The process of passing through from one place to another. From one condition to another. Transit. A corridor. A portion or selection. Passage. The idea of passage is a preoccupation for me. Passage is the act directly before change, before emergence.
What happens within that separate walkway? What is conveyed in that separate piece? What will be created at the end? During travel especially, the experience of moving through new spaces and absorbing new experiences is transformative. Travel creates its own passageways.
Likely directed by both a mind obsessed with metaphor and an urban planner’s love of street patterns, I stumbled on Paris’ les passages couvert, those charming little glass-covered shopping streets, while walking through the Porte Saint-Denis and Grands Boulevards areas of Paris. Used to passing the closed arched doors of building courtyards, at first I didn’t notice that some of the doorways were labeled “Passage” and some were open. Until I did.
Oh metaphor! Oh when the city opens up to you! Or, perhaps a little basic travel prep would’ve prepared me to explore more coherently these lovely architectural moments (some excellent guides have been created by the city of Paris). However known, to me the unknown was a beautiful discovery. And that’s sometimes how passage works.
Les Passages couvert were built in Paris at the end of the 18th century to provide a safe haven for consumption.
It’s difficult to enjoy the act of purchase, to move beyond its shear utility, while soaking wet with your shoes covered in wastewater. Or worse.
By the mid-19th century, over the span of only about 50 years, Paris had a network of more than a hundred such streets. Voila! The modern shopper was born. However, with the advent of Haussman’s department stores, the passages fell out of favor and many were demolished by the late-19th century, with only twenty or so remaining today.
Walter Benjamin, early 20th century cultural critic and member of The Frankfurt School, names the passages of Paris as the most important architecture of the 19th century. In his uncompleted work, The Arcades Project, (comprised of text passages of excerpts and quotes) he uses the passages to discuss the significance of street life; the creation of the bourgeois man of leisure, the flâneur; as well as other manifestations of a burgeoning market economy.
However, he also employs the passages as a mechanism to elevate a common typology (the equivalent of a contemporary shopping mall) to the same level of significance as that of accepted cultural symbols as well as to dissect a form laden with nostalgia in order to liberate its true history and meaning. It is through this process that he venerates the banal and reveals the value of the everyday.
The dialectics present in Benjamin’s conception of the passage – both as a site of consumption and equally as the building block of an urban utopia (Fourier’s The Phalanx) – reflect the features of passage itself. Just as a passage is method of movement, it is also a means of escape, from the elements and city grime into a shopping street or from the reality of your daily life into a vacation. You can do both at once, both seek refuge and prepare to emerge. Be a historical little hidden street surrounded by seedy shops. So, keep the dirt off your feet and don’t be afraid to change a little.