ONE MIGHT BE FORGIVEN for thinking that exploring the sewers of Paris is rather a bizarre way to spend an afternoon. On the contrary, it’s fascinating … if a little malodorous.
Entrance to Le Musée des Égouts de Paris
The Sounds in the Boutique:
Many people have written about the sewers of Paris but few have done it better than Victor Hugo …
“Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.”
(Les Miserables, Jean Valjean; Book II, ch.I)
And then further on …
Let the reader imagine Paris lifted off like a cover, the subterranean net-work of sewers, from a bird’s eye view, will outline on the banks a species of large branch grafted on the river. On the right bank, the belt sewer will form the trunk of this branch, the secondary ducts will form the branches, and those without exit the twigs.
This figure is but a summary one and half exact, the right angle, which is the customary angle of this species of subterranean ramifications, being very rare in vegetation.
A more accurate image of this strange geometrical plan can be formed by supposing that one is viewing some eccentric oriental alphabet, as intricate as a thicket, against a background of shadows, and the misshapen letters should be welded one to another in apparent confusion, and as at haphazard, now by their angles, again by their extremities.
(Les Miserables, Jean Valjean; Book II, ch.II)
The ‘belt sewer’ to which Hugo refers was built on the Right Bank of la Seine in the time of Louis XIV but the Left Bank was not so lucky, there the river Biévre was used as their sewer.
Pierre Emmanuel Bruneseau was the Inspector of Works for the City of Paris and in 1805 he set about exploring and mapping the ancient and ageing sewer system. Victor Hugo was a friend of Bruneseau and he wrote that, “Nothing could equal the horror of this old, waste crypt, the digestive apparatus of Babylon.” When he finished the work in 1812 Bruneseau he was hailed as “intrepid” and the “Christopher Columbus of the cess-pool”.
The Sounds in the Galerie Bruneseau:
By the middle of the nineteenth-century, Baron Haussmann was not only transforming Second Empire Paris above ground, his reach had also extended below ground. In March 1855 he appointed Eugène Belgrand, a French engineer, as Director of Water and Sewers of Paris.
Belgrand embarked on an ambitious project. The tunnels he designed were intended to be clean, easily accessible, and substantially larger than the previous Parisian underground. Under his guidance, Paris’s sewer system expanded fourfold between 1852 and 1869. He also addressed the city’s fresh water needs, constructing a system of aqueducts that nearly doubled the amount of water available per person per day and quadrupled the number of homes with running water.
In recognition of his work, Belgrand’s name is one of seventy-two names engraved on the Eiffel Tower and the main gallery of le Musée des Égouts is also named after him, as is a street in Paris.
The Sounds in the Galerie Belgrand:
The Parisian sewers mirror the streets above. Each sewer “street” has its own blue and white enamel street sign and the outflow of each building is identified by its real street number.
One of the displays in the museum that attracts a great deal of attention is this giant iron ball. The sewers are regularly cleaned using spheres like this, just smaller than the system’s tunnels. The build up of water pressure behind the ball forces it through the tunnel network until it emerges somewhere downstream pushing a mass of filthy sludge.
The Parisian sewers have always fascinated tourists and they were first opened to the public during the Exposition Universelle of 1867. At that time, they stretched for 600 km underneath the city. Today, that has been extended to 2,100 km. Every day, 1.2 million cubic metres of water pass through the system. The sewer system not only handles drinkable and non-drinkable water but it’s also home to telecommunication cables and traffic-light management cables.
It’s worth remembering that this section of the Paris sewers may be a museum but it’s also a working sewer and the dominant sounds of the museum are the sounds of sewage water passing under one’s feet!
Perhaps Victor Hugo should have the last word …
The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else. In that livid spot there are shades, but there are no longer any secrets. Each thing bears its true form, or at least, its definitive form. The mass of filth has this in its favour, that it is not a liar. Ingenuousness has taken refuge there. The mask of Basil is to be found there, but one beholds its cardboard and its strings and the inside as well as the outside, and it is accentuated by honest mud. Scapin’s false nose is its next-door neighbour. All the uncleannesses of civilization, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth, where the immense social sliding ends. They are there engulfed, but they display themselves there. This mixture is a confession. There, no more false appearances, no plastering over is possible, filth removes its shirt, absolute denudation puts to the rout all illusions and mirages, there is nothing more except what really exists, presenting the sinister form of that which is coming to an end. There, the bottom of a bottle indicates drunkenness, a basket-handle tells a tale of domesticity; there the core of an apple which has entertained literary opinions becomes an apple-core once more; the effigy on the big sou becomes frankly covered with verdigris, Caiphas’ spittle meets Falstaff’s puking, the louis-d’or which comes from the gaming-house jostles the nail whence hangs the rope’s end of the suicide. A livid foetus rolls along, enveloped in the spangles which danced at the Opera last Shrove-Tuesday, a cap which has pronounced judgment on men wallows beside a mass of rottenness which was formerly Margoton’s petticoat; it is more than fraternization, it is equivalent to addressing each other as thou. All which was formerly rouged is washed free. The last veil is torn away. A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.
TUCKED AWAY IN A little courtyard just off the rue de Furstenberg in the 6th arrondissement is the Musée National Eugène Delacroix or the Musée Delacroix as it’s usually known.
The museum is quite an intimate place housed as it is in what was Delacroix’s apartment where he spent the last six years of his life from December 1857 until his death in August 1863. He moved here because it was conveniently close to the Eglise Saint-Sulpice where, despite his failing health, he was working on his frescos in the Chapelle des Saints-Anges.
After Delacroix’s death, the apartment was let to various tenants until it was suggested that the studio should be demolished to make way for a garage. It was then that the Société des Amis d’Eugène Delacroix was formed to prevent the destruction of the studio and to provide for and maintain the premises and to promote Delacroix’s work. In 1952, the building was put up for sale and the society, unable to acquire the premises, gave its collection to the French State in order to secure it and to create a museum which eventually became the Eugène Delacroix National Museum.
Inside the Apartment:
Today, the Museum comprises part of Delacroix’s original apartment, his studio and a garden. We know from his journal and letters that Delacroix was happy here:
“My lodgings are decidedly charming (…). Woke up the next day to see the most delightful sunshine on the houses opposite my window. The view of my little garden and the cheerful appearance of my studio always fill me with pleasure.”
(Journal, December 28, 1857).
Inside the Studio:
Delacroix’s Studio – Inside
The Museum’s collection is displayed in both Delacroix’s apartment and in his studio and it comprises paintings, drawings, lithographs, autograph works, and some personal objects, including some magnificent souvenirs of his trip to Morocco in 1832. Some works by his friends, Paul Huet, Léon Riesener, and Richard Parkes Bonington, are also featured. The collection is regularly added to with new works acquired through the combined efforts of the Louvre and the Société des Amis du Musée Eugène-Delacroix.
Delacroix’s Studio – Inside
I made this visit to the museum on a beautiful summer’s day. There were some other people there as well but I was lucky enough to have the studio and the garden practically to myself. While sitting in the garden I could quite see why Delacroix found this such a delightful place. I walked from the garden up the wooden steps to the near empty studio and I was fascinated by the sounds and the seemingly extra loud click of my camera as I took the photographs for this blog.
The Musée Delacroix really is a delightful place and it’s well worth a visit.
What you need to know …
Musée National Eugène Delacroix : 6 rue de Furstenberg, 75006 Paris: Tél. : +33 (0)1 44 41 86 50
Getting there :
Métro : Saint-Germain-des-Prés (ligne 4), Mabillon (ligne 10)
Bus : 39, 63, 70, 86, 95, 96
The museum is open daily except Tuesday, 9:30 am to 5 pm.
Full ticket price : €5
Closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25.
ABOUT A MONTH AGO my friend Susanna (La Cosa Preziosa) told me that she had just finished reading the novel L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. She said that she’d really enjoyed the book and would love to hear a sonic exploration of its locations as they are today. That sounded like a fascinating challenge to me.
L’Assommoir (1877) is considered to be one of Zola’s masterpieces – a harsh and uncompromising study of alcoholism and poverty in the working-class districts of Paris. The novel is set in the area surrounding the Rue de la Goutte d’Or, bordered by the Boulevard Barbès and the Boulevard de la Chapelle, an area close to the Métro station Barbès-Rochechouart in the 18th arrondissement. Today, the area still has its working-class roots although the population now comprises to a large extent immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere.
The Boulevard Barbès was created in 1867 as a travaux haussmanniens, part of Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris under the Second Empire. The Boulevard Barbés is the main artery through le quartier de la Goutte d’Or, the Goutte d’Or district.
Sounds of Boulevard Barbés :
The Boulevard de la Chapelle marks the border between the 10th arrondissement and the 18th arrondissement of Paris. It corresponds in part to the Mur des Fermiers Généraux, the Farmers-General wall, which, until 1860, marked the border between the communes of Paris and La Chapelle.
Boulevard de la Chapelle
The area around the Métro Barbès-Rochechouart and the Boulevard de la Chapelle is extremely lively and resembles a huge street bazaar with a jumble of stalls and vendors selling mainly cheap clothing. On a Saturday morning a colourful food market appears under the elevated Métro line.
Boulevard de la Chapelle
In the novel, it is here in the Boulevard de la Chapelle, in the Hôtel Boncoeur, that we first encounter Gervaise Macquart as her tragic story unfolds.
Sounds of Boulevard de la Chapelle:
Boulevard de la Chapelle
And so to the Rue de la Goutte d’Or, the working-class hub around which the life of Zola’s characters rotate.
Rue de la Goutte d’Or
Since the early years of the 20th century, the Rue de la Goutte d’Or and its environs has been home to an immigrant population. The North Africans came first but the big wave of immigrants arrived in the 1950s, often to work in the automobile industry. Today, as well as the North Africans, other communities have become established including people from the West Indies and from Bulgaria.
Sounds of the Rue de la Goutte d’Or:
Rue de la Goutte d’Or
The novel l’Assomoir is essentially the story of Gervaise Macquart running away to Paris with her shiftless lover Lantier to work as a washerwoman in a hot, busy laundry in one of the seedier areas of the city. Well that seedy area was around here in the rue Neuve-de-la Goutte d’Or with its red brick washhouse reeking of steam. The Rue Neuve-de-la Goutte d’Or is now called the Rue des Islettes .
Rue des Islettes
Rue de la Goutte d’Or
Rue de la Goutte d’Or
In the middle of this North African enclave, behind an iron gate, is the Villa Poissonnière, an incongruous alleyway, which almost seems to have been placed here by mistake. This is believed to have been the property of a wine grower when this was open countryside, ideally situated on a sunny slope rolling gently to the south. In the Middle Ages the wine of the Goutte d’Or had quite a reputation. In fact, the name of the street itself comes from the particular golden colour of the white wine produced here. It was customary at the time for the City of Paris to give the king wine from the Goutte d’Or on his birthday.
Rue de la Goutte d’Or
|L’Assomoir is one of the most powerful novels in French literature due in part to the huge amount of research Zola carried out both into the language of the street but also into the actual conditions in working-class 19th-century Paris.|
And as for Gervaise …
“She sank lower day by day. As soon as she got a little money from any source whatever she drank it away at once. Her landlord decided to turn her out of the room she occupied, and as Father Bru was discovered dead one day in his den under the stairs, M. Marescot allowed her to take possession of his quarters. It was there, therefore, on the old straw bed, that she lay waiting for death to come. Apparently even Mother Earth would have none of her. She tried several times to throw herself out of the window, but death took her by bits, as it were. In fact, no one knew exactly when she died or exactly what she died of. They spoke of cold and hunger.
But the truth was she died of utter weariness of life …”
Rue de la Goutte d’Or
L’Assomoir is a novel written 135 years ago in which Emile Zola uses words to paint a vivid picture of 19th century working-class life in Paris at its darkest. Although we have contemporary visual images to support and add to Zola’s picture we have no contemporary sounds to give us a sonic perspective. We may think we know what the 19th century sounds of the quartier de la Goutte d’Or were but the fact is, we simply do not have any record of them. It is a sad truth, but most of our sonic heritage has passed by unrecorded.
The good news is that if anyone researching the location of L’Assomoir 135 years from now happens to come across this blog in some dusty electronic archive then they will at least have a contemporary account of the sounds of the quartier de la Goutte d’Or on one day in August 2012.
In the meantime I hope you enjoy them.
THE MIDDLE OF AUGUST is perhaps not the best time to go sound hunting in Paris. It’s a curious time, the weather is hot, the locals are for the most part away on holiday and many bars, restaurants and shops are closed.
I was in the 6th arrondissement on Saturday where I found this usually bustling area particularly quiet. Beyond a near empty Place Saint-Sulpice the Eglise Saint-Sulpice glistened in the summer sunshine. It’s dedicated to Sulpitius the Pious, it’s the second largest church in Paris and it’s always worth a visit so I went in.
The present church, which took one hundred and forty years to build, was completed in 1732 and it stands on the site of a much earlier, thirteenth-century Romanesque church. The present church is noted for several things; the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire were both baptised here, the church is home to a gnomon, a scientific instrument used to determine the time of the equinoxes and hence of Easter (it featured in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code), a side chapel in the church houses two murals by Eugène Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel and Heliodorus Driven from the Temple and … Saint-Sulpice houses a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ, perhaps the finest instrument of the French symphonic-organ era.
My sound hunting adventures in Paris have taken me to many places and I’ve discovered many different sounds, but few sounds affect me as much as the sounds of the organ and particularly the organs of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. On Saturday, I was able to capture the sounds of his finest creation.
The Organ of Saint-Sulpice:
Just as he did with the organ of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, Cavaillé-Coll reconstructed and improved upon the existing Saint-Sulpice organ built by François-Henri Clicquot. The instrument is reckoned to be the summit of Cavaillé-Coll’s craftsmanship and genius. The sound and musical effects achieved in this instrument are almost unparalleled.
Some world-renowned organists have played the Cavaillé-Coll organ in Saint-Sulpice; Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély was the organist from1863 to 1869 and then for the next one hundred years just two people occupied the post, two of the most illustrious names in the world of church organ music, Charles-Marie Widor from 1870 to 1933 and Marcel Dupré from 1934 to 1971.
The Organ of Saint-Sulpice:
It is largely thanks to this continuity that the organ of Saint-Sulpice has avoided the changes in taste and fashion which have ravaged so many of Cavaillé-Coll’s other creations. Appointed in 1985, Daniel Roth is the current organist assisted by Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin.
I have no idea who was playing the organ on Saturday and somehow it didn’t really seem to matter. They were practising and clearly having fun whilst I was perfectly happy to sit and simply let the rich palette of Cavaillé-Coll’s sounds wash over me.
You can hear more of the organ of Saint-Sulpice here.
THE ENTRANCE TO THE Métro at Porte Dauphine is over one hundred years old, it’s a national monument as well as a national treasure and it’s an iconic reminder of the contribution that Hector Guimard made to the Paris Métro.
Construction of the Paris Métro began in 1898 with the stretch between Porte Maillot and Porte de Vincennes linking the west to the east of the city. This, with its subsequent extensions, is what today we know as Line 1. At the same time, two other short lines were built both from Etoile station, which we know today as Charles de Gaulle – Etoile. One of these lines went south to Trocadéro where passengers could alight for the Tour Eiffel and the other went southwest to Porte Dauphine and the then fashionable Bois de Boulogne. These lines were later extended with the former becoming Line 6 and the latter Line 2.
Charles de Gaulle – Etoile to Porte Dauphine:
The French architect, Hector Guimard, was just 30 when he was engaged by Adrien Bénard, Chairman of Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Métropolitain de Paris, to design the entrances to the Paris Métro. Bénard wanted the entrances to be subtle and not to detract from the sophisticated Paris boulevards. Guimard’s devotion to the art nouveau style was a gamble but one which paid off handsomely.
Guimard’s Métro entrances were of two basic types, those with and those without glass roofs. All his entrances were built in cast iron and made heavy reference to nature and the symbolism of plants.
By far the most numerous of his entrances were the ‘entourage’ type, shown above, comprising moulded ironwork roughly waist high around three sides of the stairs with no roof. The specification for this type of entrance called for electric lighting to be included and Guimard solved this by placing two lamps on tall support poles resembling plant stems, in which the orange lamp is enclosed by a leaf resembling a brin de muguet, or sprig of lily of the valley. Guimard also included the characteristic ‘Métropolitain’ sign in his distinctive hand-drawn lettering. Interestingly, the placeholders containing the station name and map were not included in Guimard’s original design; they arrived in the 1920’s. Over 150 of these ‘entourage’ entrances were built of which over 80 survive today.
Guimard’s roofed Métro entrances were known as édicules, and they included a fan-shaped frosted glass awning and an enclosure of opaque panelling decorated in floral motifs.
The Métro entrance at Porte Dauphine is an original Édicule ‘B’ design which Guimard installed at three of the first four terminus stations, Porte Maillot, Porte de Vincennes and Porte Dauphine. The one at Porte Dauphine is the only original édicule to survive. It sits perfectly there displaying its organic forms surrounded by trees and with the enormous Bois de Boulogne close by. The panels have had some restoration and they look as good as they day they were installed.
Hector Guimard of course did not design every Métro station entrance in Paris. His art nouveau style was considered too avant-garde for some areas so, in 1904, the architect Cassien-Bernard was engaged to design a number of new station entrances in a rather austere neo-classical style. These can be found in architecturally sensitive areas including the Opéra, the Madeleine and on the Champs-Elysées.
It has always seemed a little strange to me that Porte Dauphine should be one of the terminus stations on Line 2. Surely the busy hub of Charles de Gaulle – Etoile would have been the obvious choice. However, Porte Dauphine Métro station may not be the busiest station on the Paris Métro network today but in its heyday it was one of the most fashionable and most popular. Had it not been, it would not have been graced with one of Hector Guimard’s finest creations, which today stands proud as a national monument and a national treasure.
Porte Dauphine to Charles de Gaulle – Etoile:
THE CANAL DE L’OURCQ was born in the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte. He recognised that a plentiful supply of water was a key to public health and so, in 1802, he ordered the construction of the canal to begin.
Work began well away from Paris in Picardy where the river Ourcq was canalised and construction began to bring the waters the one hundred and eight kilometres to the Basin de la Villette in the northeast of Paris. From here the Canal de l’Ourcq linked, and still links, to the Canal Saint-Denis which enters the Seine close to Saint-Denis to the north, and the Canal Saint-Martin which enters the Seine south of Place de la Bastille.
Building the Canal de l’Ourcq was not only a considerable engineering feat it was also a very smart move. On the one hand it provided a plentiful supply of water to the city but it also provided an efficient means of communication for provisioning of the city. The canal’s construction was in part funded by a tax on wine so it’s a good example of turning wine into water!
The canal is still an important source of water for the city of Paris today. It supplies about half of the daily water requirement for the city’s public works. The canal’s commercial traffic may have declined but it still exists to some degree. Working barges are still to be seen and heard passing by leaving their extended sonic footprint behind them.
A Passing Barge:
All working waterways attract industry around them. Inevitably, some of that industry doesn’t survive and we are often left with its ghostly reminder.
Buildings like this have an almost magnetic attraction for me. I am fascinated by industrial archaeology and I always think that buildings like this demand to be explored. The fact that this building is fenced off and made distinctly unwelcoming somehow adds to its attraction.
I understand that psychogeography is the contemporary term for this sort of exploration but with my interest in sound, I much prefer the term sonic archaeology.
Some of the industry though associated with the Canal de l’Ourcq has survived. The Grande Blanchisserie de Pantin was founded in 1883 as an industrial laundry. Under a different name, but in the same premises, it survives today doing exactly the same thing.
The Grande Blanchisserie de Pantin:
Before reaching the Basin de la Villette, the Canal de l’Ourcq bisects the enormous Parc de la Villette. Designed by the French architect Bernard Tschumi and built on the site of the former Parisian abbatoirs, the Parc de la Villette includes the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, City of Science and Industry, the largest science museum in Europe; La Géode, an IMAX theatre inside a 36 metre diameter geodesic dome; the Cité de la Musique, City of Music, an interactive museum of historical musical instruments and a concert hall and Le Zénith, a 6,300 seat concert arena, among the largest in Paris.
The Parc de la Villette is a parent’s delight. There’s something here to keep the kids entertained all day long.
Children playing in the Parc de la Villette:
One day I shall travel the full length of the Canal de l’Ourcq but in the meantime, I am quite content to spend an afternoon walking from the Basin de la Villette to Pantin on one side of the canal and then back again on the other. I recommend it.