hidden europe 18

Temples of pleasure

by Nicky Gardner


Many modern shopping centres are parodies of the elegant glazed arcades that were, in many nineteenth-century European cities, focal points for shopping and relaxation. From Brussels to Milan, Cardiff to Genoa the arcaded gallery became a byword for style. Many of the best still survive.

If you are a regular reader of hidden europe, you will surely have noticed that we rather like town squares - at their best they are an architectural gesture that underpins a very civilised urbanity. Yet there is another feature of the European cityscape that also makes a handsome contribution to any urban space. And that is the arcaded gallery, ideally topped out in glass and, at its best, full of decent cafés, second-hand bookshops and access to a cinema or theatre. One such is the Galeries Royales St Hubert in Brussels, a superb covered shopping area with a vaulted glass roof that lifts the soul. It dates from 1847.

One of Europe's first such covered areas was the Galéries de Bois, which opened in Paris in 1789. They were part of the Palais Royal complex. That early adventure in arcade shopping and entertainment didn't impress the French writer Honoré de Balzac (see quote top right), who dismissed the entire affair as "un bazar ignoble". Writing a few years later, Émile Zola shared Balzac's contempt for arcaded shopping areas. "The Passage du Pont Neuf is no place to wander for fun", Zola wrote in 1867 in the journal L'artiste. "Its real value is that it avoids a detour and so you save a couple of minutes."

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