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 By the time Benjamin began reflecting on the arcades, they had largely sunk into dereliction, being superseded in popularity by the vast department stores likes Printemps (1881) and the Galeries Lafayette (1912).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





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.





Representing the nation: the Thames Embankment lamps

22 05 2012

1. Dolphin lamps on the Albert Embankment, London

The dolphin lamps lining the Thames embankments (1) in London have arguably become just as iconic symbols of the city as its more high-profile monuments, such as Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. But how do commonplace objects like lamps gain such symbolic resonance?

Built in stages between 1862 and 1874 by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Thames Embankment transformed London’s riverscape by reclaiming marshy land next to the river and constructing wide carriage- and foot-ways and a high granite retaining wall, stretching over three miles in total. After they had considered the question of lighting the embankment, the Board of Works took the unusual step of displaying proposed designs for lamp standards on the Victoria Embankment in March 1870, in order to gauge public opinion before selecting a final model; and the lamps were widely illustrated in the building and metropolitan press (2 & 3).

2. The Coalbrookdale lamps as seen in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

Central to the responses to the lamps was how they would be affected by mass repetition in cast iron; after all, many hundreds would be required to fill the three miles of the new riverfront. The Illustrated London News clearly favoured the lamp manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company: an ornamental fantasia consisting of an altar-like support, surmounted by cornucopias, overflowing with ‘their gifts of plenty’, and the central lamp pillar entwined with the figures of two boys, exchanging a burning torch (2). This newspaper, and others, was impressed by this lavish ornamentation, the cornucopias symbolising the ‘rewards of British commercial industry, as displayed on the banks of the Thames’; the trident and caduceus in the adjacent panels, ‘the mercantile spirit and maritime enterprise of the nation’; the two boys symbolising the ‘energy of the nation’, one that was clearly derived from its industrial prowess.

3. Vuillamy’s dolphin lamp (left) and Bazalgette’s tripod (right) in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

In the event, the Coalbrookdale lamp was rejected in favour of the other two designs: a dolphin lamp designed by George Vulliamy, architect to the Board of Works; and a rather more restrained design by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette, comprising a base of bent lion’s legs and paws (3). As commentators argued, the aesthetic impact of both of these designs would benefit from repetition, as opposed to the Coalbrookdale example; in large numbers, Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps would create an ‘admirable effect’ from a distance (1); while Bazalgette’s tripod, because it was ‘well drawn, modelled and finished’,  ‘will certainly bear repetition better than either of the others’ (4). In addition, both of these designs were modelled on established precedents: Vulliamy’s entwined pairs of dolphins were adapted from the Fontana del Nettuno (1822-23) in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome; while Bazalgette’s came from the more general model of the classical tripod, usually employed in antique vases and candelabras.

4. Bazalgette’s lamps on the Chelsea Embankment.

When the Victoria Embankment was opened in 1868 it was celebrated in the press as directly comparable – even superior – to the engineering feats of ancient Rome and also as superior to similar developments in contemporary Paris, itself being remodelled and promoted as a new kind of imperial city. Thus, the new lamps on the embankments, modelled on Roman precedents but with their visual impact enhanced by insistent repetition, were perceived as enhancing London’s status as the preeminent imperial city ‘to which no other European capital presents a rival’.

5. One of Vulliamy’s Sphinx benches, installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1874.

The symbolic potency of Vulliamy’s lamps was significantly enhanced by the addition of further cast-iron street furniture in the late 1870s, to mark the opening of Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1878 after its tortuous four-year voyage from Egypt. In 1874, anticipating the arrival of the obelisk, Vulliamy designed benches that featured sphinx and camel-shaped armrests (5 & 6). This collection of street furniture extended the historicist concept of the obelisk, enhancing both its spatial reach and its overtly patriotic and imperial associations; the obelisk and its associated benches in effect reappropriated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions to Britain, with London’s new monument also vying for visual supremacy with an existing obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moreover, the older dolphin lamps also gained an enhanced status through the new Egyptian ornaments; their own imperial associations with Rome were now conjoined with those of Egypt and the implied succession of Britain over France as the pre-eminent imperial nation.

6. Camel bench on the Victoria Embankment, installed in 1874.

Not all critics were impressed by this overinflation of significance of the lamps: Percy Fitzgerald, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1880, argued that the lamps on the embankment were ‘too trifling in character to need such massive bases’ and, in a telling comparison, condemned Vulliamy’s ‘attenuated’ lamp posts in contrast to those found in Paris, which he regarded as ‘elegant’ objects. In Fitzgerald’s view, the magnification of the significance of the embankment lamps through their constructional forms did not match up with their aesthetic or symbolic ambition: in short, they were not worthy representations of the preeminent world city. The fact that they have since become iconic symbols of London suggests that this critic was misplaced in his opinions.





The ring of Saturn

11 02 2011

Grandville's universe of iron, 1844

Grandville’s 1844 book Un autre monde (Another world) offered a fantastical take on Parisian life in the 1840s. Often cited as a prototype Surrealist, Grandville filled his alternative world with the products of the new industrial age but as imagined in a dream or nightmare: people become the objects they desire, machines become animated, the universe is filled with outlandish structures. The image above illustrates the adventures of a hobgoblin who is trying to find his way around outer space: ‘A bridge – its two ends could not be embraced as a single glance and its piers were resting on planets – led from one world to another by a causeway of wonderfully smooth asphalt. The three-hundred-thirty-three-thousandth pier rested on Saturn. There our goblin noticed that the ring around this planet was nothing other than a circular balcony on which the inhabitants of Saturn strolled in the evening to get a breath of fresh air.’

Walter Benjamin later reflected on this fantastical imagining of cast iron as a ‘wish image’, that is, something that appears from the unconscious of a society. Here, the utopian promise of iron construction is imagined to have been realised but not in the form that engineers might have supposed; rather, the image of iron bridging the planets draws on the new-found superabundance of iron (made possible by the industrialisation of production) and its tendency to invoke a sense of awe of its seemingly magical properties. In Grandville’s world, what was perceived as natural (the rings of Saturn) are now discovered to be a product of the industrial world. It is as if the sheer power of industrial materials like cast iron now remake the universe in their own image.

Lamp, Regent St, Cheltenham, 1880s

Shelter on Ryde pier, 1880s

It is in this context that the association of cast iron with the fantastical throughout the nineteenth century begins to make more sense. The recurring motif of the dragon – seen in the forms of street lamps in Cheltenham, in a shelter on the pier at Ryde, and the supporting brackets in the market halls in Halifax and Leeds – might be seen as an appropriate symbol to be cast in iron; after all, the foundry, where iron was cast, was indeed like a dragon, with its incessant flames of fire and connotations of unnatural power. Yet, because the cast-iron forms could be repeated endlessly and exactly, there is a sense in which the power of the dragon now lies in its potential to appear anywhere and in infinite numbers, in the same way that Grandville’s iron bridge assumes its monstrous proportions.

Kirkgate market hall, Leeds, 1904

Borough market, Halifax, 1896

It should come as no surprise, then, to discover Victorian architectural critics railing against ornamental cast iron. Mechanical reproduction of ornamental forms challenged the notion of an original, authored work of architecture. To the horror of architects and critics alike, the power of expression was seen to be shifting from the artist to the manufacturer. So, when an ornamental cast iron lamp was unveiled in Southwark St, London, in 1865, The Building News praised its decorative treatment but went on to say that:

‘The most objectionable circumstance connected with the structure is, however, the fact of the ornament being executed in cast iron…There is the prospect of seeing the same design erected without the slightest variation, some dozens of times, it may be, in various parts of London…Constant repetition, sooner of later, would make the highest work of art offensive; and it is to this that the use of cast iron naturally leads’

Lamp in Southwark Street, London, 1865





Visiting London’s dead

14 10 2010

Visitors in the Kensal Green catacombs

Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: the first at Kensal Green in 1832 with others following at Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton and Nunhead in 1840; and Tower Hamlets, City of London, Saint Mary’s and New Southgate in the 1840s and 50s. They give an important indication of London attitudes not just toward underground space and death but also toward the changing cityscape as a whole.

The oldest precedent for the catacombs of London were those built in Rome, most famously by the early Christians in the second and third centuries. However, the most recent influential precedents were those in Paris, which were established in 1786 when, in response to the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries, the bones of the dead in the Cemetery of the Innocents were moved to what were formerly underground quarries under the Left Bank. Bones were moved throughout the early part of the nineteenth century and it is estimated that around 3 million bodies are now interred in the catacombs. What was unusual about the catacombs was that they made no distinction of social status – the bones  are arranged solely according to the cemetery from which they came. This led many to comment on the egalitarian nature of the space: the skull of an aristocrat might lie next to that of a pauper or criminal.

Democracy in the Paris catacombs

Another unusual aspect of this space was that it was open to the public. In the nineteenth century, public visits were offered twice a month to persons obtaining authorisation from the police. Even today, where visits are possible all year round, the sheer number of bones and their abstract configurations still provoke strong reactions. Visitors see only a fraction of the network of catacombs and they are a magnet for urban explorers and other groups who attempt to penetrate their secret spaces with subversive fervour.

Yet, from the start, the Paris catacombs were associated with revolution. They were constructed at the time of the first revolution in 1789 and remained indelibly tied up with the social upheavals in Paris that occurred sporadically throughout the nineteenth century. Their concealed nature and unknown extent led to a mixing of legends and facts: according to the authorities these underground spaces were used by conspirators to both hide and organize themselves. Revolutionaries even drew on the Christian precedent of the Roman catacombs: they viewed themselves as a persecuted minority, hiding in the depths of the earth, until their hour of triumph or martyrdom came.

The main corridor and catafalque in the Kensal Green catacombs

In contrast with the labyrinthine layout of their Parisian counterparts, London’s catacombs were built on grids.The galleries were constructed in arched brick, the standard architectural form of Victorian London. At Kensal Green these arches are divided into arched insets, with deep cuts at their ends to let in light from above. Within the individual arches, various arrangements occur, the most frequent being a division into separate loculi, one for each coffin, inserted lengthwise to conserve space. Some of the arches are reserved for a single family, or some are empty – never having been used.

A key feature of the London catacombs was a hydraulic lift, or catafalque, by which the coffin would be mechanically lowered at the right moment from the chapel to the catacombs below. The mechanism would be concealed by the coffin drapery giving the illusion of a miraculous descent into the underworld. This was a piece of pure theatre and marked a combination of up-to-date technology with ancient myth. The catacomb gave the appearance of automation within an inorganic man-make environment of brick, lead and iron, with the lead-lined coffins giving the impression of an incorruptible body, even if this far from the reality – today, most of the coffins are badly decayed, infested with woodworm and mouldering in the damp. Yet, today, the Kensal Green catacombs are only three-quarter’s full and you can still buy space to inter yourself or your entire family.

The London catacombs, like those in Paris, were also visited by the public. Family members and curiosity seekers regularly descended into their spaces to revisit the dead – a practice not possible with traditional methods of burial. This subterranean visit transported visitors to another world, albeit one strictly controlled by modern technology. Today, most of London’s catacombs have been sealed off; only Kensal Green and Highgate offer regular opportunities to curiosity seekers who still want to visit London’s dead.








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