Planning theorists often criticise the negative impact of designing urban spaces around the needs of automobiles. Theorists lament the resultant unsafe conditions for pedestrians, and the associated loss of vibrant street cultures. They cite our increasing dependence on automobiles for even brief travel, and draw attention to the way that we shuttle from our homes into the private, homogenised, commercial spaces of shopping malls, thus impoverishing the public arena. Against this critical backdrop, the following snippet from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project caught my eye – this from Convolute A, p. 32:
“The narrow streets surrounding the Opera and the hazards to which pedestrians were exposed on emerging from this theater, which is always beseiged by carriages, gave a group of speculators in 1821 the idea of using some of the structures separating the new theater from the boulevard. / This enterprise, a source of riches for its originators, was at the same time of great benefit to the public. / By way of a small, narrow covered arcade built of wood, one had, in fact, direct access, with all the security of the Opera vestibule, to these galleries, and from there to the bouolevard…. Above the entablature of Doric pilasters dividing the shops rise two floors of apartments, and above the apartments – running the length of the galleries – reigns an enormous glass-paned roof.” J.A. Dulaure, Histoire physique, civile et morale de Paris depuis 1821 jusqu’a nos jours (Paris, 1835), vol. 2, pp. 28-29. [A1, 6]
Until 1987, the carriage ruled the streets. On the narrow sidewalks the pedestrian was extremely cramped, and so strolling took place principally in the arcades, which offered protection from bad weather and from the traffic. “Our larger streets and our wider sidewalks are suited to the sweet flanerie that for our fathers was impossible except in the arcades.” Flaneur Edmond Beaurepaire, Paris d’hier et d’aujourd’hui: La Chronique des rues (Paris, 1900), p. 67. [A1a, I]
There is a certain amusement value in wondering whether critical urban theorists – had they existed in the early 19th century – would have generated “tyranny of the carriage!” articles, in the same way they currently generate “tyranny of the automobile” articles. More substantively, though, this passage interests me as a model for highlighting the ambivalent potentials of historical change. Benjamin here takes several steps that are sometimes missing from critical analyses of urban form:
(1) He does not judge the consequence by the cause – he highlights that it was base profit motive and speculation that led to the creation of the arcades, but does not assume that this observation, by itself, carries critical impact;
(2) He does not assume that the impact of change was intentional – speculators were focussed on immediate personal profits, and were not explicitly intending to create an exemplary or novel form of social experience, which would then come to take on a life of its own; and
(3) He recognises the ambivalent character of change – the arcades made money for speculators, but this does not prevent them from also making positive contributions in a broader sense.
These insights – expressed, in typical Benjamin form, through the selective appropriation and reorganisation of the insights of others – are all very useful tools for understanding and critically evaluating historical innovations.