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April 21, 2018


End of the Line: La Défense – Grande Arche: Part 2

by soundlandscapes

FOLLOWING ON FROM my previous post, this segment of my ‘End of the Line’ series continues my exploration of the sounds in and around La Défense – Grande Arche, the westerly terminus of Paris Métro Line 1.

In the previous post I explored the sounds inside the station complex and so I turn now to my exploration outside the station.


La Défense from Pont de Neuilly

Bearing in mind that sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, my exploration of the sounds of a place invariably lead me to explore the history of that place in order to underpin today’s sounds and to give the sounds a broader context.

We know something about the area now known as La Défense long before it came to prominence as the purpose-built business district of Paris that it is today.

Emile Zola touches on it in the opening chapter of his nineteenth-century novel, Le Ventre de Paris:

“Amidst the deep silence and solitude prevailing in the avenue several market gardeners’ carts were climbing the slope which led towards Paris, and the fronts of the houses, asleep behind the dim lines of elms on either side of the road, echoed back the rhythmical jolting of the wheels. At the Neuilly bridge a cart full of cabbages and another full of peas had joined the eight wagons of carrots and turnips coming down from Nanterre; and the horses, left to themselves, had continued plodding along with lowered heads, at a regular though lazy pace, which the ascent of the slope now slackened. The sleeping wagoners, wrapped in woollen cloaks, striped black and grey, and grasping the reins slackly in their closed hands, were stretched at full length on their stomachs atop of the piles of vegetables. Every now and then, a gas lamp, following some patch of gloom, would light up the hobnails of a boot, the blue sleeve of a blouse, or the peak of a cap peering out of the huge florescence of vegetables — red bouquets of carrots, white bouquets of turnips, and the overflowing greenery of peas and cabbages.

And all along the road, and along the neighbouring roads, in front and behind, the distant rumbling of vehicles told of the presence of similar contingents of the great caravan which was travelling onward through the gloom and deep slumber of that matutinal hour, lulling the dark city to continued repose with its echoes of passing food.”

Le Ventre de Paris: Emile Zola: Published in 1873

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the area of Nanterre, around what we now know as La Défense, was mainly cultivated land growing cereals, vines and vegetables. It was from this cultivated land that Emile Zola’s wagoners were hauling their vegetables to Les Halles, the vast central market in the centre of Paris.

Le Ventre de Paris may be a work of fiction but Emile Zola was known as an astute observer of Parisian life so his description of the wagoners at Pont de Neuilly on their way from Nanterre to Les Halles gives us a sense of what this area was probably like in the nineteenth century.

What is now the business district of La Défense takes its name from a statue erected in 1883. Created by the French sculptor Louis-Ernest Barrias, the statue, La Défense de Paris, is a monument to those who defended Paris in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871. The statue depicts a woman dressed in a uniform of the National Guard leaning on a cannon and holding a flag. She represents the allegorical figure of the city of Paris. The defenders of the city take on the features of a young soldier who places a last cartridge in his Chassepot rifle. The two figures were originally looking towards Buzenval, the place of the last combats in January 1871. On the other side of the monument is a prostrate girl who, with her sad expression and miserable appearance, personifies the sufferings of the civilian population.


La Défense de Paris by Louis-Ernest Barrias

From 19th September 1870 to 28th January 1871, Paris was under siege by Prussian forces surrounding the city.

Conditions in Paris deteriorated and there was soon a severe shortage of food. Parisians were forced to eat whatever animals were at hand. Rats, dogs, cats, and horses were the first to be slaughtered and became regular fare on restaurant menus. Once the supply of those animals ran low, the citizens of Paris turned on the zoo animals at the Jardin des Plantes. Even Castor and Pollux, the only pair of elephants in Paris, were slaughtered for their meat.


A Christmas menu on the 99th day of the siege. Dishes include stuffed donkey’s head, elephant consommé, roast camel, kangaroo stew, antelope terrine, bear ribs, cat with rats, and wolf haunch in deer sauce.

Besieged French troops attempted several breakouts to take the fight to the Prussians. On 19th January 1871, they assembled in the area around today’s La Défense in preparation for an attack on the Prussian army. Led by General Louis Jules Trochu, military governor of Paris and president of the Provisional Government, their efforts were insufficiently prepared and incompetently led and so consequently failed.

“We had conquered several commanding heights which the generals did not arm. The Prussians were allowed to sweep these crests at their ease, and at four o’clock sent forth assault columns. Ours gave way first, then, steadying themselves, checked the onward movement of the enemy. Towards six o’clock, when the hostile fire diminished, Trochu ordered a retreat. Yet there were 40,000 reserves between Mont-Valdérien and Buzenval. Out of 150 artillery pieces, thirty only had been employed. But the generals, who during the whole day had hardly deigned to communicate with the National Guard, declared they could not hold out a second night!, and Trochu had Montretout and all the conquered positions evacuated. Battalions returned weeping with rage. All understood that the whole affair was a cruel mockery.”

History of the Paris Commune 1871: Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray: Published in 1877

The siege of Paris ended on the 28th January 1871 when the French Government, safely housed in Versailles, surrendered, although the City of Paris notably did not formally surrender. It was this division between the leaders and the led that helped created the Paris Commune in 1871.


The prospect from the Grande Arche de la Défense looking over the parvis to the Arc de Triomphe

In Part 1 of this ‘End of the Line’ segment I explored the sounds inside the La Défense – Grande Arche transport hub, which extends underneath the monumental Grande Arche de la Défense and the parvis in front of it. So here are the sounds I discovered after I ascended an escalator out of the station and emerged onto the surface:

Sounds around La Défense – Grande Arche:


La Grande Arche de la Défense

Any exploration of La Défense has to begin with the Grande Arche de la Défense simply because it dominates the area.

Designed by the Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen (1929–1987) and Danish engineer Erik Reitzel (1941-2012), the Grande Arche is a late twentieth century version of the Arc de Triomphe although it is a monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals rather than military victories. Construction began in 1985 and although Spreckelsen resigned in July 1986 his associate, French architect Paul Andreu, took over. Erik Reitzel continued his work until the monument was completed.

La Grande Arche was inaugurated in July 1989, coinciding with the bicentennial of the French Revolution. It completed the line of monuments that form the Axe historique running through Paris, which includes the Arc de Triomphe in the Champs Elysées, the Luxor Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at the Louvre.

A curiosity of the Grande Arche is that it is turned at an angle of 6.33° about the vertical axis. This is because with a Métro station, an RER station and a motorway all situated directly underneath the Arche, the angle was the only way to accommodate the structure’s giant foundations.

The two sides of the Arche house government offices and the rooftop is open to the public and includes a restaurant and an exhibition space.


As you can hear in my sound piece, when I came out from the escalator and made my way to foot of the Grande Arche I found a huddle of people getting very excited about an autonomous electric bus that carries people like me who these days often find it a stretch to walk too far.

Forsaking the bus on this occasion though, I walked from the Grande Arche to Les Quatre Temps shopping centre (centre commercial) on the southern side of the parvis of La Défense, reportedly one of the most visited shopping centres in France.


Inside Les Quatre Temps

Designed by the architects Guy Lagneau and Jean Dimitrijevic of the Atelier AWD, also known as ATEA (Atelier d’Etudes Architecturales), the project was completed in 1981.

The 120,000 m2 shopping center was completely renovated between 2006 and 2008. The renovation took place in several phases and involved the interior spaces, the exterior facades and the shops. At first, the shopping mall was extended to the west, encompassing the former colline de l’automobile. This extension, located on the 3rd floor of the center called “The Dome” included twenty-two restaurants and a new sixteen screen multiplex cinema, UGC Cine Cité La Défense. The renovation to the east, included a Castorama store replacing the original UGC cinema. The exterior facades of Les Quatre Temps are currently undergoing further renovation.

Looking ahead, a new station, part of the Grand Paris Express, is to be built under Les Quatre Temps. It is due to be completed in 2027.


Inside Les Quatre Temps

Coming out of Les Quatre Temps I came upon this man sitting on the steps playing his drum.


When it was first installed, the statue La Défense de Paris, to which I referred earlier, was installed in the middle of a roundabout at a busy road junction. As the business district of La Défense was being developed, the statue was moved several times; the current parvis of La Défense was built over the site of the roundabout. In January 2017, the statue was moved to the place where it now stands, just beyond the Fontaine monumentale.


The Fontaine monumentale was created by Yaacov Agam, an Israeli sculptor and experimental artist best known for his contributions to optical and kinetic art. The fountain’s 57m by 26m pool has a polymorphic mosaic surface comprising enamel of different colours made in Venice. The fountain is powered by 66 vertical autonomous water jets shooting water up to 14 meters.

Incidentally, recording the sounds of a fountain is not as easy as you might think!


To complete my exploration I walked back to northern side of the parvis to the very distinctive CNIT.


Built in 1958, the CNIT (Centre des nouvelles industries et technologies) was the first building to be built in La Défense. Its characteristic shape is due to the triangular plot it occupies. Since it was built, it has undergone two major renovations; in 1988 and 2009.

Designed by the architects Robert Camelot, Jean de Mailly and Bernard Zehrfuss, the most distinctive feature of the CNIT is its freestanding 22,500 m2 reinforced concrete vaulted roof, which has a span of 218 meters and is only 6 cm thick.

Today the CNIT houses offices and a two-level shopping centre hosting enterprises like Fnac, Decathalon, Habitat, La Poste and Monoprix as well as a several restaurants and a Hilton hotel.

A station, part of the extension of RER Line E is to be built under the CNIT and is expected to open in 2020.


The CNIT with its distinctive concrete roof

I couldn’t possibly leave La Défense without stopping to look at La Pouce, César Baldaccini’s iconic sculpture of a 40-foot thumb in Place Carpeaux next to the CNIT.

Baldaccini created this sculpture from an enlarged moulding of his own thumb using the 3-D pantographic technique.


To digress for a moment:

I used to work in La Défense. For thirteen years my office was in the Ernst & Young building (the tall building on the left in the picture above) so every time I went to my office I used to walk past Baldaccini’s 18-ton, cast iron thumb.

The building directly behind Baldaccini’s thumb in the picture is the GDF – Suez building, which I can remember when it was nothing more than a car park. I was looking down from my office window at the car park one day when men arrived and began to erect a fence around it. Several days later a procession of diggers arrived and began tearing up the car park and digging what turned out to be the biggest hole I’d ever seen. Over the coming months there emerged from this hole layer after layer of what is now the 185 metre, 37 storey, GDF –Suez building. My audio diary is littered with entries at the time reporting that yet another floor of the building was in place.


Another view of the GDF – Suez building

So that completes my exploration of the area outside, around the station La Défense – Grande Arche. As always, it was exploring the sounds of this place that brought me here and led me to discover much more about the history of La Défense as well as encouraging me to revisit some of the parts of La Défense that I knew from when I worked here.

The sounds you heard were:

Rising up the escalator out of the underground station; people around the autonomous electric bus; excited children on the parvis watching a man creating huge soap bubbles; inside Les Quatre Temps; the African drummer; the Fontaine monumentale; sounds inside Le CNIT and out on the Parvis de la Défense.

I hope both these sounds and the underground sounds in Part 1 give you a flavour of the sonic tapestry that is La Défense.


1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Heide
    Apr 21 2018

    Fascinating! Apart from the sad eating-of-the-elephants, I didn’t know any of these histories — including how La Défense got its name. Perhaps I dismissed this district because it seemed so cold and sterile during my only visit, some 20 years ago. But in this post you’ve shown me an entirely different place, full of color and life. Next time I come to Paris, may I impose on you to show me YOUR La Défense? I learn *so much* from you! Thank you, Des.


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