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
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.
SET IN A SHALLOW basin in Place Stravinsky in the shadow of the Centre Pompidou, sixteen works of sculpture move and spray water into the air.
La Fontaine Stravinsky was part of a larger sculptural programme, launched by the City of Paris in 1978, to build seven contemporary fountains with sculptures in different squares in the city. As well as la Fontaine Stravinsky, the project included new fountains at the Hotel de Ville and within the gardens of the Palais Royal. These were the first public fountains to be built in Paris since the fountains of the Palais de Chaillot were constructed for the Paris Exposition of 1937.
The basin containing the sixteen sculptures sits above the offices of IRCAM, the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique, an organisation devoted to promoting modern music and musicology. The founder of the IRCAM, the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, suggested the works of the composer Igor Stravinsky as a theme for the fountain.
The sixteen sculptures therefore represent:
L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird)
La Clef de Sol (the Musical Key of G)
La Spirale (The Spiral)
L’Elephant (The Elephant)
Le Renard (The Fox)
Le Serpent (The Serpent)
La Grenouille (The Frog)
La Diagonale (The Diagonal)
La Mort (Death)
La Sirène (The Mermaid)
Le Rossignol (The Nightingale)
La Vie (Life)
Le Cœur (The Heart)
Le Chapeau de Clown (The Clown’s Hat)
Because of the IRCAM rooms below, the Fontaine Stravinsky was designed to be as light as possible with the basin being very shallow and made from stainless steel and the sculptures made of plastic and other lightweight materials.
Funding for the Fontaine Stravinsky was provided by the City of Paris who paid two million French francs for the project, which was matched by a further two million French francs from the French Ministry of Culture.
Originally, the commission for the fountain was given to Jean Tinguely, best known for his kinetic art, or sculptural machines. It was envisaged that the fountain would have been entirely composed of his black-painted mechanical sculptures but, in May 1982, Tinguely asked that brightly coloured works by his second wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, also be included. This proposal was resisted at first because it was thought that the brightly coloured works would visually overwhelm the dark works of Tinguely but, after much descussion, it was agreed that it would be a joint project by Tinguely and Saint Phalle.
I went to the Fontaine Stravinsky the other day to try to capture the different sound textures from each of the sixteen sculptures but when I arrived I found that the basin had been drained and routine maintenance work was going on. Far from being disappointing, it gave me a chance to see the inner workings of the kinetic art.
All sixteen statues move and spray water and the cables and hoses that feed them are laid along the bottom of the basin.
There are a host of cafés and restaurants in the thirteenth century rue Brisemiche running alongside Place Stravinsky so I decided to head off for something to eat while the maintenance work was being carried out.
When I returned the basin was being refilled and the sculptures were bursting into life.
Sounds of la Fontaine Stravinsky:
I walked around the perimeter of the fountain pausing to explore the sonic texture of each of the sixteen statues. Some of the textures are quite distinctive but others, the more delicate ones, tend to be overshadowed by their more raucous neighbours – but they are there if you listen very carefully.
I recorded in the evening so I was not surprised to capture the sounds of the gentlemen from the Mairie de Paris arriving in their smart, green, electric truck to replace the large translucent rubbish bags beside the fountain. I was though surprised to capture the sound of the water to the fountain being turned off for the night from a stopcock behind the neighbouring Eglise Saint-Merri. The sudden absence of running water seemed to leave a curious sonic vacuum in the air.
AS WELL AS BEING a plein-air gallery of street art, the pavilion at the top of the Parc de Belleville also affords a panoramic view across Paris.
While the Parc de Belleville vies with Montmartre for the distinction of being the highest point in Paris, the Parc de Belleville is unchallenged as the highest park in the city and the view from the top is quite spectacular.
Designed by the architect, François Debulois, and the landscaper, Paul Brichet, the Parc de Belleville covers 45,000 square meters of hillside in the 20th arrondissement stretching from rue Piat in the northeast to rue Julien-Lacroix in the southwest. It was opened to the public in December 1988.
In medieval times the fertile land and natural springs on this hillside were perfect for cultivating grapes and so vineyards appeared. From the fourteenth century onwards, taverns and guinguettes also began to proliferate. Guinguettes were drinking establishments that also served as restaurants and dance halls. Up until the mid nineteenth century Belleville was outside the Paris city limits and was exempt from the tax on alcohol so the taverns and guinguettes offering cheap drink were hugely popular.
In the mid nineteenth century a gypsum quarry was carved out of the hillside and that attracted a population of seasonal workers who worked on Baron Haussmann’s Parisian construction projects during the winter and returned home in the summer to tend their fields. Itinerant workers together with cheap drink didn’t exactly enhance the reputation of the hillside and the area was dubbed ‘insalubrious’.
In the nineteenth century this hillside was also known for the grand party organised each year for Mardi Gras. On the last day of the Mardi Gras celebrations huge crowds came to witness the ‘Descente de la Courtille’, named after the cheap taverns and restaurants that lined the rue de Belleville.
The Open-Air Theatre
Today, the Parc de Belleville has a small museum, the Maison de l’Air, designed to highlight the importance of fresh air and the problems of pollution. There is also a wooden playground for children and an open-air theatre all set against a background of some 1,200 trees and shrubs and 1,000 m² of lawn.
A feature of the Parc de Belleville that makes full use of the sloping hillside is the Fontaine de Belleville. The name is perhaps a little misleading because it’s really a water cascade rather than a traditional fountain. It falls for 100 metres down the hillside making it the longest water feature in Paris.
I went to the Fontaine de Belleville to explore the different sound textures as the water falls from the top of the park to the bottom. Although I’ve been to the Parc de Belleville many times I’ve never managed to be there when the entire water cascade has been working … and this visit was no exception. Some stretches were inexplicably dry and others were subject to construction work but I was nevertheless able to explore most of the cascade.
Sounds of the Fontaine de Belleville:
At the top of the park the cascade begins its descent in two parallel streams separated by a walkway. Each stream falls over two flights of steps into a pool at the bottom. I began recording the sounds at the foot of the pool where excess water was overflowing into a drain. Presently a little girl appeared and, bedecked in her summer dress, she jumped into the pool with a splash. This was obviously fun because she kept on doing it completely oblivious to my microphones.
Moving on, I passed part of the cascade nestling in the pavé and then I came upon more steps where the cascade again splits into two. I stopped to record the water trickling over the steps on one side.
I found these sounds particularly interesting. First, the sonic texture of the water seemed to be gentler and better defined at this point than it was further up the hill. Second, the speed of the water varied which changed the sonic profile. And third, there was a curious sound in the background which sounded a little like the rumble of thunder. On this particularly hot summer’s day I can confirm that it wasn’t thunder but rather the rumble of the water emerging from the previous section of the cascade from a hole at the back of the top step in what seemed like a procession of large bubbles. As each bubble burst the flow of water increased. I found this absolutely fascinating to listen to.
Moving on again, I became aware that this water cascade does not operate entirely thanks to gravity, it requires assistance. At the end of the pavé circle is a pool where the sounds of water compete with the mechanical sounds of the pumping system.
I recorded sounds from the edge of the pool where the sonic texture of the water changed to more of a hiss competing with the sounds of the pumping system and where the sound of occasional birdsong provided a welcome counterpoint.
I ventured down some steps to stand underneath the pool where I found the sounds of the water falling over the edge neatly relegated the sounds of the pumping system back into second place. The pumping system is required not only to assist the flow of water down the hillside but also to pump it back up to the top again. It follows therefore that the mechanical sounds of the pumping system are as much a part of the sound tapestry of the cascade as the sounds of the water itself.
This graffiti covered section of the cascade did not carry water so I could only imagine what it might sound like if it was in full flow.
Below this point a large section of the cascade was being renovated so it too was out of action, which was rather a shame because it’s the part of the cascade that usually attracts most visitors especially on a hot summer’s day. But all was not lost; this section at the bottom of the cascade leading to rue Julien-Lacroix at least was still open.
I found exploring the Fontaine de Belleville and listening carefully to its sounds a fascinating way to spend a morning.
Listening to the little girl splashing in the pool at the top and the children at the bottom doing much the same I was reminded of a line from the poem by Richard Wilbur, A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra;
“Happy in all that ragged, loose collapse of water, its effortless descent and flatteries of spray…”
LA FONTAINE MÉDICIS, or the Medici Fountain, is a monumental fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. I’ve been to it many times but early on a bitterly cold morning last week I went with a special purpose in mind, to record the sounds of the fountain.
The fountain was part of the sumptuous palace and gardens that Marie de Médicis, widow of Henry IV and regent for King Louis XIII, commissioned in the 1630’s. The palace, the Palais du Luxembourg, was based on the Palazzo Pitti and the gardens on the Boboli gardens in Florence both of which she had known from her childhood. The fountain was modelled on the grotto built by Bernado Buontalenti in the Boboli gardens. The palace was the work of architect Salomon de Brosse, but the fountain, or grotto, was most probably the work of Tommaso Francini, the Intendant General of Waters and Fountains of the King.
Fontaine Médicis in 1820
After the death of Marie de Médicis the palace and the gardens went through several changes of ownership and the fountain fell into disrepair. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered some restoration work to be done at the beginning of the 19th century but by the second half of the century Baron Haussmann’s massive urban redevelopment of Paris was in full cry and the future of the fountain was in jeopardy. Haussmann had plans to create the rue de Médicis which was to cut through the site where the fountain stood.
The French architect Alphonse de Gisors, who had already extended the Palais du Luxembourg in the 1830’s, was called upon to move the Fontaine Médicis some thirty meters closer to the palace to make way for Haussmann’s new street and in doing so he radically changed its setting by creating a 50 metre long rectangle of water bounded by an alley of trees and he also changed its appearance.
Alphonse de Gisors’ relocation of la Fontaine Médicis today
It was this rectangle of water that was of particular interest to me when I visited the Fontaine Médicis last week.
Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea, by Auguste Ottin (1861)
Looking at the fountain with the giant, Polyphemus, looking down on Acis and Galatea and with Faunus, the god of the forest and Diana, goddess of the hunt (both by Ottin) looking at each other, I was absorbed by the sounds of the fountain.
At this early hour in the morning there were no people around but even so I was not alone. This duck befriended me and stayed close to me the whole time I was there. I had gone to this place to record the sounds around me and although I could hear the sounds of the water I couldn’t help wondering what this duck might hear – assuming ducks can hear.
Anxious to find out, I lowered a microphone to the same level as the duck and began to record. These are the sounds heard by the thousands, or maybe hundreds of thousands, of people who visit this place each year.
Presently, the duck leapt off the ledge onto the water below and began foraging with its head under the water. I followed by lowering a microphone under the water and I began to hear sounds that only the ducks and none of the visitors hear. Both the duck and I were close to where the water was falling over the ledge so the sounds under the water were an underwater version of the sounds above – the gurgling of the falling water as it hits and then descends below the waterline.
The duck decided to move off to a more interesting feeding ground, a clump of fallen leaves nestling on the water. I let my microphone float down to join the duck and it came to rest under the leaves where I discovered a completely different collection of captivating sounds.
I’ve put together a selection of the sounds I recorded, the sounds from above the base of the fountain, the sounds from below and the sounds from under the bed of leaves so that you can share the sonic tapestry the ducks hear.
The hidden sounds of the Fontaine Médicis:
In Homer’s Odyssey we are told that the man-eating one-eyed giant, Polyphemus, was blinded when Odysseus hardened a wooden stake in a fire and drove it into his eye. If that is so, then from his position on la Fontaine Médicis today Polyphemus will surely be more than compensated by the wonderful sounds around him both above and below the water.