Friday, 28 September 2012

The Forgotten Shopping Centres of the Rive Gauche

Dotted around the chic streets of Paris's rive gauche are a series of hidden rabbit warrens. These forgotten shopping centres, mostly built in the 1960s and 70s, provide a fascinating frozen-in-time snapshot of another - not so distant - era.

These shopping centres are to be found around the feet of large apartment blocks. With their enviable situation in wealthy areas, their running balconies and large, functional spaces these are the kinds of apartment units that sell for a small fortune. And yet at their heart are urban experiments gone wrong.

Clearly the Galerie Marchande was an integral part of the initial building design, and perhaps even a key-selling point for early purchasers of the apartments. These galeries were - and still are - highly-stylised spaces, with public art and carefully thought out lines and colours. Unchanged though since the day they were built they have become anachronistic and completely disfuctional. Non(sense)-spaces in a crowded city.


There is something vaguely comical about some of the scenes. They are empty stage sets, waiting for a return of the ghost performers from another time. Cordoned off, sometimes behind glass walls, there are escalators - thick with dust - that no longer move, and communal zones where people no longer meet or rest.


Designed to attract and retain both residents and passers by, there is today a distinct lack of human activity in these spaces. But it is still there. There are the survivors - key cutters, fast-food outlets, repair shops - spaced out in isolation. There are zones that have changed function - shop units that have become office spaces, profiteers that have ensured the death of the galleries at the weekends - normally the busiest period of such facilities.

In one underground corridor near the Rue du Cherche Midi there is an anonymous black door. There are no windows, no face to the outside world, but just a name to make us guess about what is on the other side. It is the entrance to a night-club, a door that only opens after dark. But who comes here? I later find out that it is a Swingers club, the discreet and anonymous doorway at complete odds with the open exchanges that take place inside.


Sometimes these are places with slightly longer past narratives. The Passage du Départ, opposite the Montparnasse shopping centre, is mentioned in a guide book published in 1910. The new passage was clearly built in place of the old one, providing historical continuity in a radically transformed district.

Like the others though, it is now a space looking for an identity. Here the units are largely empty, but at its heart is a mature garden with trees and plants that have flourished whilst commerce has faltered. 

So what has killed these spaces? It is not the result of an economic crisis, or of neighbourhoods that have dived downwards. These are rich areas, and the galleries are still clean and solidly in place.Were they ever a success, or is their zombie-like form the result of poor planning, a solution for a need that never really existed?

Sitting inside apartment blocks that are highly-desirable, there is no question that these spaces will be demolished. What is likely to happen though is that they will slowly move from the public to private sphere, becoming less and less accessible. Another part of the city taken away from its residents.

5 comments:

Thérèse said...

Heartache...

Philippa said...

The opening photograph is extraordinary. Given the dust and grime, it is not clear whether it is a black and white shot of the space, or a colour shot of a colourless place.

AllStevie said...

Just so you know, the RSS feed of this post said "Right Bank" instead of "Rive Gauche." I was confused until I followed the link to the original post. How does that even happen? Weird.

Anonymous said...

The spaces didn't work be cause they lack any semblance of humanity. Why would anyone in Paris venture underground to a lifeless place that could easily be North Korea?

The Paris Chronicles said...

What a terrific post! Perhaps the fact that Parisians remain more of a "marche" culture than a "mall" culture has something to do with the demise of these spaces. Even their grands magasins are more "market stall" than "department stor"e (in the American sense of the word), with discrete groupings of stands under one roof rather than a flow between goods from one section to another.

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