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September 10, 2017

An Iron Pavilion, an Organ and a Colonial Garden

by soundlandscapes

IT WAS IN APRIL 2011 when I last visited the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in the Bois de Vincennes at Nogent-sur-Marne on the eastern edge of Paris. Then, I went there several times to record sounds for the 2011 Paris Obscura Day event organised by Adam, curator of Invisible Paris.

Recently, I decided it was time to return to Nogent-sur-Marne and explore a little more.

Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical - Nogent sur Marne

Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale

I am fascinated by industrial archaeology and particularly by the mid-nineteenth century iron and glass structures to be found in Paris – structures like la Grande Halle de la Villette or Henri Labrouste’s sumptuous reading room at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.

Sadly, I was never able to see the eight Victor Baltard iron and glass pavilions at Les Halles, the traditional central market in Paris founded in 1183.

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Les Halles, the former central market in Paris. Photograph: Sophie Boegly/Musée d’Orsay

Unable to compete in the new market economy and in need of massive repairs, the central market was relocated to Rungis, south of Paris, in 1971 and all but two of Baltard’s iron and glass pavilions were destroyed. The two that survived were dismantled and then re-erected, one in Yokohama, Japan and the other in Nogent-sur-Marne.

When I went back to Nogent-sur-Marne recently I sought out this surviving Baltard pavilion.

Pavillon Baltard - Nogent sur Marne

The Pavillon Baltard, Nogent-sur-Marne

This pavilion was used originally for selling eggs and poultry at the Les Halles market. Today it’s surround by iron gates – the original gates from Les Halles – and it’s used for a variety of events including concerts, exhibitions and corporate functions.

Pavillon Baltard - Nogent sur Marne

Unfortunately, I was not able to gain entry to the pavilion, which was a shame because as well seeing the pavilion itself I particularly wanted to see something housed inside.

As well as acquiring the Baltard pavilion, Nogent-sur-Marne also managed to acquire the four manual, sixteen rank, Christie cinema organ once housed in the massive 5,500 seat Gaumont Palace cinema in Paris. Built in 1931 by the English organ builders, Hill Norman and Beard, the organ now resides in the Baltard pavilion.

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The art-deco Gaumont Palace cinema in Paris

This famous theatre organ will always be linked with the organist, Tommy Desserre, who played the instrument until the Gaumont Palace closed in 1972.

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The Christie organ console in the Pavilion Baltard

Although I wasn’t able to go in and see the organ, I have found this 1988 recording of John Mann playing an Hommage to Edith Piaf on the organ in the Baltard pavilion so you can hear what it sounds like.

Having seen the Baltard pavilion, if only from the outside, I took myself off to a nearby bistro for lunch where I found this lady posing for me.

Nogent sur Marne

After lunch I decided to make a return visit to the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale at the eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes. The last time I was here I spent four days recording sounds for Adam’s Paris Obscura Day event so I was anxious to see what sounds I might capture on this summer’s day.

I settled myself down beside the Indochinese temple and began to record the wildlife, the rustle of the bamboo trees and the ever-present man-made sounds around me.

Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical - Nogent sur Marne

Summer sounds in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale:

Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical - Nogent sur Marne

The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was created in 1899 as a ‘jardin d’essai colonial’, a research garden, with the aim of coordinating agricultural experiments that would lead to the introduction or reintroduction of exotic plants like coffee, bananas, rubber trees, cocoa and vanilla across the French colonies.

During the summer of 1907 the garden became the site of a Colonial exhibition organised by the French Colonisation Society.

The exhibition was designed not only to show off exotic plants, animals, and other products of the French empire but also to show off people from the colonies who lived in five different villages on the site recreating their ‘typical’ environments. There were villages for people representing the Congo, Indochina, Madagascar, Sudan, and New Caledonia as well as a camp for the Tuaregs from the Sahara.

This ‘human zoo’ proved to be very popular attracting around one and a half million visitors.

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The Tuareg camp at the 1907 exhibition

At the end of the summer of 1907 the exhibition closed, the residents returned home and the exhibition site was left abandoned. During World War II, the site was used as a hospital for colonial troops and in the post-war years part of it housed the École d’agronomie tropicale and the Centre technique forestier tropical. The remnants of the Colonial villages though were left to decay.

In 2003, the city of Paris acquired the site and began a development programme and the garden was opened to the public in 2006.

Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale

Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale – The Colonial Bridge

Even though I didn’t get to see the Christie cinema organ, I enjoyed my day in Nogent-sur-Marne. Seeing the Pavillon Baltard has been on my ‘to do’ list for a long time and sitting in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale listening to its sounds was a delightful way to spend a summer afternoon.

Jardin d’Agronomie Tropical - Nogent sur Marne

Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale – The Indochina War Memorial

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