by Markus Kather
Visiting Paris last month, strolling off the beaten track, I found myself in a labyrinth of covered passages. Most of them are situated in the areas bordering the Grands Boulevards. The passages are super diverse in architecture and patterns of use. Entering a passage from one side will drop you out in an entirely different environment on the other side. I started with some really flamboyant ones, and then discovered that there are numerous vacant passages – and some rather sketchy ones. So I tried to discover, what happened to them and what their function in today’s urban space is.
The passages couverts were once the paragon of bourgeois lifestyle and shopping habits in Paris and a flagship of the burgeoning metropolis. Some glass-and-iron-roofed architectural gems, e.g. Passage Jouffroy or Passage du Grand Cerf, are testifying that. Many other have either disappeared out of the cityscape or are in a poor structural condition, are vacated etc. – but still represent a perfect environment for the urban explorer.
The golden age of the passages couverts was already in the late 18th to mid-19th century. Their emergence was strongly linked to the rise of the Bourgeoisie, who used the narrow covered streets as a retreat from the noise and grime of the city’s streets. The passages became the Parisian’s favorite place for spending their growing fortune. Walter Benjamin called the passage “a street of lascivious commerce”. He linked them to a distinct street life style, providing the habitat of the Flâneur. The passages represent one of the early manifestations of consumerism and commodification of cities in the modern age – and were among the first commercial structures to become outdated.
Once there were more than 150 passages, forming a network in the commercial areas of the Rive Droite. Today there are little more than a dozen left. So what happened to them?
Many of the passages were destroyed as a result of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris during the Second Empire ca. 1850-70. The construction of new boulevards cut the network of passages into pieces and the new system of major streets obviated their connecting function. The boulevards (as the passages itself) paved the way for the emergence of a new kind of shopping facility: the department store. Ironically by copying the design of the passages (glass roofs, marble floors etc.) the great department stores (like Lafayette or Printemps) became the new symbols of luxurious rive droite Paris. In fact most of today’s retail facilities are based on the design passages – just think of almost every shopping mall on the planet!
But since they are fragmented by today’s shopping streets, outshined by the department stores and, quite simply, are narrow and lack parking space, many of the passages are vacated. Especially along Rue Saint Denis (Paris’ lifeline for about 2000 years – but also notorious for prostitution and crime almost as long as that) there a lot of passages are in a poor condition.
Passage du Caire, established in 1798, is one of the oldest. It’s a labyrinth of narrow shopping streets. Some of the stores are empty; some sell the most random things. Passage du Caire apparently specialized in selling mannequins – I counted at least five shops selling them. The flats above the shops are in a particularly bad condition, most of the windows are blind and the glass roof seemed to leak. Passage du Caire today doesn’t seem to connects different streets, I guess it’s a place most people would avoid.
Another interesting example for the passages along Saint Denis is Passage Brady. Paris’ bourgeoisie also turned its back on this one – but that cleared the way for a different use. Today the Passage is a center of Indian/Pakistani trade and retail. It’s the place to stop if you are looking for authentic and cheap food and super bright clothing.
I left Paris with the impression that the function of the Passages within the urban space is in transition and deserves some discussion. Some became tourist attractions, some are no-go areas, some are just vacant. But a lot of them offer spaces that are less regulated than the rest of Paris and therefore offer different possibilities – as Passage Brady proves.
 Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project)