French 170, Position Paper 4, Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project

January 1st, 2003 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

Jason Yeo
French 170: The City
October 21, 2004 Position Paper 4

Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project –

Convolute E: Haussmannization, Barricade Fighting

Benjamin’s mammoth collection of notes, references and illustrations that comprise “The Arcades Project” capture for us a flavor of Paris as a city in flux, poised uncertainly across a half century of changes that marked the rise and fall of the passage, and major urban works directed by Baron Haussmann under the commission of Napoleon III.  While Benjamin deals with many major themes including the historical significance of the arcades and the complex relationships between social movements, architecture and mental constructions and representations of urban space, I will focus this position paper on convolute E titled “Hausmannization, Barricade Fighting”, concentrating on the effects of Haussmann’s projects on the intrinsic experience of the city for the observer and the citizen, paying particular attention to how these developments relate to the representations of the city in previously discussed writings by Mercier, Baudelaire and Balzac.

With the boulevardization of Paris, the labyrinthine city of Balzac, referred to as “musty and close” in this convolute is in rapid decline.  While the Paris of Balzac’s Ferragus is a dark, winding maze filled with mysteries and dangers, a trap for hapless souls, in Haussmann’s Paris the long, wide avenues point the way straight out of the city, offering a means of escape.  Benjamin records that Haussmann’s work to open up the narrowest, most indigent quartiers to allow “the influx of better air” was a “battle against poverty and revolution”, echoing Balzac’s depiction of the sunless streets being havens for criminals and assassins, the decrepit and dangerous environment being both cause and effect.  Yet Benjamin’s research leads us to conclude the despite the outward improvement in conditions within the city, the directions of escape, previously so elusive, are now even more desired and resorted to by Parisians due to the increasing alienation of the citizen from the city. 

The unrecognizable, monumental, artificially inorganic form of the embellished city, with its increasingly uniform architecture, iron constructions and flickering gas lamps transforms the city into a crossroads, a temporary resting place.  In many ways, the city is no longer a place for people, but rather for workers, visitors and speculators.  This is hardly surprising, given Haussmann’s dismissive attitude towards the populace and their needs.   “Hundreds of thousands of families, who work in the center of the capital, sleep in the outskirts.  This movement resembles a tide: in the morning the workers stream into Paris, and in the evening the same wave of people flows out.  It is a melancholy image…” This ebbing, impermanent nature of inhabiting Paris evokes strongly yet contrasts against the eternal city that Balzac and Mercier recognized and described, with its unchanging cyclical rhythms but with streets lined with ancient houses, where people lived and died.

Paris is no longer a backdrop against which the people form the objects of interest in the fl⮥ur’s gaze like that of Baudelaire’s, but rather becomes a series of panoramas and prospects boasting embellishments and other features that now capture the observer’s gaze.  “He saw Paris… His gaze fixed itself most avidly on the space between the column in the Place Vendôme and the cupola of Les Invalides.”  Structures, palaces and vistas have replaced the widows, crones and laborers of Mercier and Baudelaire; the inorganic has triumphed over the organic.  The city has been punctured, ruptured and remodeled so radically, rapidly and violently that the life has escaped from its walls, some of it crushed by the demolitions and some of it escaping to the suburbs.

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