THE PLACE DU CAIRE is a triangular Parisian square at the northern end of the 2nd arrondissement. Flanked by rue d’Aboukir and rue du Caire, place du Caire lies in the heart of an area of Paris known as a multicultural textile and garment manufacturing district and more recently, home to many Internet start-up companies.
Along with the Passage du Caire, one of the oldest Parisian passages couverts, the place du Caire dates from 1798. Both the Passage du Caire and place du Caire take their name from the Egyptian capital, Cairo, a place much in vogue at the time as Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798 – 1801) was unfolding. As well as the military objectives of defending French trade interests and weakening Britain’s access to India, Napoleon also took a group of scientists with him to establish scientific enterprise in the region. The scientists began to describe and illustrate the country’s natural resources and cultural heritage, from the geology, flora and fauna to the various ancient structures. This gave rise to a fascination with all things Egyptian, a fascination that manifested itself on the streets of Paris.
The oriental influence was reflected in some of the street names, rue du Caire, rue d’Aboukir and rue du Nil for example, but also in architecture. One example of this is the neo-Egyptian building in place du Caire.
It was built in 1799 and the large heads ornamenting the façade represent the goddess Hathor, who personified the principles of joy, feminine love, and motherhood. Above Hathor is an Egyptian inspired decorative frieze and vaguely Moorish arched trefoil windows.
Maison de style néo-égyptien sur la place du Caire- Photo d’Eugène Atget, 1903
While the place du Caire unashamedly boasts its Egyptian influence there is another chapter in this Parisian square’s history that is less obvious.
In medieval Paris a large portion of the population relied on begging for survival. Since begging was a competitive business, those with the most severe handicaps could expect more alms. It was therefore quite common for beggars to fake unsightly infirmities, injuries or dieseases. Once their day’s work was done, the beggars would return to their slums where miraculously the blind could see again and the crippled walk. This phenomenon gave the generic name to these areas where so many ‘miracles’ occurred every day: the cour des miracles, the courtyard of miracles.
The cour des miracles as imagined by Gustave Doré in an illustration to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Referring to the cour des miracles in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pierre Gringoire, the struggling playwright and philosopher says, “Miracles, upon my soul! Here the blind see, and the lame run.”
The cour des miracles were the haunts of thieves, beggars, prostitutes, pimps and other marginalised people. In Paris there were a dozen of them, the most famous of which was in the Sentier district between place du Caire and rue Réaumur. This is the cour des miracles Victor Hugo was referring to.
Hugo’s cour des miracles consisted of three interconnected courtyards, the main one being the loop formed by the rue de Damiette and rue des Forges. It was accessed by the present day rue du Nil, or by an alley, now disappeared, at 100 rue Réaumur.
N°100 rue Réaumur – once an entrance to the cour des miracles du Sentier,
Work to clean up the cour des miracles began in 1667 when Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, holder of the new office of Lieutenant General of Police, was charged with curbing the growth of crime but it wasn’t until 1750, when some of the slums were demolished and more respectable trades like blacksmiths and fishmongers moved in that improvement began. The last vestiges of the old cour des miracles were eliminated with the Haussmannisation of the area in the 19th century.
Listening to and recording the sounds of Paris is my way of exploring the city. The sounds invariably arouse my curiosity about the social and cultural history of the places in which they occur. It was listening to the sounds in the place du Caire for example that led me to discover the Egyptian connection and the history of the cour des miracles.
But as well as opening a window on the social and cultural historical connections, for me at least the sounds of a place have an absolute value in their own right. Listened to attentively, sounds can paint a picture of and tell a story about a place.
So what does the place du Caire sound like?
Today, the place du Caire still has its share of mendicants but no more than many other areas of the city. On a normal working day it’s a hustling, bustling, multi-cultural part of the city with people going about their every day business.
Sounds in the place du Caire on a normal working day:
So, is this what the place du Caire sounds like?
Well, yes it is – at least some of the time. But there are times when it sounds completely different, when the sounds have a different story to tell.
More sounds in the place du Caire:
I recorded these sounds last Monday, a public holiday in France, when all the boutiques and the passage du Caire were closed. In this different atmosphere all the sounds usually subsumed by the more aggressive sounds of a normal working day are now free to take centre stage.
The piece begins with the sound of a man with an artificial leg walking by; not a refugee from the former cour des miracles but a middle-aged man out for a stroll with his wife. A mendicant wearing sandals approaches me but then thinks better of it. The normally drowned out sounds of pigeons cooing can clearly be heard. The sound of passing two-wheelers fuelled by testosterone is inevitable. The most characteristic sounds are those very familiar to Parisian apartment dwellers like me – the sounds of an apartment gardien on one side and a gardienne on the other bringing out the refuse bins and lining them up on the trottoir ready for collection later in the day. There is even the sound of a lady, under the gaze of Olivier Brice’s ‘L’Homme au Bras Leve’, walking her cat on a leash.
For those just passing through the place du Caire, the sounds to be found there on a normal working day will perhaps be the most familiar. But I hope I have shown that these sounds don’t represent everything the place du Caire has to say.
THE PASSAGE DU PONCEAU may not be the oldest, the largest or the most elegant of the nineteenth century passages couverts in Paris but at least it has survived. Of the one hundred and fifty original passages couverts built, only twenty now remain and I’ve been to all of them to record and archive their contemporary soundscapes for my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
Built as an extension to the neighbouring Passage du Caire in the 2nd arrondissement, the Passage du Ponceau was opened in 1826.
Entrance to the Passage du Ponceau in rue Saint-Denis
Originally intended to link rue Saint-Denis to rue du Ponceau, the length of the passage was reduced in 1854 to make way for the new boulevard Sébastopol.
Entrance to the Passage du Ponceau in boulevard Sébastopol
At ninety metres long and just two-and-a-half metres wide, the Passage du Ponceau is a narrow passage comprising two floors under a glass roof. Little remains of the original decoration save for the upper reaches of the façades and some of the mouldings.
We know that two of the original tenants to occupy the Passage du Ponceau were a wine merchant and a coal merchant but no evidence of their presence survives. Today, the passage is mainly occupied by clothing and media enterprises: it is after all in the heart of the multicultural textile and garment district, which has increasingly become home to many Internet start-up companies.
Sounds in the Passage du Ponceau:
The Passage du Ponceau fell into decline in the second half of the nineteenth century. As the railways became established, the nearby stagecoach terminus, always a ready source of custom, closed and this, together with the arrival of the new department stores heralding a retail revolution, meant that the days of the Parisian passages couverts were numbered. As the French writer and journalist, Alfred Delvau noted in 1867, “Life has withdrawn to go elsewhere on the boulevards.”
And yet, twenty of the original Parisian passages couverts, including the Passage du Ponceau, have survived – even though they may not now be, as the 1852 edition of the Illustrated Guide to Paris said, “ a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need.”
USUALLY REFERRED TO simply as ‘Trinité’, the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, a Roman Catholic church in Paris’ 9th arrondissement, was built during the Second Empire as part of Baron Eugène Haussmann’s modernisation of nineteenth century Paris.
Église de la Sainte-Trinité from Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin
Designed by the French architect Théodore Ballu, construction of the Church began in 1861 and was completed in 1867.
The church’s façade was inspired by the Italian Renaissance although the bell tower and dome bear distinctive marks of the French Renaissance.
At the four corners on top of the façade, the four cardinal virtues are depicted: Justice, Temperance, Prudence and Fortitude. Crowning the bell tower are the four evangelists accompanied by their symbols: Saint John (the eagle), Saint Matthew (the angel), Saint Mark (the lion) and Saint Luke (the ox).
Further down, the number three is a recurrent theme: three triple-basined fountains (temporarily out of action due to construction work), surmounted by three statues sculpted by Eugène-Louis Lequesne embodying the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity.
The Église de la Sainte-Trinité is a big church. At 90 metres long and 34 metres wide, with the tip of the dome standing 63 metres high, the sense of size is enhanced inside the church where the roof of the chancel rises to some 30 metres.
Trinité boasts two Cavaillé-Coll organs. The smaller of the two, the Orgue de Choeur or chancel organ, is a two manual (plus pedals), fifteen rank, fifteen stop mechanical key and stop organ.
The Orgue de Choeur
The larger organ, the Orgue de Tribune or gallery organ, was built between 1868 and 1869. It is a three manual (plus pedals), eighty-two rank, sixty-stop organ, which today has an electric key and stop action.
The Orgue de Tribune
The large, gallery organ has been renovated extensively and expanded over the decades.
The original organ was badly damaged during the Paris Commune of 1871 after which Cavaillé-Coll had to reconstruct it.
In 1901, the organ builder Joseph Merklin carried out some restoration work and made some tonal changes.
In 1930, perhaps the church’s most celebrated organist, Olivier Messiaen, was appointed. He would hold the post of titular organist for 61 years from 1930 to 1992. Early in his tenure, a second restoration was carried out by the organ-building firm Pleyel-Cavaillé-Coll. On completion of this work the organ was re-inaugurated with a recital by Marcel Dupré and his former student, Olivier Messiaen.
From 1962 to 1967, the organ builders, Beuchet-Debierre, carried out a third restoration.
Towards the end of his tenure as titular organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinite, Olivier Messiaen had this to say about the magnificent gallery organ:
“As it stands now, the St. Trinité instrument is a masterpiece. The original stops by Cavaillé-Coll have been preserved and I have personally insisted on the fact that these stops should retain their wonderful original voice. The various stops added during the restoration works considerably enrich the instrument with mixtures (pleins jeux, nasards, tierces) and a complete battery of reeds. The electrification and the addition of general combinations result in faster response and more frequent and more varied changes of colours. Nevertheless, the most beautiful voices remain those of Cavaillé-Coll: the montres, the flutes, the very powerful reeds, the extraordinary Basson 16′ and the wonderful Quintaton 16′ on the Positif: they were all designed and built by Cavaillé-Coll … I have never heard, anywhere in the world, a sound of such quality.”
Despite the twentieth century modifications to the gallery organ, it is easy to imagine its late nineteenth century voice echoing through Sainte-Trinité at the funerals of Hector Berlioz and Georges Bizet, both of which took place in this church.
Sadly, on my visit to the church I wasn’t able to record the sounds of the Cavaillé-Coll organ but I did nevertheless capture the sound of music. It wasn’t the sound of conventional organ and choral music from the nave of the church but more contemporary music I found below, in the crypt.
The crypt below the chapel of the Blessed Virgin
Sounds from the crypt of the Église de la Sainte-Trinité:
In the crypt I discovered a service taking place with the celebrants mainly, but not exclusively, African. It made a refreshing change from the rigid conformity that usually takes place in the conventional catholic services held in the nave above.
I think Olivier Messiaen would approve.
IN 2014, I MARKED International Women’s Day on this blog with a visit to the Marie Curie Museum in the 5th arrondissement to see an exhibition in the museum garden of photographic portraits celebrating the careers of prominent women, past and present, who worked or who are currently working in the fields of science and medicine. You can see my report on the exhibition here.
To mark International Women’s Day in 2015 I recorded a women’s march in Paris, the Marche Mondiale des Femmes, which you can see here.
For some reason that escapes me, I didn’t mark International Women’s Day last year so I thought I ought to make up for that lapse by coming up with something for this year.
International Women’s Day 2017 was yesterday, 8th March, and I spent the afternoon in the 1st arrondissement here in Paris. It’s a neighbourhood I pass through frequently but, although it’s one of the most exclusive and opulent parts of the city, it’s by no means my favourite part. I’m rather like the man in Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ – I don’t care much ‘for high-tone places’.
Still, the 1st arrondissement did set me thinking about International Women’s day.
The Ritz Hotel, Place Vendôme, 1st Arrondissement, Paris
Apart from the Musée du Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries, the 1st arrondissement is perhaps best known for the Place Vendôme. With it’s Ritz Hotel, it’s elegant Hôtels particuliers and establishments like Boucheron, Chaumet, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Cartier, some of the world’s finest jewellery houses, the Place Vendôme attracts a regular clientele of European royals, Middle Eastern sheikhs and billionaires from all over the world. Undoubtedly, it’s one of Nina Simone’s ‘high-tone’ places.
A few steps away from the Place Vendôme though is another street, much less elegant and opulent but a street I know well: Rue Danielle Casanova.
Originally known as rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, the street dates back to the early seventeenth century when it was then part of the rue des Petits-Champs. It acquired the name Danielle Casanova in December 1944.
The street is named in honour of Danielle Casanova, a militant communist, a tireless activist, a member of the French resistance and a remarkable woman.
Danielle trained as a dentist in Paris and in 1928 joined the Communist Youth movement eventually becoming a member of its Central Committee. In 1936, she became the first president of L’Union des jeunes filles de France (UJFF).
The UJFF was founded partly as a response to the resentment of young communist militants who had little responsibility within the then young French Communist Movement, and partly as a way for the French Communist Party (PCF) to recruit young female members.
Danielle and the other founders of the organisation wanted to focus on issues related to all areas of gender equality: work (referring in particular to the difficulties encountered by Marie Curie in her career), education and leisure. They emphasised the double discrimination of women from the working class due to both gender and social background. The UJFF supported the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, participating in demonstrations of support and welcoming refugee children from Spain.
After the fall of France in 1940, the French Communist Party and its related organisations were banned and Danielle went into hiding. Working underground, she helped set up women’s committees in the Paris region, she wrote for the underground press, especially Pensée Libre (“Free Thought”) and she founded la Voix des Femmes (“Women’s Voice”). She also helped organise resistance against the occupying forces,
French Police arrested Danielle on 15 February 1942 and she was transported to Auschwitz where she worked in the camp infirmary as a dentist. While in Auschwitz, she continued campaigning and organising clandestine publications and events. She died of typhus on 9th May 1943.
Danielle Casanova was a heroine of the women’s movement and the French Resistance and she has lent her name to streets, schools, and colleges throughout France.
Rue Danielle Casanova:
And I might have left my contribution to International Women’s Day there had I not called into the Café Bourbon in rue Danielle Casanova.
After living in Paris for the past eighteen years I know the 1st arrondissement reasonably well, although I don’t claim to know every nook and cranny. So while sitting in the café with time on my hands, I launched Google Maps to see if there were any streets I had yet to explore … and what I found was astonishing.
The 1st arrondissement is the least populated of the city’s twenty arrondissements and one of the smallest by area and yet I discovered that it contains 182 streets.
Paris streets are mostly named after people, professions, places or events so, since it was International Women’s Day, I decided to count up how many of those streets were named after women.
Out of the 182 streets in the 1st arrondissement, just SEVEN are named after women:
Place Colette: Named after Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, (1873–1954) a French novelist nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
Place Marguerite-de-Navarre: (1492-1549), sister of King François Ist
Rue Sainte-Anne: Anne of Austria (1601–1666), queen consort of France and Navarre, regent for her son, Louis XIV of France, and a Spanish and Portuguese Infanta by birth.
Rue Thérèse: Marie-Thérèse (1638-1683), wife of Louis XIV
Passage de la Reine-de-Hongrie: Named after a merchant from the neighbouring Les Halles, Julie Bécheur, who lived in the late eighteenth century. She was said to resemble the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, queen of Hungary (and of Bohemia).
Avenue Victoria: Named after the British Queen Victoria who paid a visit to the nearby Hôtel de Ville in 1855.
And of course:
Rue Danielle Casanova:
Two more streets are named after exclusively female professions:
Rue des Lavandières-Sainte-Opportune: – the washerwomen
Rue de la Lingerie: – the seamstresses
In fact, to be precise, there are only six-and-a-half streets named after women in the 1st arrondissement rather than seven. The Rue Danielle Casanova is bisected by the boundary of the 1st and 2nd arrondissements so half the street is in the 1st and, as can be seen by the sign below, the other half is in the 2nd.
It seems that, despite having a female Mayor, the Paris City authorities still have more work to do on the gender equality of Parisian street names.
OVER TWO WEEKS BETWEEN late May and early June around half a million people will make their way to the red clay courts of the Stade Roland Garros at the southern end of the Bois de Boulogne to watch the French Open tennis championships.
The French Open is the premier clay-court tennis championship event in the world and the second of four annual Grand Slam tournaments, the others being the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.
This year, the tournament takes place between 22nd May and 11th June during which time the French Tennis Federation (Fédération Française de Tennis) will accrue approximately €200 million in revenue of which around €30 million will be given away as prize money.
The Stade Roland Garros was constructed in 1928 to host France’s first defence of the Davis Cup. It takes its name from the pioneering aviator, engineer and World War I fighter ‘ace’, Roland Georges Garros who, amongst many other things, completed the first solo flight across the Mediterranean Sea.
Stade Roland Garros is a 21-acre (8.5-hectare) complex containing twenty tennis courts, including three large-capacity stadiums: the Court Philippe Chatrier, the principal court seating almost 15,000 spectators, the Court Suzanne Lenglen, seating 10,000 spectators, and Court 1, seating 4,000 spectators.
Across the leafy Avenue Gordon Bennett, directly opposite the Stade Roland Garros, is another space almost comparable in size, the 18-acre (7.2-hectare) Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, which, along with the Parc de Bagatelle, the Parc floral de Paris, and the Arboretum de l’École du Breuil, make up the Jardin botanique de la Ville de Paris, a collection of four gardens maintained by the city each with their own history and architectural and botanical heritage.
The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil was created in 1761 under Louis XV and is arranged around a parterre in the traditional French style. The main greenhouses, designed and constructed between 1895-1898 by the architect Jean-Camille Formigé, were constructed around this central area.
Among the botanical collection are many varieties of plants including azaleas, orchids, begonias, cactus, ferns and some carnivorous plants. There is also a palm house and an aviary with tropical birds.
The Grande Serre, the largest tropical greenhouse in the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil
While most long-term next door neighbours cohabit relatively peacefully, conflict can sometimes break out.
After living harmoniously next to each other for almost ninety years, the Stade Roland Garros through its proprietor, the Fédération Française de Tennis, has been locked in conflict over several years with the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil over a plan to extend the Stade Roland Garros into the historic garden.
The Stade Roland Garros is falling behind its Open championship competitors, Melbourne Park in Australia, Flushing Meadows in the United States and Wimbledon in the United Kingdom, in terms of the space and facilities required to stage a Grand Slam tournament. In order to compete and to satisfy the International Tennis Federation, the governing body of world tennis, and to satiate the inexhaustible appetites of the corporate sponsors and the media, the Stade Roland Garros has to improve its offer or risk losing its prestigious Grand Slam status.
Stade Roland Garros, Court 1, across the Avenue Gordon Bennett from the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil
In 2009 a significant expansion of the Stade Roland Garros was proposed, which included the addition of lights and a retractable roof over the Court Philippe Chatrier. The proposal also called for a new, fourth stadium with a retractable roof and 14,600 seating capacity, along with two smaller courts with seating for 1,500 and 750 to be built at the nearby Georges Hébert municipal recreation area, east of Roland Garros at Porte d’Auteuil. Factions within the Paris City Council scuppered this proposal.
This was followed a scheme to move the French Open to a completely new, fifty-five-court venue outside the Paris city limits but the Fédération Française de Tennis scuppered that.
In May 2013, the Fédération Française de Tennis announced a proposal to completely rebuild the Court Philippe Chatrier on its existing foundations with the addition of a new roof and lights, together with the demolition of Court 1. To replace the demolished court the proposal called for a 5,000-seat, semi-sunken stadium to be built in the southeast corner of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.
Here are two photographs I took from a Fédération Française de Tennis publicity banner showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ effect of their proposed invasion of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.
Maybe it’s just me, but the caption in the picture above: Près des serres historiques, un merveilleux geste architectural contribuant au renouveau du jardin botanique de ville de Paris (Near the historic greenhouses, a wonderful architectural gesture contributing to the revival of the botanical garden of the City of Paris), seems to stretch publicity propaganda to the absolute limit – or maybe we have just become so brainwashed that we simply accept ‘alternative facts’ as the norm these days.
The sad thing is that these ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures are no longer just publicity propoganda – they are now a reality.
Nine greenhouses were demolished to create this building site
Local residents, municipal authorities, garden and wildlife enthusiasts and others have vigorously opposed the plan to extend the Stade Roland Garros into the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil. They even came up with a credible alternative scheme, which seemed to gain traction for a time, and they have fought several expensive court cases to try to thwart the ambitions of the Fédération Française de Tennis. But it was the the announcement of the bid by the City of Paris to host the Olympic Games in 2024 that probably sealed the fate of the garden. Integral to the Paris Olympic bid is the new, expanded, Stade Roland Garros.
Earlier this month, on the 2nd February, the Tribunal administratif de Paris rejected an appeal against the construction permits previously authorised by the Mayor of Paris and, as a result, the final the green light was given for both the reconstruction of the Court Philippe Chatrier and ‘la construction d’un court de tennis sur une parcelle dans le Jardin des serres d’Auteuil, dans le Bois de Boulogne’. You can read the court’s judgement here.
More publicity from the Fédération Française de Tennis
In one of my previous posts I referred to the development in the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil and how the soundscape would inevitably change as a result. Well, this is today’s soundscape in this once idyllic garden.
Digging for Profit:
Of course, developments like this are nothing new, Paris is littered with places revered today built on the ruins of places revered by previous generations. So why should we care about the destruction of some old greenhouses containing a few potted plants when the alternative is a spanking new tennis stadium helping to secure a prestigious Grand Slam tennis tournament in the city and the possibility of hosting the Olympic Games?
I suppose some ‘suit’ somewhere has done the calculation: the cost-benefit analysis of keeping or losing a Grand Slam tournament, appeasing corporate sponsors, gaining or losing an Olympic bid, the prestige to the city, the country and of course, to the politicians. It will also be blindingly obvious to our ‘suit’ that there is no long-term monetary cost at all to disfiguring the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil. After all, a single ticket to the French Open costs between €55 and €2,200 depending on which day and which package you choose (and will no doubt increase substantially when the new facilities are opened) whereas entry to the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil is currently free. And as a bonus, we will close the entire garden to the general public for the duration of the French Open tournament and reserve it exclusively for our paying customers. What’s not to like?
And when it comes down to it, that’s the problem. Costs are easily measured whereas value is intangible and elusive.
How do you compare the value of an 18th century garden, its original 19th century architectural features and its horticultural collection, not to mention the pleasure it gives to those who visit it, to the money making machine that is the Stade Roland Garros and the French Open tennis championships? Does one have greater value than the other? Should the lust for prestige and profit defeat the preservation of heritage?
And to argue, as some do, that only a part of the garden is affected so it doesn’t matter all that much, is akin to arguing that someone is just ‘a little bit pregnant’!
Whatever we might think about this garden and the development taking place there, it seems that the Fédération Française de Tennis, assisted by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and the courts have served an unplayable ace and the umpire has finally called ‘Game, Set and Match’!
RETURNING FROM A recording assignment in the 7th arrondissement the other day, I called into the nearest Métro station, Assemblée Nationale, to catch a train home. Faced with a choice of two entrances to the station I couldn’t resist using the elegant Hector Guimard entourage entrance with its classic red METROPOLITAIN sign, distinctive of the former Nord-Sud line, instead of the rather plain entrance across the street.
The station was opened on 5th November 1910 as part of the original section of the Nord-Sud Company’s line between Porte de Versailles and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. The Nord-Sud Company (Société du Chemin de Fer Électrique Nord-Sud de Paris) was established in 1904 and built two underground lines, now line 12 and part of line 13. The company was taken over by the Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris (CMP) in 1930 and incorporated into the Paris Métro.
The station was originally called Chambre des Députés, the former name of the French National Assembly, a name the station held until 1989 when it became Assemblée Nationale.
Both the original and the current name of the station of course derive from the Palais Bourbon, the seat of the French National Assembly, the lower legislative chamber of the French parliament, which stands close by.
The Palais Bourbon – The Assemblée Nationale
The identifying feature of Métro station Assemblée Nationale is that there are no advertisements anywhere in the station. Instead, the walls sport ninety-metre long murals featuring various aspects of the work of the National Assembly. The murals are changed with each renewal of the legislature.
Both the Palais Bourbon and the Hector Guimard métro station entrance are located in Faubourg Saint-Germain, an aristocratic neighbourhood bristling with government ministries and foreign diplomatic embassies and it was from here that I descended into the station. Once on the platform, I paused to examine the murals and listen to the sounds in the station before boarding a train to take me home.
This is what I saw and heard:
The Métro Station Assembléé Nationale and its Sounds:
ALTHOUGH PERHAPS NOT quite yet an obsession, searching for quiet in the busy, traffic strewn city of Paris has become a major preoccupation for me, even though it is a Sisyphean task since quiet is a rare commodity in the Parisian soundscape.
Just to be clear, for me quiet isn’t necessarily the absence of noise, but rather a state where individual sounds, which are always there but usually shrouded in a cloak of more aggressive, often unwelcome sounds, are allowed to speak and tell their own story.
Aggressive and unwelcome sounds can be found in abundance at any of the major road intersections in Paris, intersections like Place de la Bastille for example, which straddles the 4th, 11th and 12th arrondissements. Seven roads converge here, each spewing a toxic ribbon of traffic around the 1830 July Column.
One might be forgiven for thinking that amidst the cacophonous noise pollution around Place de la Bastille quiet might be elusive, but it can be found if one searches diligently.
One of the streets leading from Place de la Bastille is Rue de la Roquette, a seventeenth century street once home to the French poet Paul Verlaine, the dramatist Michel-Jean Sedaine, the historian Jules Michelet and, for a time in the 1980s, the celebrity chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay. At N°2 Rue de la Roquette is a seventeenth century archway leading into the Passage du Cheval Blanc.
Once home to timber warehouses supplying the cabinetmakers and furniture manufacturers close by, today the Passage du Cheval Blanc comprises a labyrinth of individual passageways and courtyards housing small businesses from the Maison Lucien Gau, specialising in the creation, conservation and restoration of lighting and bronze art objects, to architects’ offices and design studios as well as the studios of the radio station Oui FM.
Maison Lucien Gau
Walking from Place de la Bastille through the seventeenth century archway into the Passage du Cheval Blanc the atmosphere changes: the cacophony of Place de la Bastille gradually fades giving way to the indigenous sounds of the passage itself and a calming quietness.
Sounds inside the Passage du Cheval Blanc:
A distinguishing feature of the Passage du Cheval Blanc is that each of the interior passageways is named after a month of the year from January to June.
April – It’s not actually a passageway but a staircase
The sound piece above is my soundwalk from January to June and back to January again.
I have long held the view that constant, aggressive and unwelcome sounds are just as polluting and damaging to our health as the other sources that pollute our atmosphere with a plethora of toxic emissions. Walking through the Passage du Cheval Blanc, I couldn’t help thinking about how the mainly young, creative people who work here must profit from the absence of aggressive, unwelcome sounds.
TRAWLING THROUGH MY Twitter feed the other day I came upon this photograph by Eugène Atget made in 1898 entitled ‘La Place Saint-Médard’.
La Place Saint-Médard by Eugène Atget 1898
The original photograph is an 18.1 x 21.9 cm albumen print created from a finely divided silver and gold image dispersed in a matrix of egg white. Albumen prints were the most common photographic printing process from 1855 until around the turn of the nineteenth century.
This Atget image chimes with me because I know this area of Paris particularly well, but when I saw the photograph I was struck by two things: First, the title, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’, and second, what did this place sound like in 1898?
The title of the photograph, ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ is curious because that name does not exist in this spot today and, so far as I know, it never has. I can quite see why Eugène Atget might have thought that the space he photographed bore that name: It is at the foot of rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris dating back to Roman times and it is adjacent to the Eglise Saint-Médard whose origins date back to the 7th century. The space that Atget photographed does have the attributes of a typical Parisian ‘Place’ but as far as I can establish it is, and in Atget’s time was, part of rue Mouffetard.
Eugène Atget’s ‘La Place Saint-Médard’ on December 24th 2016
So what did Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ sound like in 1898?
Thanks to his large-format wooden bellows camera, rapid rectilinear lens and glass plates we know what Atget saw as he stood in this place but we have no record of what he actually heard.
And that’s not surprising because for most of our history we have used artefacts, architecture, pictures and words to create a vision of our past. It’s only in the last few seconds on our historical clock that we’ve been able to capture and archive sound, which means that almost all our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded.
We could create a late nineteenth century soundscape of this place from our imagination of course and we might not be too wide of the mark, but we cannot create the actual sounds in that place on that day.
I admire enormously Eugène Atget’s painstaking documentation of a nineteenth-century Paris undergoing great change and I consider it a great privilege to follow in his footsteps documenting contemporary Paris in sound.
Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’ – Recorded on December 24th 2016:
A Christmas Eve queue for the boulangerie close to Eugène Atget’s ‘Place Saint-Médard’
ONE OF THE ADVANTAGES of living in the west of Paris is the proximity of the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park located along the western edge of the 16th arrondissement. Covering an area of 845 hectares (2,090 acres), the Bois de Boulogne is, after the Bois de Vincennes in the east of Paris, the second largest public park in Paris.
From my home it takes me a little over ten minutes to walk to the northern edge of the Bois de Boulogne and the Mere de Saint-James, once a sand and gravel quarry but now a lake with two islands, which are a sanctuary for birds and small animals. The Mere de Saint-James is one of several lakes in the park.
The Mere de Saint-James
Today’s Bois de Boulogne was originally an ancient oak forest, the Forêt de Rouvray, where French monarchs from Dagobert, the King of the Franks in the seventh century, to Louis XVI in the eighteenth century came to hunt bears, deer, and other game.
The landscape of what is now the Bois de Boulogne has changed considerably since the time of Dagobert and Louis XVI. The Hundred Years War ravaged the forest in the fifteenth century and then thousands of trees were cut down for firewood and to build shelters when 40,000 soldiers of the British and Russian armies camped in the forest following the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1814, leaving an assortment of bleak ruined meadows, tree stumps and dismal stagnant ponds.
When Napoléon III elevated himself from President of the French Republic to Emperor of the French in 1852, one of his schemes was to create two large public parks on the eastern and western edges of the city where both the rich and the ordinary people could enjoy themselves. Under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man responsible for executing most of Napoléon III’s schemes, the French engineer, Jean-Charles Alphand was engaged to turn the bleak remains of the military occupation into the Bois de Boulogne, an undulating landscape of lakes, hills, islands, groves, lawns, and grassy slopes – an idealisation of nature.
And Alphand’s Bois de Boulogne might have been what we see today had it not been for the ‘storm of the century’, the memorable hurricane of 1999. I remember it well!
In the early hours of 26th December 1999 hurricane force winds whipped across France causing immense damage. A ten-minute walk from my home, some 40% of the surface of the Bois de Boulogne was completely devastated with the wind felling around ten thousand trees.
Thanks to prompt action by the Paris City Council oak trees now cover about 50% of what was once the Forêt de Rouvray and cedars, plane trees, ginkgo-bilobas and countless other species share the rest.
As for the wildlife: well, the bears, deer and the other game that Dagobert and his successors hunted with such relish no longer wander amidst the present day oaks. Today, if you can set aside the ever-present noise pollution drifting in on the wind, you might be lucky enough to see and hear a variety of birds; woodpeckers, chiffchaffs, nuthatches and goldcrests along with wrens, robins, blackbirds, wood pigeons and thrushes. The keen-eyed might even spot the occasional sparrowhawk or kestrel passing overhead.
Standing beside the lakes in the Bois de Boulogne though one is almost guaranteed to see and hear a variety of waterfowl. When I went to the Mere de Saint-James the other day I was able record the cacophony of mallard ducks, moorhens, geese and mute swans.
Sounds of the waterfowl in the Bois de Boulogne:
Spending as much time as I do recording and archiving the urban soundscapes of Paris, the sounds of the human species in the Parisian streets, I relish the chance to record wildlife sounds in the urban environment when I can. Sadly, the opportunity doesn’t come along all that often so when it does, I make the most of it.