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August 4, 2012


Canal de l’Ourcq

by soundlandscapes

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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Aug 5 2012

    You’ve presented a really interesting area both in terms of sound, history, and architecture. The movement of the barge from right to left speaker is very smooth, and the resulting aves lapping against the edge of the canal have a nice timeless quality to them.
    After listening to these gentle industrial sounds the children’s voices feel slightly incongruous, a sonic jolt.

    • Aug 6 2012

      Thanks Jay. There is so much more to explore along this canal so I’m looking forward to finding more interesting sounds. It’s quite amazing just how long the sounds of the passing river traffic linger – long after the boats have passed.

      Getting inside that deserted building is high on my agenda even though scaling walls and avoiding guard dogs is not really my cup of tea. I’m sure there will be some lingering ghosts in there.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Canal Saint-Denis and its Sounds – Part 1 | Soundlandscapes' Blog
  2. A Clean-Up For The Canal Saint-Martin | Soundlandscapes' Blog

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