I’VE SAID MANY TIMES in this blog that soundwalking is a superb way to explore a place, especially a place as rich and diverse as Paris. Whilst ‘pure’ soundwalking involves concentrated listening to the exclusion of almost everything else, a soundwalk can also be the key to a wider exploration of a place especially if you use your curiosity to follow the sounds and see where they lead. Over the last few days I’ve been soundwalking along the Boulevard Barbès and the surrounding area in the 18th arrondissement. This is a part of Paris well off the tourist track and a part of the city that I find endlessly fascinating. In this post I will show how even a fairly short soundwalk, in this case a walk along part of the Boulevard Barbès, can lead to discovering things that may be hidden, but if you follow the sounds and engage your curiosity the hidden can often emerge into plain sight.
Boulevard Barbès. Paris (XVIIIth arrondissement), circa 1900. © Léon et Lévy/Roger-Viollet: Image courtesy of Paris en Images
A soundwalk along part of the Boulevard Barbès:
Named after the French Republican revolutionary Armand Barbès, the Boulevard Barbès is a product of Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. Once home to the sumptuous Grands Magasins Dufayel, which, on the eve of the First World War advertised itself as being the largest department store in the world, the grands magasins elegance of the Boulevard Barbès has now faded. Today, the Grands Magasins Dufayel, originally known as Le Palais de la Nouveauté until the ambitious Georges Dufayel took it over in 1888 and named it after himself, is occupied by the BNP bank and a good part of the street is filled with small shops selling mobile phones, jewelry, luggage, clothes and shoes all at bargain prices.
The former Grands Magasins Dufayel from Boulevard Barbès
The entrance to the former Grands Magasins Dufayel in Rue Clignancourt
Even if the Boulevard Barbès has gone somewhat down market since the grandeur of La Belle Époque it is still not without interest.
Crossing the bottom of the street between what is now the TATI store on one side and the Brasserie Barbès on the other once ran the Barricade rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, one of the most imposing and one of the last barricades to fall during the 1848 Revolution, which ended the Orléans monarchy (1830–1848) and led to the creation of the French Second Republic.
Site of the 1848 Barricade rue du Faubourg Poissonnière
Also of interest is N° 10 Boulevard Barbès.
This was once the Bal du Grand Turc, founded in 1806 by Joseph Teiche and frequented by Alexander Dumas père and Emile Zola amongst others. Emile Zola refers to the Bal du Grand Turc in his novel L’Assomoir. It then became the Concert de la Fourmi, one of several café-concerts in the area. Maurice Chevalier performed here in 1902, early in his professional career.
N° 10 Boulevard Barbès, Café-concert La Fourmi, around 1905: Image via Lagouttedor.net
N° 10 Boulevard Barbès today.
A little further up the Boulevard Barbès we come to N° 28. This was the residence of Irénée Cazals, a liaison officer in the Confraternity Notre-Dame network of the French Resistance during the Second World War.
Nazi soldiers march in Paris on Avenue Foch, 14 June, 1940 Image: Folkerts, Bundesarchiv
Founded towards the end of 1940, the Confraternity Notre-Dame was an information-gathering network that rallied to the Free French. It was one of the first and probably the most important intelligence network of the Resistance. Its agents were charged with gathering military or economic and political information that provided content for Free French radio broadcasts and providing liaison and radio operators who facilitated outgoing information and incoming orders.
The Confraternity Notre-Dame operated for three and a half years and during that time 1,544 agents signed on; 524 were arrested, of which 234 were deported, 37 shot, and 151 died while deported. Irénée Cazals was arrested on the 17th November 1943 and deported on the 29th November. He survived the war.
N° 28 Boulevard Barbès: Former residence of Irénée Cazals
And now we come to a shoe shop at N° 34 Boulevard Barbès, one of several shoe shops along the street.
KATA is an outlet store with shoes piled into bins and sold at bargain prices complete with signs saying, ‘No Refunds’. But behind the undistinguished shop front KATA is much more than a shoe shop: it’s an aberration, an urban anachronism.
The shoe shop occupies what was once the Barbès Palace Cinema and when they moved in to the premises in 1988, KATA was persuaded to retain the Belle Époque architecture and fit the shop around it.
This cinema built in 1914 by the French architect Louis Garnier seated 1,200 people making it one of the top cinemas in the city. It was built in the Belle Époque style and the stage, complete with red velvet curtains, the ionic columns, the neo-classical balconies and the double staircase leading up to them are all still in place.
In the early twentieth century cinemas proliferated so the residents around the Boulevard Barbès were spoiled for choice. As well as the Barbès Palace they had the Luxor, (now completely restored and reopened), the Palais-Rochechouart (now Darty), the Delta (now Guerrisol), the Myrha (now an Evangelical Church) and the Gaîté-Rochechouart (now Célio), all within walking distance.
In its early days the Barbès Palace was still influenced by the music hall so it had its own orchestra to provide musical interludes during the programme.
It also had an eye on commercial opportunities so it promoted advertising for a wide range of products and services.
The cinema fared well and up to the mid-1960s offering a programme of mainly French films and a few foreign productions although by this time it had lost both its orchestra and the ‘Palace’ from its name. By the 1970s tastes had changed and the fare on offer tilted towards action movies such as spaghetti westerns and war films. As the decline in cinema going began to bite in the 1980s, the Barbès Cinema began to show double-bills comprising an action movie and an ‘erotic’ film, although it was never reduced to becoming a genuine ‘porn’ cinema.
The final curtain fell on the Barbès cinema on 30th July 1985 with the programme for that week including Ninja Fury and Excès érotiques.
The cinema was built with two means of access: 34 Boulevard Barbès and 9 Rue des Poissonnièrs.
One of my soundwalks comprised a walk along the Rue des Poissonnièrs, into the shoe shop and then out into the Boulevard Barbes. Unfortunately, the ambience inside the shop is tarnished by strips of harsh neon lighting stretching over the displays of shoes and the music playing over loudspeakers scattered around the store.
The Rue des Poissonnièrs entrance
A soundwalk from Rue des Poissonnièrs to Boulevard Barbès via the KATA store:
Soundwalking and listening to urban soundscapes has many facets. Studying urban soundscapes can be a valuable academic pursuit as evidenced by the work of Dr. Antonella Raddichi at the Technische Universität, Berlin. Sound artists like La Cosa Preziosa often magically weave urban soundscapes into their compositions. But one doesn’t have to be an academic or an artist to appreciate urban soundscapes. Simply listening to and following the sounds with an abundance of curiosity can open up an often hidden yet fascinating world.
THE GARE DU NORD railway station in Paris is on the cusp of great change. Over the next few years the physical architecture of this station will be transformed and consequently, so will its sonic architecture.
For many years I have been recording and archiving the sounds of the Gare du Nord. My particular interest lies in investigating how sounds can define, or help to define, a place and how the soundscape of a particular place changes over time. The Gare du Nord is a valuable case study in both these areas.
The first Gare du Nord station was built in 1846 but an increase in traffic meant that a new, bigger station was soon required.
The original 1846 chemin de fer du nord station
Rebuilding took place under the direction of the German-born French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff with the new station combining the advanced structural use of new materials, notably cast iron, with conservative Beaux-Arts classicism. Hittorff’s Gare du Nord was completed in 1864.
La “Gare de la Compagnie du chemin de fer du Nord” photographiée vers 1864 par Charles-Henri Plaut
Significant changes to the station were made in 1981 to accommodate RER Line B and then in 1993 to accommodate the TGV and the Eurostar. The last major change was 2001 with a major expansion of the departures hall.
Gare du Nord TGV Departure Hall in 2017
And now the Gare du Nord is about to undergo further change.
Subject to negotiations due to be concluded by the end of this year, SNCF Gares & Connections and the global real estate company Ceetrus will set up a joint venture to carry out a transformation of the Gare du Nord. Ceetrus, in association with architect Denis Valode (Valode and Pistre architects), will lead a transformation as big as that led by the Hittorff in 1864. The transformation is due to be completed in time for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord
The transformation will see the station triple in size from 36,000m2 to 110,000 m2. With 700,000 passengers using the station each day, excluding those who use the associated Métro station, the Gare du Nord is already the busiest railway station in Europe. Following the transformation the daily passenger numbers are expected to increase to 800,000 in 2024 and 900,000 in 2030.
The transformation will include a new departure terminal in which the flow of arrivals and departures from the station will be distinct thus improving fluidity and comfort for travellers. A new station facade is proposed on rue du faubourg Saint-Denis with direct access to the departure terminal.
The Eurostar terminal will be expanded to meet the challenge of strengthened customs controls linked to Brexit.
Accessibility will be enhanced with more elevators and escalators. The new station will have 55 lifts and 105 escalators. Station security will be enhanced with more CCTV being installed.
Access to the three metro lines will be improved. The bus station with its 12 bus lines and 7 Noctilian services will be connected directly with the departure terminal, and 1,200 bicycle parking spaces will be available with direct access from the square in front of the station.
Traffic circulation around the station will be redesigned to take account of the redesigned access to the station and also the expected development of new electric mobility solutions.
The transformed station will also include a 2,000 m2 ‘European Academy of Culture’, a concept devised by the writer Olivier Guez, including a 1,600 m2 space to host events and concerts.
There will be 5,500 m2 of co-working space, a nursery, new restaurants and a one-kilometre running track on the station roof.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord
The transformation of the Gare du Nord will clearly change the visual landscape of the station but it will also change its sonic landscape. There are six main line railway stations in Paris, five of which sound very similar. The exception is the current Gare du Nord, which has a very distinctive soundscape. The size of the main departures terminal together with Hittorff’s 19th century iron and glass construction and the cacophony of waiting passengers squeezed between the parked trains and the street outside gives the Gare du Nord a very particular sonic ambience.
This is what the Gare du Nord sounded like in 2011.
Gare du Nord 2011:
Gare du Nord Departures Hall 2011
Although the major transformation project is not due to start until next year, some improvements to the Gare du Nord are already underway. When I went there last week I found men laying a new stone floor in the main departures hall, which gives us a clue as to how the soundscape of the station will change as the major construction work progresses. The sounds of the gasping trains will have to compete with the cacophony of building work for some considerable time to come.
Gare du Nord 2018:
Having recorded the soundscape of the current Gare du Nord many times I shall continue to record and archive the sounds as the station’s transformation takes place. I shall be fascinated to discover the sounds of the new, ultra-modern Gare du Nord when all the work is completed. I will though still go back to my archive from time to time and listen to the sounds of the ‘old’ Gare du Nord; sounds that have been so familiar to me for almost the last twenty years and sounds that are about to disappear.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord