Arcades of Paris (with Walter Benjamin)

On New Year’s Eve we stumbled across these two arcades in Paris (I’d love to say that this came as a shock as we’d been taking a stroll along Leytonstone High Road, but sadly nothing mystical was involved, we traveled on Eurostar).

I thought of Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project, a book I confess I’ve only read snippets of, but is difficult to avoid if you have an interest in the life of cities – it is a grand work dreamt up in these very arcades.

Passage des Panoramas

From what I gather, he saw the arcades as the natural habitat of the urban wanderer, the drifter, the flaneur:
“The Parisians … have made Paris the holy city of the flaneur – ‘the landscape built of sheer life,’ as Hofmannsthal once put it”

Benjamin describes the experience of the urban drift, or what another dweller of Paris, Guy Debord, would recast as the psychogeographic derive (Debord would see the flaneur as a decadent figure rather than a revolutionary or a subversive – I’m not so sure myself)

“That anamnestic intoxication in which the flaneur goes about the city not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but can very well possess itself of abstract knowledge – indeed, of dead facts – as something experienced or lived through.”

“The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass.”
Difficult to imagine Westfield Stratford moving someone to produce such prose.

“Architecture as the most important testimony to latent ‘mythology.’ And the most important architecture of the nineteenth century is the arcade.”

Quotes from The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
Reading on the video by Heidi Lapaine

Does London Exist?

the precincts of central London

Among the mountain of topographical books that I found in Hay last weekend the one that I bought was A Guide to the Structure of London (1972) by Maurice Ash. I was hooked by a glance at these amazing maps and the chapter titles:
1. In search of London’s identity  2. The skin of an onion?  3. The geography of conflict  4. Journeys and sojourns  5. A strategy for identifying London  6. Town trails

types of housing tenure, 1966

Ash opens by asking the question of whether London exists, “There is just one question to be asked before one begins a book on the structure of London: Does London exist?”
Due to the diversity between Deptford High Street and Hampstead Heath and lack of common interest he wonders if “the entity of London is a fiction”.

the central spaces of importance for conservation

I would love to imagine Ash in conversation with Patrick Keiller’s character  Robinson in a grubby formica-tabled worker’s cafe, or perhaps at Brent Cross Regional Shopping Centre. In Keiller’s film, London, Robinson posits that “the true identity of London is its absence, as a city it no longer exists … London was the first metropolis to disappear” (you can watch this part of the film here at 3.44)

plan for the South East, 1967

Ash suggests that we should think of London as a region rather than a city, a region that has consumed the Green Belt and moved beyond. He identifies this new area of London the “Outer Metropolitan Area (the OMA), which for statistical purposes at least is bow taken to extend from beyond the Green Belt to about 40 miles from the centre of London”.

strategic plan for the South East, 1970

The book ends with six journeys through London that illustrate the thesis within the book: walking circuits in South London around Elephant and Castle, inner East London from Stepney Green, and inner West London from Earl’s Court; and then wider sweeps by car north and south and the outer metropolitan areas.
I wonder what following the same journeys today would tell us about whether London actually exists or is merely a fiction?

maps reprinted by Ash from Research Paper SRI, September 1966

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The Un(known) City

“Exploring the unknown city is a political act: a way of bringing to urban dwellers new resources for remapping the city. Nevertheless, the unknown might resist such attempts at disclosure. It could be that what is known about the city has been known all along.”
– Steve Pile, The Un(known) City … or, an Urban Geography of What Lies Buried below the Surface

london