MANY PEOPLE VISIT GARDENS to look at them and maybe even smell them but few I suspect go to listen to them. It wasn’t what I had in mind when I left home, but I spent part of a recent Saturday afternoon doing just that – listening to a garden.
I had decided to go to le Marais, a part of Paris I know reasonably well but don’t go to all that often, save for my regular visits to the Musée Carnavalet of course.
I emerged from the Métro station Saint-Paul into the Saturday afternoon bustle of le Marias and spent the next three hours or so walking the streets, dodging the showers, listening and hunting for sounds to add to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
Towards the end of the afternoon I found myself in an unfamiliar street, Rue des Blancs Manteaux. I’ve since discovered that the street takes its name from a monastery where, in 1258, Louis IX settled beggar monks belonging to the order of the Servants of Mary. The monks were noted for the white habits they wore hence, Rue des Blancs Manteaux.
Walking along the street I discovered the square Charles-Victor-Langlois, once the site of the monastery, a church, l’église Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux and a theatre, le théâtre des Blancs-Manteaux.
But it was at N° 21 Rue des Blancs Manteaux that I came upon a complete surprise.
Behind a large wooden door was a passageway leading to a garden, the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux.
L’Association des Jardiniers du 4ème (4th arrondissement Gardner’s Association) opened a small garden here in October 2010, which was extended in 2012. Nestling at the bottom of a former schoolyard, the 100 square metre garden is maintained partly by the Gardner’s Association and partly by the Paris City gardeners. The garden is divided into separate plots including vegetable plots based on the theme of ‘urban agriculture’, with peas, tomatoes, herbs, potatoes and maïs amongst other things.
I went to investigate the garden and was immediately struck by how quiet it was. The quietness was enhanced because, with the bustling streets of le Marais just a few steps away, quietness was not what I was expecting.
So unusual is quietness in the heart of the city that I couldn’t resist capturing it. As I began to record it started to rain so I had to scurry off for shelter under a rickety wooden roof covering the compost. It was from there that I listened to and recorded the sounds in the garden.
Sounds of the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux:
Listening to the garden was fascinating. The sounds of light rain falling intermittently, dead leaves rolling on the ground, the gentle rustle of the plants swaying in the wind and two ladies walking round the garden talking and passing right in front of me standing amidst the compostage were overlaid with the faint rumble of traffic in the distance, a light aircraft flying overhead, distant birdsong and remarkably, the brief sound of a demonstration drifting on the wind all the way from Place de la Bastille.
In the introduction to her fascinating book, ‘City of Noise – Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris’, Aimée Boutin quotes John Sanderson who first set foot in Paris in July 1835:
“As for the noise of the streets, I need not attempt to describe it. What idea can ears, used only to the ordinary and human noises, conceive of this unceasing racket … All things of this earth seek, at one time or another, repose – all but the noise of Paris. The waves of the sea are sometimes still, but the chaos of these streets is perpetual from generation to generation; it is the noise that never dies.”
As a professional listener to Paris I have some sympathy with John Sanderson and his first impression of the city. But in the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux the sounds of the street, the ‘noise that never dies’ just a few steps beyond the wooden portal, if not in complete repose are at least subdued enough to let the garden speak for itself.
Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux
21 Rue des Blancs Manteaux, Paris 75004
Open: Saturday and Sunday from 11am
Nearest Métro: Hôtel de Ville or Rambuteau
THE GALERIE COLBERT is one of the surviving examples of the Parisian passages couverts, the nineteenth century covered arcades built on the Right Bank of the Seine.
The passages couverts were an early form of shopping arcade that sprang up mainly in the first half of the nineteenth century. Most of them were concentrated either in the fashionable area around the Palais Royal, the Boulevard des Italiens and the Boulevard Montmartre, or around the much less fashionable, rue Saint-Denis.
Like most of the passages couverts, the Galerie Colbert began as a speculative venture.
The story begins I suppose with Cardinal Richelieu, who in 1634 built the Palais-Cardinal, subsequently the Palais-Royal, the seventeenth century social centre of the capital. Richelieu’s palace paved the way for the development of the surrounding area including l’hôtel Bautru at the corner of the rue Petits-Champs and rue Vivienne.
L’hôtel Bautru was designed by the French classical architect, Louis le Vau, with the aide of the master mason, Michel Villedo. It was built for Guillaume Bautru, a protégé of Richelieu.
In 1665, l’hôtel Bautru became home to l’Intendant des finances et superintendant des bâtiments du Roi, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister under Louis XIV. With a change of occupant came a change of name, the building became l’hôtel Colbert.
In subsequent years, l’hôtel Colbert saw a succession of occupants; for a time it housed the stables of Philippe d’Orléans, regent of France during the minority of Louis XV, and from 1806 until 1825 it was la Caisse de la dette publique, the public debt commission.
By the early nineteenth century, passages couverts were beginning to appear in Paris. Highly ornamented and decorated covered arcades with a collection of boutiques under one roof, away from the mud of the streets and indifferent to the weather and with light pouring in through their glass roofs in the daytime and illuminated by gas lamps at night, these arcades were a new concept and they were attracting customers – lots of them.
In 1825, the Galerie Vivienne opened. It was, and still is, the doyen of the Parisian passages couverts. A company of speculators, Adam et Cie, saw an opportunity. They bought the l’Hôtel Colbert and engaged the architect, Jacques Billaud, to design and build an arcade cheek by jowl with the Galerie Vivienne.
With a nod to the last occupants of the Hôtel Colbert, the arcade was to be called le passage du Trésor but eventually the name Galerie Colbert was settled upon and it was opened in 1827.
The Galerie Colbert in 1831
The Galerie Colbert may have been competing for customers with the neighbouring Galerie Vivienne but architecturally it secured its place as an equal.
Billaud’s design included a main passage lined with boutiques surmounted by a glass roof supported by a series of triangular pediments. The polychromatic decoration included columns made from yellow marble with red marble bases and a veined grey marble frieze.
Undoubtedly, the centrepiece of the Galerie Colbert was the great rotunda, a sumptuous fifteen metre diameter glass dome.
Rotonde, Galerie Colbert
Under the dome stood a bronze candelabrum supporting a ring of seven crystal globes lit with gas. This ‘Cocotier Lumineux’, or ‘luminous coconut tree’ as it was known became the foremost destination for romantic trysts under the July Monarchy. It has since disappeared and been replaced by Charles-Françcois Leboeuf’s statue, Eurydice mourante.
Charles-François Leboeuf (1792-1865), Eurydice mourante
The 1833 edition of the Almanach du Commerce de Paris reveals that alongside the marble columns, mosaics and crystal candelabras, an eclectic collection of traders occupied the Galerie Colbert, including:
At No. 3, M. Delaroque, bookseller;
At No. 6, at the rotunda, M. Arrondelle, shoemaker and Chinese sock manufacturer;
At No. 13, Georges Legois, umbrella manufacturer;
At No. 16-18, M. Salmon, gunsmith;
At No. 23-25, the Gabriel Pleyel piano store;
At No. 28, M. Bouis, hernia truss supplier and manufacturer of belts preventing masturbation for children of all ages.
There is mention of the Colbert Pharmacy, whose flagship products included ‘stomach pills’ and ‘sarsaparilla essence’ – a cure for ‘sores, scabs, rheumatic and gouty pains, acrid blood, black humour and melancholy … and syphilis’.
Other sources report a hairdresser, tailors, seamstresses, milliners, a glove maker, a quill pen merchant, a music publisher and reading rooms with French and English newspapers. Mme. Brigitte Mathé reportedly had a bookshop with 15,000 volumes and the ‘complete collections of the principal authors’.
In the 1830s a novelty shop opened, Au Grand Colbert, later to become a famous restaurant, Le Grand Colbert, which still exists.
As a means of attracting customers, and keeping the children amused, a Géorama, an aerial trompe l’oeil, was installed at the main entrance.
When it opened, the Galerie Colbert was a success – but the success was short-lived. In 1867, the French writer and journalist, Alfred Delvau noted, “The passages Colbert and Vivienne are clean, spacious but useless because … life has withdrawn to go elsewhere on the boulevards.”
All the passages couverts faced the same problem – the tide of progress, and in the mid nineteenth century the tide was unstoppable.
The main means of mass transportation in the early nineteenth century was the stagecoach and most of the passages couverts were built close to a stagecoach terminus in order to capture potential customers waiting for or alighting from stagecoaches. The coming of the railways in the mid nineteenth century ensured the demise of both the stagecoach and the potential customers.
Progress in the form of Baron Haussmann’s redevelopment of Paris consumed some of the passages couverts but it was the mid nineteenth century seismic revolution in shopping – the birth of the department store, that signalled the end of the road for the passages couverts.
Referring to the passages couverts in his monumental Arcades Project, the German philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin quotes from the 1852 Illustrated Guide to Paris:
These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need.
The mid nineteenth century department store revolution saw Aristide Boucicaut’s Au Bon Marché, Ernest Cognacq’s La Samaritaine, Jules Jaluzot and Jean-Alfred Duclos’ Printemps and Albert Kahn and Théophile Bader’s Galeries Lafayette become retail giants, taking the arcades’ world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need and replicating it on an industrial scale.
Eugène Atget, La galerie Colbert, 1906, BnF, département des Estampes et de la photographie. Source : Gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France
Faced with all this progress the Galerie Colbert inevitably began a painful decline. Abandoned by its customers and by its traders, by 1890 it had become almost deserted. Eugène Atget’s 1906 photograph illustrates this; the lustre and even the candelabrum with its seven crystal globes has gone – the romantic trysting place is no more.
In 1916, the Commission du Vieux Paris declared that the Galerie Colbert and the neighbouring passages couverts were ‘meurent d’anémie commerciale’, dying of commercial anaemia.
It took a while but a renaissance was to come. In the 1970s there was a revival of interest in nineteenth century architecture and in 1974, the Galerie Colbert was declared a monument historique. In the early 1980s it was bought by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France who commissioned its restoration.
The gallery was in such a state of disrepair that it had to be partly demolished before any reconstruction could begin. The work was supervised by the French architect, Louis Blanchet, who ensured that the flamboyant pastiche we see today is a true representation of the original Galerie Colbert.
In 1996, the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art moved in and between 1999 and 2004, the architects, Dominique Pinon and Pascale Kaparis, were commissioned to redesign some of areas around the historic passage and rotunda.
There are no boutiques in the Galerie Colbert today, save of course for Le Grand Colbert restaurant. Instead, the spaces once occupied by the eclectic band of traders are now meeting rooms.
As well as the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, the Galerie Colbert is also home to the Institut national du patrimoine and various other cultural organisations as well as providing research facilities for several Paris universities.
Sounds in the Galerie Colbert:
One hundred and fifty passages couverts were built in Paris, most of them between 1823 and 1847, but only twenty survive today. I have recorded sounds in all the surviving passages and one part of my Paris Soundscapes Archive is dedicated to their sounds.
Since we cannot listen to the sounds of these passages couverts in their hey-day, I think it important that their contemporary sounds be preserved as insurance against the day when even they may face ‘meurent d’anémie commerciale’.
Galerie Colbert: 6 rue des Petits-Champs : 2 rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris
IMAGINE THE SCENE: It’s 22nd October 1895 and the Granville to Paris express, operated by the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest, is approaching Paris. Steam locomotive No. 721, hauling three baggage vans, a post van and six passenger carriages with 131 people on board, left Granville on time at 8:45 am but it is now several minutes late for its 15:55 scheduled arrival at the Paris Montparnasse terminus.
Trying to make up lost time the driver, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, a 19-year veteran of the company, makes the decision to approach Montparnasse station at cruising speed – some 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph).
Realising that the train is entering the station too fast, Pellerin applies the locomotive’s Westinghouse air brake – but it fails to operate. One of the guards, Albert Mariette, is preoccupied with filling out paperwork as they enter the station and fails to notice in time that train is going faster than it should be. Just as he applies the emergency hand brake the train smashes through the buffer stop.
Amid the deafening noise and with steam belching from the engine and sparks flying, people scatter as the engine clatters across almost 30 metres of the station concourse, crashes through a 60-centimetre thick wall, shoots across a terrace and smashes out of the station, plummeting onto the Place de Rennes 10 metres below where it ends up on its nose.
Photograph by Studio Lévy and Sons
Remarkably, there is only one fatality. Marie-Augustine Aguilard, has been standing in for her husband, a newspaper vendor, while he goes to collect the evening papers. She is hit and killed by falling masonry.
Two passengers, the fireman, two guards and a passerby in the street sustain injuries.
Photograph by Henri Roger-Viollet
In the aftermath, the passenger carriages are undamaged and removed easily and within forty-eight hours work has begun to remove the locomotive and the tender. An attempt is made to move the locomotive with fourteen horses but this fails so a 250 tonne winch is brought to the scene and with 10 men hauling the winch the locomotive is lowered to the ground and the tender lifted the back in to the station.
Gare Montparnasse, 1871 – Photograph by Charles Marville
The station the Granville to Paris express slammed through was built by architect Victor Lenoir and the engineer Eugène Flachat in 1852, replacing the original 1840 Gare de l’Ouest station, which was unable to cope with the mid 19th century growth in traffic.
In 1909 the state bought the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest including the Gare Montparnasse, which it used for new lines to Tours, Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle.
In the 1930s a separate extension was added to the station, the Gare du Maine, designed by the French architect and designer Henri Pacon in Art Deco style. Eventually, this extension became the terminus for the main lines and the old station was reserved for commuter traffic.
Site of the original Gare du Maine extension which was demolished in the 1960s.
Both the 1852 Gare Montparnasse and the Place de Rennes into which the express nose-dived are no more.
In 1951, Place de Rennes was renamed Place du 18 juin 1940 in commemoration of the radio broadcast Charles de Gaulle made from London on 18th June 1940 (L’Appel du 18 juin), in which he urged the French people to resist the Nazi occupiers (who had invaded the previous month), thereby launching the French Resistance Movement.
Place du 18 juin 1940 today – Formerly Place de Rennes and site of the original Gare Montparnasse
During the 1960s, a new Gare Montparnasse, integrated into a complex of office buildings, was built and in 1969, the old station was torn down and the Tour Montparnasse was built in its place.
The Gare Montparnasse today
Over 50 million passengers a year pass through today’s Gare Montparnasse, one of the six mainline railway stations in Paris. They use intercity TGV trains to the west and south-west of France including Tours, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rennes and Nantes, and suburban and regional services on the Transilien Paris – Montparnasse routes. They also use the busy Métro station, an intersection for Métro lines 4, 6, 12 and 13.
I went to the Gare Montparnasse the other day to capture the sounds inside the station. My soundwalk took me from the main entrance, up an escalator to Hall 1 and then to the intercity platforms in time to capture the sounds of the 15:28 departure to Bordeaux and Toulouse.
I was surprised to find that amid the hustle and bustle of the main concourse and the platforms there were places that were relatively calm and quiet. Closer to the platforms of course it was the trains that made their voices heard.
Sounds stimulate the imagination so, if like me, you have a fascination for sound and a sense of history, you might be forgiven for imagining that the sound of the gasps of compressed air escaping from the parked trains are not too far removed from the sound of steam escaping from the Granville to Paris express hurtling towards its resting place in the Place de Rennes.
The Gare Montparnasse in sound:
The fate of the Granville to Paris express was well documented in pictures. As well as the iconic photographs by Studio Lévey and Sons and Henri Roger-Viollet (above), a third equally well-known photograph of the scene by L. Mercier is displayed in the Musée d’Orsay.
But nowhere was the event or its aftermath captured in sound – a good example of just how recent our ability to capture topical sounds is and a perfect example of how much of our sonic history has passed by completely unrecorded.
I’m pleased to say that while I was in the Gare Montparnasse all the trains stayed very firmly on their tracks with none of them attempting to cross the concourse and venture outside!
Gare Montparnasse Platform 9: The 15:28 departure for Bordeaux and Toulouse
IT’S BEEN A WHILE since I last featured any street music on this blog but I now have the opportunity to put that right.
Changing trains at the Métro station Charles de Gaulle Étoile the other day I came upon a street musician who is often to be found playing his xylophone on the platform of Métro Line 6, the line that follows a semi-circular route around the southern half of the city from Étoile to Nation.
Getting a seat on a train on Line 6 at Étoile can sometimes be a challenge. A large crowd often assembles on the platform and I usually find myself forsaking the pleasure of listening to the music in favour of elbowing my way through the crowd in the hope of securing a seat on the arriving train. Which is a shame really because most of the musicians playing in the Métro stations are very good.
It’s not generally known, but musicians who play in the Métro – at least those who play there legally – have actually been selected to play there following a formal audition process.
The auditions were introduced because the Métro was becoming infested with itinerant so-called musicians who could barely scrape out a note from their battered violins or accordions.
Now, some 2,000 musicians attend the auditions and the artistic director of the Musiciens du Métro programme and representatives of RATP, the Paris mass-transit authority, judge their performances. Only 300 of them will be awarded the coveted badge that lets them play legally in the Métro and so, with a potential audience of some four million passengers a day, that’s a gig worth having.
When I was changing trains at Étoile the other day I had time on my side so I stopped to listen to the xylophone player, one of the successful badge holders, playing his music. And what a delight it was!
Music on the Métro:
CAN YOU IMAGINE a city without traffic? Well, in Paris last Sunday we had a glimpse of what such a city might look and sound like.
In August 2014, an organisation called Paris sans Voitures, a citizen collective made up of scientists and high-profile individuals, residents of all ages, professionals, activists and dreamers, put forward a proposal to the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to reclaim Paris and liberate the streets. Their vision was for a car-free day; a day when private vehicles would be banned in Paris and public transport would be free.
Anne Hidalgo was impressed but the Paris police were more difficult to convince. Nevertheless, a decision was reached on 5th March this year that for one day Paris would experience ‘une journée sans voiture’ – a car free day.
The Mayor was not able to persuade the police that the car free zone should extend across the entire city so an accommodation was reached.
Click to enlarge
On Sunday 27th September, between 1100 and 1800, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th arrondissements – the heart of the city – were car free zones. Several areas away from the centre, including part of the quai on the Left Bank, most of the Champs-Élysées, the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes and the tourist area of Montmartre were also to be car free.
There were exceptions – buses, taxis and emergency vehicles were allowed.
I spend a large part of my life recording the street sounds of Paris and the sound of traffic is my constant companion so this ‘Journée Sans Voitures’ was an opportunity for me to capture an unusual sound tapestry of the city, one without the weft of constant traffic.
L’Avenue de l’Opéra on Sunday afternoon
On Sunday afternoon I walked along the Avenue de l’Opéra from Place de l’Opéra to Place Colette and, apart from occasional buses and taxis, the restriction on other motor vehicles seemed for the most part to be effective.
I thought it would be particularly interesting to contrast the sounds in Place Colette on this unique day to those found in the same place on a normal working day.
Place Colette on a normal working day
Sounds in Place Colette on a normal working day:
On a normal working day Place Colette is a space shared between Parisians going about their daily business and tourists passing through. The sounds of passing traffic pervade the air all the time.
Place Colette: Journée sans Voitures
Sounds in Place Colette – ‘Journée Sans Voitures’:
On Sunday in Place Colette there were Parisians and tourists but the sound tapestry was very different. The absence of traffic highlighted sounds that are always there but seldom heard, the rustle of the leaves in the trees for example. The sounds of the people reclaiming the city took centre stage.
When you listen to these sounds, remember that they were recorded in exactly the same place as the working day sounds above.
One might conclude that the Journée sans Voitures was either an experiment worth trying or simply a wheeze by the city authorities to provide a late summer’s fun day out. But it’s worth remembering that for a few hours in March this year Paris gained the unwelcome accolade of being the most polluted city in the world.
Excessive vehicle emissions were at the root of the problem. These emissions, combined with sunshine, a drop in temperature and an absence of wind to disperse the pollutants, caused a stagnant cover of warm air to settle over Paris. A toxic haze enveloped the city obscuring some of its most well known landmarks. Schools were instructed to keep children in classrooms and limit sports activities and health warnings were issued to the elderly to avoid even moderate exercise.
Paris usually enjoys relatively clean air for a city its size so the bad press stung the city authorities.
Is it too fanciful to suggest that the Journée sans Voitures might be a signpost to the future – cities without noxious vehicle emissions, cleaner air and a much less polluted sonic environment?