In Paris, a French tradition of urban wandering emerged around the 19th-century. For the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) his home city of Paris could only be understood by walking and exploring. He wrote about a solitary walker who ventured out into the city, yet desired to be hidden from view. His figure meandered through the streets of Paris, watching the city’s movements whilst remaining part of the crowd. Baudelaire’s independent walker came to be known as the flâneur.
“His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd. For the perfect idler, for the passionate observer it becomes an immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world”
(Baudelaire – The Painter of Modern life)
Baudelaire’s anonymous wanderer strolled though his everyday existence as if it was an art form in itself. Walking, for Baudelaire, was an important part of the artist’s creative process. It helped him to understand the city and drew his attention to the artistic potential of the everyday that adorned the city’s surfaces.
The German writer Walter Benjamin was particularly inspired by Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur, whilst making his own explorations of the city. The elegant shopping arcades, depicted in Benjamin’s writings, were the natural walking environments of Baudelaire’s flâneur. However, these enclosed glass arcades were soon to be demolished and replaced by shopping malls. The flâneur, for Benjamin, became a reminder that the wandering pedestrian was rapidly becoming redundant. The city was transforming into a large shopping centre and the flâneur was in danger of becoming just another window shopper.
As the city changed around the flâneur, the public space of the city was becoming more private, creating a void between Paris and its inhabitants. The streets were busier with traffic and the car was becoming the primary mode of transport. The walker in the city had to fight back and reclaim the city for his own. This was to be the foundational thinking for many of the subversive thinkers, surrealist walkers and psychogeographers that would emerge in the coming years. They would strive to reclaim the home of the flâneur through peripatetic experimentation.