The Arcades Project is one of the most unusual works I’ve ever seen. It’s less a book than it is a feeling; an evocative recreation of a time and place, specifically Paris in the first part of the 20th Century.
In order to create his portrait of Paris, Benjamin has collected thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, reviews, programs, notes—anything written that gave the flavor of the city or the particular part of it that he was exploring at the time. Using contemporary sources the way he did enabled Benjamin to bring the city to life in a unique way. The Arcades Project is over 1,000 pages long and unfortunately still unfinished; it would be fascinating to see Benjamin’s reaction to recent architectural developments.
IIChapter: “Dream House, Museum, Spa”
I chose this chapter because it’s short enough to explore thoroughly. The book is so densely packed with information that it’s difficult to really absorb it except in small “doses.” Reading the chapter is an extraordinary experience: as I read the words, I seem to hear the voices of the various writers, the hum of the Parisian streets, laughter, and all the sounds of life in the city. Perhaps the idea to explore here is whether or not such an approach is effective.
I would have to argue that it is extremely effective. Rather than simply describing what he sees, Benjamin allows others to speak through him, and this collection of disparate viewpoints comes together to make a coherent whole. Each fragment builds on the others, so that the reader is gradually drawn deeper into an appreciation of what life must have been like in Paris. Here’s an example that illustrates his technique; he makes a statement and invites us to contemplate what it means. He says, “Dream houses of the collective: arcades, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museums, casinos, railroad stations.” (Benjamin, p. 405).
Arguably the very first definition of the quintessential American, Benjamin Franklin: inventor, philosopher, politician, projects an overall character which seems almost flawless as the reader progresses through his written works. Throughout his life Benjamin Franklin created many inspiring works, which evoked numerous theories and philosophies towards an array of subjects and fashioned a new ...
While we might consider arcades, winter gardens, wax museums and possibly casinos as “dream houses,” it takes some contemplation of what they are and how we usually think of them before we can decide whether factories and railroad stations also fit into this category. And the word “panorama” suggests a view of the city itself from an outside vantage point, another unusual usage.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the arcades of the title were Benjamin’s first objects of study. These narrow, glass-roofed corridors are lined with shops (they’re common in London as well), and are beautiful little lanes that allow shoppers to relax and stroll in comfort as they look at the goods on display. Benjamin considered them “the most important architectural form of the nineteenth century.” (Eilard, p. ix) After discovering them, he began to broaden his inquiries into the city as a whole, but, as Eilard points out, the method he used was closer to dream interpretation than any other method of recording. (P. ix).
Indeed, the entire book has a dream-like feel about it that’s difficult to describe; the word “dream” recurs again and again.
Returning to the chapter, we find statements like “Arcades are houses or passages having no outside—like the dream.” (Benjamin, p. 406).
The shopping arcades are indeed self-contained; complete little worlds which exist to offer visitors comfort and safety; a refuge from the city’s noise and confusion and yet still part of it.
The dream-like quality that informs the book also invites us to consider dreams as archetypes; that is, dreams that are common to all humanity: dreams of flying seem to be universal, for example. The book discusses common dreams when it refers to the “collective,” as mentioned above. Benjamin suggests that we will find common ground in our contemplation of the arcades, museums and other buildings, even as we each find something in each that has meaning for us alone.
To what extent is the House of Commons effective at carrying out its various functions? The House of Commons is the name of the elected lower house of the bicameral parliaments of the United Kingdom. In the UK, the Commons holds much more legislative power than the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords. The House of Commons has many main functions, with a few of the main ones being: its ...
In addition to museums, the buildings that he refers to as he “goes down the list” of dream houses include theaters, condominiums, and designs by the famous architect Le Corbusier, whose Villa Savoye is a world-renowned house outside Paris. “Le Corbusier’s work seems to stand at the terminus of the mythological figuration ‘house.’” (Benjamin, p. 407).
Again, we have a reference to mythology, which takes us back to dreams.
After discussing museums and theaters, he moves on to churches, which he describes as another type of “dream house of the arcades.” (Benjamin, p. 408).
From there he goes on to taverns, and then quotes a very strange passage: “The dread of doors that won’t close is something everyone knows from dreams.” (P. 409).
Again, he has chosen to quote a reference to dreams; this passage also refers to ghosts. He then includes references to the Paris Opera (lair of the Phantom); the morgue, and finally brings us to the Paris sewers. Each and every quotation in this chapter has an uneasy, mystical quality that forces us to reconsider our reactions to such buildings. It’s obvious that such reconsideration is Benjamin’s purpose, and it works beautifully.
Perhaps the best way to describe this chapter, and in fact the whole book, is as a kaleidoscope—every time you read another entry, a new picture forms. But each picture bears a relation to the ones you’ve already seen. What a fantastic, evocative work!
Benjamin, Walter. “Dream House, Museum, Spa.” The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eilard and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard U. Press, 1999: 405-415.
Eilard, Howard and Kevin McLaughlin. Forward. The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard U. Press, 1999: ix-xiv.