FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to a bridge in the centre of Paris adjacent to the Palais du Louvre, the Pont du Carrousel.
Connecting the Quai des Tuileries on the Right Bank to the Quai Voltaire on the Left Bank the reinforced concrete bridge we see today is the second bridge to bear the name Pont du Carrousel.
Pont du Carrousel looking upstream
Construction of the first bridge, originally called Pont des Saints-Pères, began in 1831. With the work completed the bridge was inaugurated in 1834 by King Louis-Philippe. It was renamed Pont du Carrousel because on the Right Bank it faced the Palais du Louvre near to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Place du Carrousel, a public square located at the open end of the courtyard of the Palais du Louvre.
The Place du Carrousel was the site of the Palais des Tuileries, the Parisian residence of most French monarchs from Henry IV to Napoleon III until it was burnt down during the Paris Commune in 1871.
The name, Place du Carrousel, dates back to 1662 when Louis XIV used this space for equine displays of military dressage known as a carrousel, which is why many of today’s fairground carousels still feature horses.
On a more gruesome note, during the French Revolution Place du Carrousel was one of the homes to Madame Guillotine. From 21st August 1792 until 11th May 1793, with two short interruptions, thirty-five people were guillotined in Place du Carrousel.
Pont du Carrousel looking downstream
The first Pont du Carrousel, built on an axis connecting the Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare railway stations, was the creation of the French engineer, Antoine-Rémy Polonceau. In the 1830s many Parisian bridges were suspension bridges but in such a prestigious location the use of the towers and cables associated with a suspension bridge was unacceptable and so Polonceau designed a 169 metre long and 11.5 metre wide three-arched bridge made of iron and wood.
At each corner of the bridge he erected classic style stone allegorical sculptures by Louis Petitot representing Industry, Abundance, The City of Paris and The Seine.
By the turn of the century the Pont du Carrousel was showing its age. Seven decades of continuous use meant that a major restoration was required. In 1906 the wooden elements, including the wooden deck, were replaced with beaten iron but this was not enough to secure the long-term survival of the bridge. As the twentieth century progressed it became clear that the Pont du Carrousel was too narrow to cope with the increasing flow of traffic over the bridge and too shallow for the larger river traffic to pass underneath it and so drastic action was required.
In 1930 it was decided to scrap the first Pont du Carrousel and to build a completely new bridge a little further downstream opposite the gates to the Louvre.
The task of designing the new bridge fell to the French architects Gustave Umbdenstock and Georges Tourry and the French engineers Henri Lang and Jacques Morane. A draft design was presented in 1932, the work was authorised by a decree of the State Council of 26 August 1933 and the final green light to proceed was given on May 23, 1935.
The new bridge retained the three-arch design of the first bridge but this time it was made from reinforced concrete.
Apart from the original allegorical sculptures by Louis Petitot which were retained, perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the new bridge are the réverbères télescopiques, the Raymond Subes designed telescopic lamps that adorn the bridge.
A graduate of l’École Boulle and l’École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs, Raymond Subes was one of most celebrated French artists specialising in wrought iron during the Art Deco period. His lighting for the bridge, set up in 1946, comprised an ingenious system of telescopic lamps rising from 13 metres in the daytime to 20 metres at night. Unfortunately, the telescopic mechanism broke down shortly after commissioning but it was successfully restored in 1999.
The Palais du Louvre from on the Pont du Carrousel
In my Paris Bridges Project I’m not only looking to explore the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, I’m also trying to seek out the characteristic sounds of each bridge and trying to identify any sounds that might be unique to each bridge.
My exploration of the sounds of the Pont du Carrousel began on the bridge.
Sounds on the Pont du Carrousel:
The view from my recording position on the Pont du Carrousel looking downstream
It is sometimes said that the sound of traffic exists only to blight the work of the urban field recordist and after years of recording urban soundscapes in Paris I have some sympathy with that view. But I also recognise that the sound of traffic is an integral part of every city soundscape so it would be disingenuous if my exploration of the Pont du Carrousel did not feature the sounds of the traffic passing over it. After all, the sounds of the traffic passing over the pavé on this bridge are as much a part of the fabric of the bridge as the reinforced concrete it’s made from.
After recording the sounds on the bridge I went to explore the sounds under it. An archway on the Right Bank led me under the bridge from where I found a position from which to record.
Sounds under the Pont du Carrousel:
My recording position under the Pont du Carrousel
From here I was not only able to capture the characteristic sounds under the bridge, the tourist boats passing along la Seine and the sounds of people passing under the bridge, but also the sounds of a creaking pontoon permanently tethered to the quai alongside the bridge – the unique sounds of the Pont du Carrousel.
THE AREA TO THE EAST of Bastille, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, was traditionally a working class neighbourhood with a focus on craft industries. Its proximity to the Seine with its plentiful supply of wood saw the area develop into an important centre for the furniture industry, which it still is today.
Many of the skilled craftsmen didn’t work in the main streets preferring instead to set up their workshops in the plethora of small, cobblestone, passageways leading off the main thoroughfares. Many of these passageways survive today and some still accommodate skilled craftsmen.
A set of double doors at N°26 rue de Charonne lead into one of these surviving passageways, the Passage l’Homme.
Stretching for 122 metres the Passage l’Homme is lined with ateliers on the ground floor with apartments above. In prime position close to the entrance is an amazing toyshop.
Further along the passage is the atelier of Alain Hollard whose family firm was established here over a hundred years ago. He specialises in a traditional craft long associated with this part of Paris, Vernissage au Tampon, known in English as French polishing.
For me, the most striking thing about the Passage l’Homme is not the sights, delightful though they are, but the sounds.
Sounds in the Passage l’Homme:
Sandwiched between rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, rue de Charonne and l’avenue Ledru-Rollin the Passage l’Homme is surrounded on all sides by busy streets awash with heavy traffic and yet deep inside the passage a curious calm prevails. Such sounds as there are represent life being lived in the street uncluttered for the most part by noise pollution and so each sound seems to take on an extra significance.
Just as Eugène Atget would have set up his large-format wooden bellows camera to photograph this place a hundred years ago, I set up my microphones half way along the passage and with a much longer exposure time than Atget would have used I pressed ‘record’ and walked away leaving the microphones to capture the scene.
Occasional birdsong, the clatter of lunchtime crockery, anonymous footsteps and distant conversation paint the canvas upon which the more prominent sounds can shine. A young lady collects a large sheet of artwork from the graphic designer’s office and rolls it up as she leaves, doors open and close, two French middle-aged men busily clicking their cameras walk by, the apartment gardien emerges and sits on a step taking a phone call, someone whistles, a young child in a buggy passes by proclaiming something obviously very important to the world and Monsieur Hollard returns from his lunch, unlocks the door to his atelier and goes inside to continue with his vernis au tampon.
In the bustling streets of Paris noise pollution is a constant companion and quiet places are hard to find. That’s why I find it so refreshing to visit the Passage l’Homme. For sure, it’s an interesting place to see but it’s so much more interesting to listen to. In this verdant corner of the city the noise pollution subsides and the ordinary sounds of everyday life take centre-stage. Like a fine wine these sounds deserve to be savoured and enjoyed.
NOW A CULTURAL CENTRE hosting trade fairs, exhibitions, music festivals and open-air cinema screenings, La Grande Halle de la Villette at the southern end of the Parc de la Villette once hosted events of a very different kind.
The French architects Jules de Mérindol and Louis-Adolphe Janvier designed this enormous cast iron and glass structure covering an area of 20,000 square metres. Construction work began in 1865 and the building was opened in 1867. When it opened it was known as the Grande Halle aux Bœufs (the Great Hall of Cattle), which gives the clue as to its original use.
Far from being the cultural centre it is today, the Grande Halle aux Bœufs was a huge abattoir despatching some 4,500 cattle per day to feed the population of Paris.
La Grande Halle aux Bœufs: Photograph by Charles Marville (1816 -1878). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. Image courtesy of Paris en Images
La Villette, in the northeast of the city, was the place Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann chose to relocate the abattoirs and meat markets forced out of the centre of the city as he embarked upon the major redevelopment of Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Quite soon La Villette became known as la Cité du Sang (the City of Blood) but it also became as much part of the ‘Belly of Paris’ as the wholesale fresh food market in Les Halles characterised so well by Émile Zola in his novel Le Ventre de Paris.
The Grande Halle aux Bœufs survived as a working abattoir until 1974 when it was closed and its activities moved to Rungis, a commune in the southern suburbs of Paris in the département of Val-de-Marne. The wholesale fresh food market at Les Halles had moved to Rungis some three years earlier. The Marché d’Intérêt National de Rungis is the large wholesale food market serving the Paris metropolitan area and beyond and it is said to be the largest food market in the world.
The City of Paris ceded the land at La Villette and its management to the French government and in 1979 l’Etablissement Public du Parc de la Villette was created to restore and manage the 55-hectare site. The Grande Halle aux Bœufs became a monument historique.
In 1982 the Parc de la Villette was included in François Mitterrand’s Grand Projets and Bernard Reichen and Philippe Robert (Reichen et Robert & Associes) were selected to restore the Grande Halle aux Bœufs. The work was completed in January 1985 and the Grande Halle aux Bœufs was renamed La Grande Halle de la Villette. Another renovation was carried out in 2005 – 2007.
Walking under the main canopy at the front of la Grande Halle is like walking back in time. By the mid-nineteenth century the Renaissance tradition of architecture had lost its appeal and Parisians needed something to symbolise a new era. Two new opposing technologies, delicate glass and sturdy iron, used in combination provided a breathtaking solution. Glass and iron symbolised the new era of modernity and progress and these materials began to be used extensively in new structures across the city.
Nothing symbolised the age of modernity more than the coming of the railways and in 1859, Jacques Ignace Hittorff constructed an innovative railway station, the Gare du Nord, using glass and iron as the main materials. In the 1860s, department stores such as the La Belle Jardinière and Le Bon Marché began to use glass and metal in the construction of their exteriors. Victor Baltard’s glass and iron pavilions at the wholesale food market at les Halles and Henri Labrouste’s sumptuous reading room at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève are other fine examples of the use of glass and iron in large scale building projects.
Underneath the canopy of la Grande Halle de la Villette is a specially constructed dance floor often used by students from the neighbouring Conservatoire de Paris, a prestigious college of music and dance founded in 1795. In the roof above are other regular visitors who help to shape the sound tapestry of this building.
Sounds under the canopy of la Grande Halle de la Villette:
Outside La Grande Halle is a fountain, La fontaine aux lions de Nubie.
Designed by the French mathematician and engineer, Pierre-Simon Girard, the man responsible for the planning and construction of the Canal de l’Ourcq, this fountain was originally located in the centre of Paris in Place du Château d’Eau, now Place de la République. When the Grande Halle aux Bœufs was opened in 1867 the statue was moved here and served as a water trough for the cattle before they met their fate.
In its heyday la Grande Halle aux Bœufs stood at the centre of the Marché aux Bestiaux de la Villette, the enclave of abattoirs and meat markets that helped to feed Paris. It was built using the new technology of glass and iron in combination, a concept that some at the time would have no doubt have found controversial.
Today, this glass and iron structure has survived to stand within a stone’s throw of another new and very controversial building, the long-delayed and over-budget Philharmonie de Paris, the city’s new, state-of-the-art, concert hall.
The Philharmonie de Paris
Considered by some to be an architectural jewel and by others a rusty spaceship crash-landed on the edge of the city, the Philharmonie de Paris stands cheek by jowl with la Grande Halle de la Villette, each in their time symbols of modernity and progress.
IT HAS BECOME a tradition that on the first day of May each year sweet scented sprays of Lily of the Valley (Muguet in French) are sold on the streets across France as a symbol of springtime and good luck.
Amidst the sprays of Lily of the Valley on sale everywhere in Paris yesterday another tradition was playing out.
La Fête du Travail was the name given to several festivals that originated from the eighteenth century onwards to celebrate the achievements of workers. In France, la Fête du Travail merged with International Workers’ Day, a day originally established in the late nineteenth century as an annual day of protest to demand the eight-hour working day. Today, La Fête du Travail and International Workers Day are celebrated on May 1st and the day is a national public holiday.
In Paris it has become traditional for people representing the two extremes of the political spectrum to use the May 1st public holiday to take to the streets to make their voices heard.
On the morning of May 1st, the Front National representing the political far right hold their annual défilé from the Palais Royal to Place de l’Opéra pausing in Place des Pyramides to pay homage at the foot of Emmanuel Frémiet’s gilded statue of Jeanne d’Arc, the Maid of Orléans and heroine to the far right. In the afternoon an assorted collection of organisations representing the far left gather in Place de la République and march along the Boulevard Voltaire to Place de la Nation.
For the past three years I’ve recorded the Front National event on May 1st rather than the event at République because, given the rise of Marine le Pen as Président of the Front National and the party’s increasing popularity with the French electorate, it seemed to me that this was likely to be the more newsworthy event.
This year though I decided it was time to redress the balance and forsake the Front National in favour of the far left manifestation on the other side of the city.
The manifestation beginning in Place de la République was jointly organised by the French Trades Unions, CGT (Confédération générale du travail), FSU (Fédération syndicale unitaire), Solidaires (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques) and l’Unsa (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes).
From the plethora of literature handed out along the route I was able to deduce that there were two main themes to the manifestation:
First, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on January 11th this year, democracy, peace and freedom of thought and expression are common goods that must be defended against all forms of totalitarianism, hate speeches, stigma and attempts to divide.
And second, against a background of austerity measures and reforms reducing workers’ rights and social protection in many European countries, these policies must be reversed and investment made in quality jobs and growth.
Sounds of le défilé de la Fête du Travail :
After many years of recording sounds in Paris I like to think that I’ve developed a journalist’s nose for a good story, or at the very least for being in the right place at the right time. But this year I’m afraid I got it wrong, the little spray of Lily of the Valley in my pocket failed to bring me good luck.
While standing in the rain for three hours recording this manifestation passing me in Boulevard Voltaire I was completely unaware that the news story of the day had already taken place elsewhere, at the Front National défilé at Place de l’Opéra!
During Marine le Pen’s speech there earlier in the day three bare-breasted women appeared on the balcony of a nearby hotel. The women from the Femen activist group unfurled banners linking the Front National’s logo with the Nazi party and had “Heil Le Pen” and “Stop Fascism” written across their chests. For five minutes, they drowned out Le Pen’s speech using a bullhorn.
I was particularly disappointed when I discovered what had happened, not because I have any affection for Marine le Pen and the Front National or that I’d missed seeing the topless women, in fact I’d seen them before when I was recording the International Women’s Day march in Paris a few weeks ago. No, my disappointment came from the realisation that I’d completely missed capturing an historic sound event that would have been a priceless addition to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
I am reminded of the great American poet, Maya Angelou, who in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
I’m afraid that the sounds of the disruption at yesterday’s Front National rally are and are destined to remain my untold story.
I CAN STILL REMEMBER it very clearly. It was June 2nd, 1953, Coronation day. That day’s newspaper headlines told us that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had conquered Everest and in London, Queen Elizabeth II was to be crowned amid great pomp and ceremony.
As a small boy, Mount Everest and indeed London, despite being only 150 miles from where I lived, seemed to me to be so far away that I found it difficult to imagine either. I can though remember thinking that the conquest of Everest seemed to be much more exciting than a coronation.
As part of the celebrations to mark the Queen’s coronation we had a street party with lots of flags and bunting and, despite Britain still being in the grip of post-war rationing, there was more food on the tables spread along the centre of the street than I’d ever seen.
Also as part of the celebrations a travelling fair came to town and during the afternoon of Coronation day I was taken to it. The fair was set up in a field and right in the centre of the field was something the like of which I’d never seen before – a fairground carousel, or as we called them in those days, a merry-go-round. The brightly painted wooden horses suspended from twisted gold-painted poles bobbed up and down as they went round and round and gales of laughter from excited children and music from a mechanical organ in the centre of the carousel filled the air. The sights and sounds of this incredible spectacle thrilled me and I can remember asking myself, ‘Why can’t every day be Coronation day?’
Over the sixty or so years since that day I’ve learned much more about Hillary and Tenzing’s ascent of Everest and I’ve learned more about the Queen’s coronation but I’ve never lost my sense of childish wonder at that magical carousel. Perhaps because of that sense of wonder no other carousel has had quite the same impact on me as the one I saw on Coronation day.
Living in Paris though means that I’m not short of carousels to see.
The first carrousels (carrousel is French for carousel) appeared in France in the second half of the nineteenth century and soon became highly popular with Parisians. Today, the modern carrousels look very similar to the original ones.
In Paris there are carrousels in the collection at the Musée des Arts Forains at Cour Saint-Émilion in the 12th arrondissement as well as others scattered across the city. Perhaps the most visited of these, not least because of its location, is the Carrousel de la Tour Eiffel.
Sounds of the Carrousel de la Tour Eiffel:
Whilst small children may look at carrousels with a sense of wonder, for their owners carrousels are a business.
The original Carrousel de la Tour Eiffel was set up by Roger Alliot in 1986 directly across the street from the Tour Eiffel, the city’s most visited attraction. After occupying this lucrative location for twenty years, Monsieur Alliot received an eviction notice from the Paris city authorities claiming that the carrousel was there illegally and they had a court judgement to back their claim. Much wrangling ensued and the carrousel stayed until the cranes eventually arrived to demolish it piece by piece.
Shortly after Monsieur Alliot’s eviction another carrousel appeared to take its place. Behind this was the celebrated showman Marcel Campion. He, with the assistance of the engineer Pascal Pouzet, modified an existing carrousel and installed what is hailed as the first ‘green’ carrousel in Paris consuming it is claimed up to twelve times less energy than a conventional carrousel.
Although this carrousel still uses traditional power this is supplemented by the use of solar panels, photo-sensors and pedal power. The horses and some of the other vehicles on the carrousel are equipped with pedals that turn a wheel, which in turn generates energy. For those who do not ride the carousel, there are several positions with recumbent bikes off to the side that to help generate the power.
This carrousel comes at a price of course. It is reported to have cost some €700,000 to build and install, considerably more than a conventional carrousel. It’s likely to take some time to recoup this investment especially without increasing ticket prices relative to other Parisian carrousels, although the prestigious location at the foot of the Tour Eiffel helps.
Unlike Monsieur Alliot’s carrousel, it seems that this carrousel is deemed to be legal. The owners were granted a ten-year concession in return for a fee payable to the Paris city authorities of 20% of turnover, some 12% higher than previously. With an estimated revenue of more than €1 million per year that seems like a nice little earner for the city.
Sitting by the Carrousel de la Tour Eiffel and recording its sounds on a beautiful spring day in 2015, I couldn’t help being transported back to Coronation day in 1953. Back then ‘renewable energy’, the ‘Tour Eiffel’ or the machinations of Parisian city politics would have been as completely beyond my understanding as Mount Everest or even London.
But sharing the delight of small children seeing a carrousel for the first time was a powerful reminder of my memories of the same experience although, unlike me back in 1953, they were also able to savour the majesty of the Tour Eiffel.
YOU PROBABLY WON’T find any reference to it in the guidebooks, the glossy magazine articles or the internet sites that bombard us with the ‘10 best things to see in Paris’ or the ‘Guides to Secret Paris’ – and yet le Cylindre Sonore is quite exceptional.
It stands in the sunken landscape of Alexandre Chemetoff’s Jardin des Bambous, a Bamboo garden in the Parc de la Villette on the north-eastern edge of Paris and it is in the words of its creator, the Austrian architect and composer Bernhard Leitner:
“A cylindrical space that allows concentrated listening to the place, a contemplative rediscovery of oneself in transcendence of the place”.
Le Cylindre Sonore stands some six metres below the level of the park and it can be approached by a staircase lined with tiny water cascades leading down from the Parc de la Villette to the Jardin des Bambous or it can be approached from the garden itself. Either way, this sound space is designed so that one has to walk through it.
The staircase from the Parc de la Villette
Le Cylindre Sonore is sound architecture displayed as public art but unlike Bernard Tschumi’s bright red follies that adorn the rest of the Parc de la Villette, it’s the sound of it rather than the sight of it that attracts attention.
The sounds inside le Cylindre Sonore:
Five metres high and ten metres across, le Cylindre Sonore is in fact two cylinders with a space in between. Behind the eight perforated concrete panels and between the two cylinders are twenty-four loudspeakers arranged vertically, three to each panel, forming eight columns of sound. The circular space between the two cylinders provides access for the maintenance of the loudspeakers and entry to the underground control room. The inner cylinder acts as a resonance chamber with the curved surface shaping the sound.
Standing in le Cylindre Sonore the sounds from the loudspeakers, the sound of water flowing from the columns to a pool beneath the floor, the sounds from the water cascades alongside the staircase and the circular framed sky above create a meditative space sequestered from the city.
I spend much of my life recording the sounds of Paris. My practice mainly involves the relationship between sound and place and how sound can define, or help to define, a place. Very rarely though do I come upon a public space like le Cylindre Sonore where the sounds are the place.
Inside the Jardin des Bambous
A BRIGHT, SUNNY, SUNDAY morning saw 41,342 runners representing 90 countries set off along the 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 kilometres) of yesterday’s 39th edition of the Paris Marathon.
Starting from the Champs-Elysées the course snaked through the city to the Bois de Vincennes in the east and then back through the city to the Bois de Boulogne in the west before finishing in the Avenue Foch close to the Arch de Triomphe. The course is mostly flat and so the finish times for the elite athletes are usually medium to fast.
The sounds of the Paris Marathon each year make a valuable addition to my Paris Soundscapes Archive and so at 8.15 yesterday morning I took up position a little beyond the Mile 1 post in rue de Rivoli ready to record all the 41,342 runners passing by me.
The start of the Paris Marathon is a complex affair. The runners take up position in the Champs Elysées in groups based upon their expected finish times.
At the front are the Handisport athletes led by the Handisport fauteuil, the wheelchair competitors followed by the Handisport debout, the Handisport runners. The Handisport competitors start some 10 minutes ahead of the elite runners who lead the main field.
The elite runners are followed by the préférentials, the best of the rest. After that, the runners depart in seven waves based upon their expected finish time.
Sounds of the Paris Marathon 2015:
Having left the Champs Elysées and crossed the Place de la Concorde, the wheelchair competitors entered rue de Rivoli where they and their distinctive sounds passed me in a flash. Next came the Handisport runners including the blind runners tethered to their guides.
The sound of the French Television helicopter overhead and the arrival of TV cameramen precariously balanced on motorcycles, a flurry of official vehicles and a truck full of press photographers heralded the arrival of the elite runners.
And behind them came the best of the rest.
And then it was the turn of the rest of the leading wave. Still only one mile into the race they were still reasonably well bunched up as they passed me.
It took around twenty minutes for this first wave of runners to pass and then, after a short pause, the second wave came into view and so it continued until all seven waves had passed and then this man appeared, the very last runner in the race, complete with his own police escort.
It took about two hours for everyone to pass, which meant that more or less as the last man was passing me the Kenyan, Mark Korir, was crossing the finish line in the Avenue Foch in a winning time of 2 hours 5 minutes and 49 seconds.
The leading woman was the Ethiopian, Mesert Mengistu, who finished in a time of 2 hours 23 minutes and 24 seconds.
Of the 41,342 runners who started the Paris Marathon on Sunday, 40,172 of them completed the course with the last runner crossing the finish line in a time of 7 hours 55 minutes and 56 seconds.
Even though my sound piece above only contains the sounds of the Handisport competitors, the elite athletes and the first wave of runners, I recorded the sounds of every runner that passed me in rue de Rivoli, all 41,342 of them.
For me, capturing the Paris Marathon in sound is fascinating because behind every footstep and every gasp for air lies not only a personal challenge to complete the course but also many untold stories and I find that intriguing.
Here are some useless facts you might like to know about the Paris Marathon.
There are 10 refreshment stands (one every 5 km) along the route and between them they hand out around 23 tons of bananas, 15 tons of oranges, 2 tons of dried fruit and nuts, 7 tons of apples, 412,500 sugar cubes, 35,600 litres of sports drinks and 436,500 bottles of Vittel water. And, there are also 45 defibrillators available around the course!
Here are some more sights of yesterday’s Paris Marathon.
The clean-up trucks follow the race washing and sweeping the streets
IT WAS ORIGINALLY a very ordinary square in Montmartre, a rural village dotted with vineyards and windmills but today, Place du Tertre is one of the most visited squares in Paris. Standing in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur the square is filled with cafés, tourists, artists, street performers and buskers.
Place du Tertre dates back to 1635 when it occupied land owned by the Abbaye de Montmartre, a Benedictine abbey founded in the 12th century. It stands on top of a hill, the Butte Montmartre, and it is from its location that the square derives its name; tertre is the French word for hillock.
As its population increased, Montmartre became an independent commune in 1790 and then in 1860, along with a clutch of other surrounding communes, it was absorbed into the City of Paris.
Although Montmartre is a popular tourist magnet today, it wasn’t always so.
The commune was partially destroyed at the end of March, 1814 in the Battle of Paris when the French surrendered to the coalition forces of Russia, Austria and Prussia forcing the Emperor Napoleon to abdicate and to go into exile. During this time Russian Cossack soldiers set up camp on the hill and, so the story goes, it was at N°6 Place du Tertre, in the café La Mère Catherine, that the Cossacks first introduced the term bistro (Russian for ‘quickly’) into the French lexicon.
Montmartre suffered again during the Revolution of 1848 when the insurgents hid in the underground galleries of the gypsum mines and in the Paris Commune of 1870-71 when it became the cradle of the insurrection. During the Paris Commune, the Communards seized all the canons used for the defence of Paris and gathered them on Place du Tertre.
By the end of the 19th century the character of Montmartre was changing. The extraction of gypsum in the many quarries came to an end, new buildings slowly replaced the vineyards and orchards and some of the windmills were transformed into cabarets.
Place du Tertre, around 1900 : Image courtesy of Paris en Images
“In this bizarre land swarmed a host of colourful artists, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, a few with their own places but most in furnished lodgings, surrounded by the workers of Montmartre, the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolles, sprouting up all over the place, like weeds. Montmartre was home to every kind of artist.”
A thriving bohemian culture driven by its critique of decadent society attracted artists, intellectuals and writers to Montmartre where they frequented its vibrant halls of entertainment and celebrated them in their paintings, literature, and poems. Vincent van Gough, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were just some of the artists who took up residence in the district.
Montmartre reached its artistic zenith around the time of the Exposition Universelle of 1900 by which time it boasted over forty venues comprising cabarets, café-concerts, dance halls, music halls, theatres, and circuses. But it wasn’t to last. The area’s underground bohemian culture had become a part of mainstream bourgeois entertainment and artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and his avant-garde contemporaries lost interest in Montmartre’s nightlife and sought their modern subjects elsewhere.
Artists though are still to be found in Place du Tertre, some with regular pitches in the square and others, more itinerant, walking around capturing the willing, and sometimes the unsuspecting tourists.
Over the years many artists have migrated to Montmartre but one of the few famous ones to have been born there was Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). Utrillo specialised in painting cityscapes and it was with him in mind that I recorded my soundwalk; my sonic equivalent of an Utrillo cityscape.
Place du Tertre – A Soundwalk:
My soundwalk around Place du Tertre captures some of its contemporary atmosphere but, alas, it doesn’t capture the moment on Christmas Eve 1898, when Louis Renault’s first car was driven up the Butte Montmartre to the Place du Tertre, marking the advent of the French automobile industry.
The plaque to mark the arrival of Louis Renault’s first motorcar in Place du Tertre.
Whilst its artists and entertainers might not be quite as illustrious as in the past, Place du Tertre continues to be at the heart of the vibrant community that is Montmartre.
RUE FOYATIER IS not only one of the most visited streets in Paris it’s also one of the most unusual. It was opened in 1867 and named after the sculptor Denis Foyatier (1793–1863).
Rue Foyatier is one of the most visited streets in the city because it’s one of the main thoroughfares leading up la butte Montmartre, the large hill in the 18th arrondissement that gives its name to the surrounding district. It’s unusual because it’s not a conventional street; it is in fact an escalier, a giant staircase.
Images of rue Foyatier, and other staircases leading up la butte Montmartre, have become iconic images of Paris thanks to the work of Brassaï and other great photographers.
Brassaï: Escalier de la butte Montmartre, Paris 18e, c. 1937-1938
At 100 metres long and 12 metres wide, rue Foyatier begins at the foot of the butte Montmartre at rue André Barsacq and ends at the top of the hill at rue Saint-Éluthère in the shadow of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
Viewed from the bottom of the street the climb up rue Foyatier looks daunting. Those brave enough to tackle it will negotiate 222 stone steps and climb 36 metres in order to reach the top. From my own experience I can attest that the climb is in fact as daunting as it looks!
But for those who can’t face the climb on foot there is an alternative, a funicular railway.
The funicular was opened on 13th July 1900 and was entirely rebuilt in 1935 and again in 1991. Some two million people a year use the funicular to ascend the butte Montmartre. The journey takes a little under two minutes and it costs the price of a Métro ticket.
Much of the sound work I do in Paris is influenced to a large extent by the work of the great nineteenth and early twentieth century Parisian street photographers and so, with Brassaï’s iconic photograph in mind, I set off to capture the sound tapestry of the Escalier de la butte Montmartre.
Rue Foyatier in Sound:
I recorded these sounds from more or less the same position that Brassaï took his picture. In fact, I was positioned to the right of the first lamppost with my microphones close to and facing across the steps towards the funicular and the 2.5 hectare terraced public garden that lies beyond.
Brassaï would have captured his image in a fraction of second but, stretching to a little over twenty-minutes, my exposure time was much longer.
My sound image includes breathless people struggling up the steps and people walking down seemingly much more relaxed, the sounds of the funicular cars being raised and lowered by their taught metal cables and the sounds of the crowds drifting across from the terraced garden at the foot of Sacré-Cœur.
If you listen carefully you will also hear snatches of individual stories unfolding, like the lady who stops to announce that her sock had fallen down, the testosterone-fuelled young man telling his friend that he wants to race up the steps and the breathless young American lady asking her friends if they are, “suckin’ wind yet?”
I have deliberately not included any images of what I could see from my recording position because to do so would miss the point. Just as Brassaï lets his picture capture the atmosphere and tell the story of this place, my recording is intended to do the same by simply letting the sounds speak for themselves and leaving you to create your own images from your imagination.
For those who do negotiate rue Foyatier, either on foot or on the funicular, the reward at the top is certainly worthwhile – a magnificent view of the Parisian skyline.
MORE RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges project took me to the most majestic and extravagant bridge in Paris, Pont Alexandre III.
Pont Alexandre III looking upstream
Named after the Russian Tsar, Alexandre III, one of the architects of the Franco-Russian Alliance between the French Third Republic and the Russian Empire, the bridge connects the Champs-Élysées and the Grand and Petit Palais on the right bank with the Hôtel des Invalides on the left bank of the Seine.
Pont Alexandre III was conceived to provide an additional crossing over the Seine to relieve the pressure of the increasing traffic flow across the neighbouring Pont de la Concorde.
The foundation stone of the bridge was laid on 7th October, 1896 by Tsar Nicolas II, son of Alexandre III, construction work began in May 1897 and the bridge was inaugurated on 14th April, 1900 by Emile Loubet, President de la République to coincide with the 1900 Exposition Universelle held in Paris.
Exposition universelle de 1900, Paris. La Seine et le pont Alexandre III.
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Because of its prestigious location the architects chosen to design the bridge, Joseph Cassien-Bernard and Gaston Cousin, were faced with the challenge of coming up with a structure that prevented the bridge from obscuring the view of both the Champs-Élysées and the Hôtel des Invalides.
In order to achieve this they designed a three-hinged metal arch bridge, 160 metres long and 40 metres wide, comprising a 107 metre single metal arch spanning the river with two masonry viaducts on the banks. To avoid obscuring the view on either side of the bridge the central arch was kept low at just 6 metres above the water level but, in order to achieve this, very large abutments with deep foundations were required on either side. These abutments whose sides run parallel to the axis of the bridge are 33.5 metres long on one side and 44 metres on the other. Both abutments sink approximately 20 metres underground.
Pont Alexandre III looking towards the Left Bank and Les Invalides
They built the abutments using compressed air caissons, the same technique that was used to construct the foundations of the Tour Eiffel and much of the Paris Métro. But what was revolutionary about the construction of Pont Alexandre III was that the metalwork for the bridge was prefabricated. The metal was forged at the Creusot works in Saône-et-Loire in eastern France and then shipped by barge before being mounted into position by a huge crane that spanned the river. This was one of the first examples of prefabrication being used in the construction industry.
An interesting fact not always noticed by users of the bridge is that Pont Alexandre III does not in fact span the Seine in a direct line from the Champs Elysées to Les Invalides, it runs slightly obliquely although most people scarcely notice this.
Pont Alexandre III looking towards the Right Bank and the Grand and Petit Palais
At each corner of Pont Alexandre III are 17 metre high decorated granite columns. These columns are more than just decoration though, they are built on top of the abutments on either side of the river and provide a stabilising counterweight to the bridge’s low-slung metal arch. Each of the columns is topped with a gilt-bronze statue representing a ‘renommée, a Greek goddess personifying an allegorical character of public or social recognition.
The two columns on the Right Bank
On top of the two columns on the Right Bank, the upstream statue is La renommée des arts, by Emmanuel Frémiet, and downstream, La renommée des sciences, also by Emmanuel Frémiet. On top of the Left Bank columns, the upstream statue is La renommée au combat, by Pierre Granet, and downstream, Pégase tenu par la Renommée de la Guerre, by Léopold Steiner.
There is more decoration on the base of the columns. On the Right Bank upstream, La France du Moyen Âge by Alfred-Charles Lenoir, and downstream, La France moderne by Gustave Michel. On the Left bank upstream, La France à la Renaissance by Jules Coutan, and downstream La France sous Louis XIV by Laurent Marqueste.
La France sous Louis XIV by Laurent Marqueste.
Two decorative features in the form of Nymph reliefs in the centre of the bridge on either side signify the Franco-Russian Alliance. On the upstream side, the Nymphes de la Seine avec les armes de Paris, and on the downstream side directly opposite, the Nymphes de la Neva avec les armes de la Russie. Both were made from hammered copper and gilt-bronze by Georges Récipon.
Nymphes de la Seine avec les armes de Paris
One of the features of Pont Alexandre III much beloved by film directors (both Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and the James Bond film A View to a Kill, with Roger Moore as Bond, used the bridge as a backdrop) are the candelabra style Art Nouveau street lamps that line both sides of the bridge.
In my Paris Bridges Project I’m not only looking to explore the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, I’m also trying to seek out the characteristic sounds of each bridge and trying to identify any sounds that might be unique to each bridge.
I began my exploration of the sounds of Pont Alexandre III on top of the bridge. The bridge is 40 metres wide and carries six lanes of traffic, three in either direction. Save for a short stretch of pavé at each end, the roadway has a smooth surface so it seemed that the sounds of the traffic passing would likely be fairly uninspiring. That is until I found an expansion joint crossing the road and it was from here that I chose to record. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that this expansion joint would feature as one of the unique sounds of this bridge – but not from this recording position.
The sounds on Pont Alexandre III:
The expansion joint on the bridge
Next, I wanted to explore the sounds around the bridge and to do that I walked down from the top of the bridge to the Port des Champs-Élysées on the Right Bank where I found boats berthed along the quay.
Pont Alexandre III from Port des Champs-Élysées
I began recording on the upstream side of the bridge where I found three boats berthed together and then I walked under the bridge to the downstream side where there were some larger boats.
I recorded from here on the upstream side of the bridge
The sounds around Pont Alexandre III:
I recorded from here on the downstream side of the bridge
The sounds on the upstream side are particularly unusual because the sound of the mooring ropes straining as the boats shift with the waves sound exactly as if the boats are actually breathing.
On the downstream side it is the sounds of the wash, the sonic footprint left by the passing tourist boats and industrial barges, that feature.
Having now captured the characteristic sounds of the bridge from on it and around it I still hadn’t found any sounds that seemed to be unique to the bridge, sounds that distinguish this bridge from any other Parisian bridge. So I decided to cross the bridge to the quay on the Left Bank and explore underneath the bridge to see what I could find.
I recorded from here under the bridge
The sounds under Pont Alexandre III:
The return of the expansion joint!
From under the bridge I found that the rather mundane expansion joint in the roadway on top of the bridge had now become a significant feature of the soundscape. In the tunnel-like, reverberating, surroundings its sonic texture had changed completely from its clipped tones on the bridge. Now it seemed to be speaking with authority, demanding to be heard above the wash of the water, the river traffic and the passing school children.
I was in no doubt that the soundscape I’d discovered under the bridge was indeed the unique sound of Pont Alexandre III.
Countless people visit this bridge to look at it and to take photographs of it – and why wouldn’t they? It’s extravagant and flamboyant and it’s certainly worth seeing.
But I can’t help wondering if I am the only person who visits this bridge to listen to it!