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March 4, 2015

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La Cité de la Muette – The Silent City

by soundlandscapes

BUILT BETWEEN 1932 AND 1936, La Cité de la Muette, the Silent City, was hailed as one of the most technically advanced social housing projects of its time.

Located in the suburb of Drancy, some 10 km from the centre of Paris, it was designed by the architects Marcel Lods and Eugène Beaudouin as a cite-jardin (a garden city) with a mix of high-rise and low-rise buildings built using a new building technology comprising a steel frame and a system of prefabricated concrete panels. The engineer Eugène Mopin designed the construction system and Jean Prouvé designed the system of metal forms used in the casting of the concrete elements.

The sixteen-story high buildings in La Cité de la Muette were the first American style ‘skyscrapers’ in France.

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La Cité de la Muette in the 1930s

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La Cité de la Muette in 2015

La Cité de la Muette comprised five sixteen-story towers connecting three and four-story slabs called peignes, or combs, creating long narrow courtyards extending southward from the towers.

At the western end of the complex was a large U-shaped courtyard block opening towards the south. This block was a five-story version of the peignes containing apartments, shops and community spaces along the ground floor with access points around the courtyard. The courtyard was designated for use as playing fields and two schools to the west were part of the overall plan.

Drancy

Looking into the surviving courtyard block

La Cité de la Muette was designed and built as a community space with moderate income housing, or H.L.M, habitations à loyer moyen. But not long after it was opened its use changed dramatically and tragically.

Frankreich, Paris, festgenommene Juden im Lager

Image : Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B10919 / Wisch / CC-BY-SA

In 1940, after the defeat of France, the Vichy government led by Maréchal Philippe Pétain, cooperated with Nazi Germany, hunting down foreign and French Jews and turning them over to the Gestapo for transport to the Third Reich’s extermination camps. The U-shaped courtyard block at the western end of La Cité de la Muette was requisitioned and turned into an internment camp – the Camp de Drancy.

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Camp de Drancy then …

Drancy

Camp de Drancy now …

The camp was under the control of the French police until 1943 when the SS took over direct responsibility for it. It was originally intended to hold 700 people, but at its peak it held more than 7,000.

Between June 22, 1942, and July 31, 1944, 67,400 French, Polish, and German Jews, including 6,000 children, were deported from the camp in rail trucks mainly to Auschwitz. Only 1,542 remained alive at the camp when Allied forces liberated it on 17 August 1944.

Drancy

A rail truck used to transport internees to the extermination camps, now part of the memorial at Camp de Drancy, the ‘Gateway to Auschwitz’

In 1977, the Memorial to the Deportation at Drancy was created by the sculptor Shlomo Selinger to commemorate the French Jews imprisoned in the camp.

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 Memorial to the Deportation at Drancy by Shlomo Selinger

Sitting in the garden in the centre of the former Camp de Drancy on the last day of February 2015, I recorded the sounds around me; sounds that caused me to reflect upon the countless stories that must have unfolded in this place.

Today’s sounds of the former Camp de Drancy:

Just one of the stories is of seventy internees working in three teams who worked day and night for almost three months digging an escape tunnel. With escape just three metres away the tunnel was discovered and the internees were summarily shot. There is a plaque in their memory that says, “Il manquait 3 metres pour atteindre la liberté!”

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The missing 3 metres are under the cobbles leading to the plaque

After the war, the buildings of La Cité de la Muette remained unoccupied for several years until l’Office H.L.M. sold them to the Army in 1973. During this time they were used as barracks and the interiors were further damaged. Shortly afterwards, in May 1976, it was decided to destroy all the buildings except the large courtyard block.

Today, this courtyard block has been renovated and returned to use as housing.

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La Cité de la Muette was a brilliantly conceived project that became irrevocably scarred by a heinous occupation. Of the original dwellings, 650 were destroyed in the 1970s leaving only those in the surviving courtyard block to remind us of what La Cité de la Muette was originally intended to be.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 4 2015

    Phenomenal history. Well done.

    Reply
  2. hmunro
    Mar 4 2015

    If you hadn’t told me the story behind this place, would I still have found your recording so barren and haunting? Beautiful work, Des.

    Reply
    • Mar 5 2015

      Thank you as always for your comment Heather – and it’s a comment that goes right to the heart of the work I do here in Paris.

      You’ve asked a very good question but I’m going to have to explain my answer.

      Sound does not exist in a vacuum either metaphorically or in reality. All sounds have a context and these sounds are a very good example of the relationship between sounds and their context.

      The important thing is that these sounds exist only in this place; they are as much a part of the fabric of this place as the gardens and the buildings and therefore they cannot be separated from or exist outside of this place.

      Of course, if you listen to my recording as you say, ‘without the story behind this place’, in other words, without the context, then yes, the sounds of the recording will still exist and you will be able to listen to them, but the context you apply and the emotions you feel will come from your imagination and not from the place itself. If you accept my proposition that all sounds have a context then the context you apply to these sounds in the abstract and the emotions you feel will be unique to you and therefore may, or may not, be related to the emotions you felt when you listened to the sounds in their original context. In that sense therefore one can say that, because the context has changed, the sounds have also changed.

      I know, it’s all a bit philosophical, but as an archivist of the contemporary Parisian soundscape, the question of what sounds are ‘real’ – the sounds one listens to in context or the recorded sounds one listens to out of context is a question I think is really important and one I wrestle with all the time.

      Reply

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