This project has been made possible by a grant from the Creative Arts Council of Brown University.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why arcade?

Why the arcade? 
The Westminster Arcade, sometimes called the Providence Arcade, is one of the most striking buildings in downtown Providence. It connects Westminster and Weybosset Streets, two streets at the heart of downtown, and features two imposing neoclassical facades, complete with porticoes and Ionic columns. But part of the reason for its striking quality today is that is stands unused and empty- a characteristic that captured my attention. Over the last half a century or so, the arcade has changed hands many times as various owners sought to save it from demolition, or attempted to keep it financially viable. Its current empty state is the result of development plans: in 2008 remaining tenants were forced out to allow for the construction of a residential tower on the adjacent lot (as a result of the economic collapse, the tower was never built, and both the Arcade and the adjacent lot remain empty). Clearly there are politics at play with the Arcade, but I am less interested in these than in looking at the building as a complex tangle of meaning and the site of many activities over the years.

Why an arcade? 
The name of this project is an intentional reference to Walter Benjamin's magnum opus, The Arcades Project (the German title is Das Passagen-werk). It is a work that has influenced and clarified a lot of my research, as it deals with the experience of urban space, and the relationships between physical, material spaces and psychological, emotional, and imaginative spaces. 
As a very brief introduction, Benjamin, who was an intellectual presence between the first and second world wars, is one of the most influential figures in Western intellectual history. In The Arcades Project, Benjamin focuses on the arcades of 19th century Paris, and approaches the architectural phenomenon of the arcade as a way of digging into the social and cultural psyche of nineteenth century Western Europe. The arcades become a way for Benjamin to provide reflections on cultural trends and phenomena such as the growth of commodity culture, the vision of urban utopias, and the construction of historical narratives. But perhaps one of the most prominent (or at least most relevant for my interests) is his focus on the experience of urban space, which he sees as intimately connected to ideas of trace, memory, and material change.
The reference to Benjamin's work is a nod to his influence on my thinking (as well as on the larger trajectory of twentieth century Western scholarship) and an acknowledgement of Benjamin's role in defining the symbolic importance and associations that arcades hold.

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