Individual padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The unity of the mass on the Pont de l’Archevêché

It’s difficult to explain the sheer extent of this phenomenon; according to one source, the affixing of love padlocks in Rome can be attributed to the practice first being depicted in the novel I Want You (2006) by the Italian author Frederico Moccia; while those in Serbia can even be traced back before the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, the proliferation of these love padlocks clearly points to a growing need to express, in a concrete, public and collective form, the deepest desires of couples in their individual unions. I would argue that love padlocks create a form of mass urban ornament, at once highly subjective but also cooperative, forming an ornamental whole out of a multitude of basic components. So, on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the seeming chaos of the individual padlocks resolve themselves into a pattern when viewed from a distance;  some have even been spray-painted in different colours – presumably by a third party – to create a further sense of aesthetic unity.

Spray-painted padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The notion of these love padlocks as a mass ornament can be related to the work of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Writing about Berlin in the 1920s, Kracauer argued that urban ornament can be seen as evidence of a counter-current to the rationalising and ordering tendencies of the modern metropolis, dominated by planners and other controlling forces. For Kracauer, ornament provides access to a different kind of city, one that gives free reign to the subjective world of the individual – a ‘field where civilisation’s process of repression has met resistance’. In this sense, personalised ornamental expressions in everyday life – making doodles, fashioning hairstyles, even cooking – are important signs of the individual’s contribution to the whole; they represent the ‘will to art’, implying the possibility of new relationships to space and city. I would argue that love padlocks are a significant contemporary instance of this ‘will to art’. They inscribe on the modern city – with its abstract circulations, regulated movements and absence of historical memory – a subjective piece of history, representing both a concrete  moment, a subjective memory and a utopian form of time, that is, in the everlasting and the eternal love that has been promised.





The intestine of Leviathan: visiting the Paris sewers

20 07 2012

Light and darkness in the Paris sewers

The contemporary historian David Pike has drawn attention to nineteenth-century ideas about underground space, in particular the ways in which these articulated the urban underground as a symbolic space – that is, as a metaphor of society as a whole. In relation to Paris, we find this expressed most directly in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables. Society, for Hugo, is compared to geological strata with ‘upper and lower galleries’; at the bottom of society are located its most seditious elements – the ‘fearsome’ workers and the revolutionaries. The direct association of sewers and filth provided a powerful metaphor for these lowest levels of society; these spaces were more or less directly associated in the public mind with the moral filth of the city – places where, according to Hugo, ‘monsters may be born’.

1. ‘The sewers of Paris’, Illustrated London News, 29 January 1870, p. 128

However, in Les Misérables, Hugo also makes a clear distinction between the old sewers, seen as fearsome places – ‘the intestine of Leviathan’ – and the new sewers built from the 1850s onwards, which he describes as ‘clean, cold, straight and correct … [where] the filth is well-behaved’. According to Hugo, the transformation of the Paris sewers divested them of their older symbolic power. In 1867, a section of the Paris sewerage system was opened up to the public; visitors – both men and women – who descended into this transformed underworld admired the cleanliness of the spaces, the lack of smell, and the brilliant lighting (1). These visits challenged public understanding of sewers as fearsome places with a new mode of conception – that propagated by the engineer, who plans and builds sewers according to rational and scientific principles.

2. Stuffed rats in the Paris sewers

3. The history of Paris’s sewers as described in the Musée des Egouts

4. Jean Valjean’s escape through the Paris sewers as pictured in the Musée des Egouts

On the surface, today’s Musée des Egouts is a rather less exciting and more sanitised space than its nineteenth-century forebear. Guided by arrowed signs, visitors inspect the sewers without actually riding in the excrement, the cleaning machines are displayed as relics of the past, while stuffed rats in a glass case suggest that the sewers have been thoroughly cleansed of organic life (2). Meanwhile, the history of Paris’s underworld is described through unappealing exhibition panels inserted into the cavernous spaces of the sewers (3), while Jean Valjean’s heroics are visualised as they might be in an amateur dramatics production of Les Misérables (4). Yet, all the while, the great tide of Parisian excrement flows beneath your feet – overpoweringly smelt, heard and seen. The enormous water and gas pipes, suspended from the ceilings of the sewers, drip in the humidity while the enclosed spaces magnify sounds and create strange echoes. It is as if the spaces themselves constantly threaten to overshadow the rationalised understanding being presented to us. Indeed, looking past what is presented suggests an illimitable world beyond, at once terrifying and enchanting – passages disappear in all directions, up and down (5); tunnels recede into pitch black (6); unimaginable torrents can be heard in the far distance; shadows loom in unexpected places (7).

5. Looking up a passageway

6. Looking down a side drain

7. Shadows and light

The Paris sewers, like those in any other modern city, might have been called to order in the nineteenth century; yet, like all sewer spaces, no matter how rationalised in conception, they stubbornly resist to be perceived in this way. In providing an opportunity to experience these spaces, no matter how ‘guided’ this experience may be, the Musée des Egouts opens up a world in which the city can be re-enchanted, experienced as truly ‘other’ and offering fertile ground for the liberation of the imagination.








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