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
DESPITE ITS REPUTATION for being stuck in the past, the face of Paris is changing.
A recognition that Paris needs to modernise to become more competitive in the twenty-first century, together with the Greater Paris Project, the plan to create a sustainable and creative metropolis by absorbing the suburbs and redeveloping the city centre, and the city’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games have become a catalyst for change.
A huge amount of money is being invested in public transport with the extension of the tramway network, the extension and upgrading of the Métro system and the introduction of electric and biogas buses.
Both the Ministry of Defence and the Palais de Justice are moving from the city centre into state-of-the-art new buildings on the outskirts of the capital to help stimulate the local economies, the Herzog & de Meuron designed skyscraper, the Tour Triangle, a 180 metre (590 ft) tall glass pyramid in the southwest of the city, has been given the green light and even the ghastly Tour Montparnasse is due for a makeover.
Although Paris is not yet a permanent building site, the pace of change is accelerating as seen by the recent announcement of a €600 million transformation of the busiest railway station in Europe, the Gare du Nord.
The Gare du Nord is one of six main line railway stations in Paris and with some 2,100 trains carrying 700,000 passengers per day, the station is not only the busiest in Europe, it’s the third busiest in the world.
Despite being rather scruffy and certainly in need of a revamp, the current Gare du Nord is special for me not because of the number of passengers who pass through it but because it is the only Parisian railway station with a distinctive soundscape. It is a perfect example of a place being defined by its sounds.
I went to the Gare du Nord the other day to capture more sounds for my archive before the station’s transformation changes the soundscape completely.
Inside the Gare du Nord; October 2016:
The transformation of the Gare du Nord will take place in two phases: the first has already begun and is due to be completed in 2019 and the second is scheduled from 2019 to 2023 – just in time for the 2024 Olympic Games – should the Paris bid be successful!
The Gare du Nord currently links Paris to London, Brussels, Amsterdam, the northern suburbs and Charles de Gaulle airport as well providing RER and Métro lines that cross the city.
The plans, designed by the architects Wilmotte & Associés, call for a new arrivals terminal exiting in Rue de Dunkerque, the current main entrance where passengers enter and leave the station, a new departures terminal entered from Rue de Maubeuge, where the taxi rank currently is, a Pôle échange Francilien for trains to the suburbs, a Pôle échange National for main line SNCF trains and a new €80 million Eurostar Terminal for which work is already underway.
A 160 metre-long, 60-metre wide walkway above the tracks will lead passengers to their platforms and the whole area around the station will be pedestrianised.
These images from Willmotte & Associés show us what we can expect:
As the visual landscape of the city changes so does its sound landscape and as an archivist of the contemporary Parisian soundscape I am striving to record and archive these changes.
Of course, it doesn’t only require an architectural transformation to change the soundscape of the Gare du Nord. Over the last seventeen years, I’ve witnessed the sounds of breathless passengers carrying suitcases give way to the rumble of wheeled luggage bags and where once the sounds of the trains were complimented only by the train announcements, today it is the repetitive security announcements that dominate – an example of sounds not only reflecting a change of lifestyle but also a change to the very fabric of our society.
Will I mourn the loss of the current distinctive soundscape of the Gare du Nord? Yes, of course, but I also look forward to the new, more passenger friendly terminus even with what I suspect will be its less distinctive soundscape.
I will record the sounds of the Gare du Nord both during and after its transformation content in the knowledge that the distinctive sounds of the station that so many of us knew before the work began will be preserved in my archive for future generations to explore, to study and to enjoy.
The Gare du Nord today – but not for much longer!
EARLIER THIS WEEK I had to travel from Paris to Amsterdam.
After years of criss-crossing Europe courtesy of Air France, I’ve come to realise that being seduced into thinking that a one-hour flight might be the quickest and most convenient way to travel between these two cities is a myth perpetuated only by the prospect of accumulating more, usually unclaimed, air miles.
Now, I’m more than happy to avoid the endless angst associated with airports and opt for a much more civilised mode of travel – the train.
My Thalys train from Paris to Amsterdam
After walking to the bus stop at the end of my little street I caught the 43 bus, which took me to the Gare du Nord in time for me to catch my 10.25 Thalys train to Amsterdam Centraal Station.
Thalys is an international high-speed train operator originally operating on the LGV Nord high-speed line between Paris and Brussels, a line shared with Eurostar trains going from Paris or Brussels to London via Lille and the Channel Tunnel. The line is also shared with French domestic TGV trains.
Beyond Brussels, the main cities Thalys trains reach are Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Liège, Bruges, Ghent, Charleroi, Aachen and Cologne.
The main Thalys routes
En route to Amsterdam the Thalys crosses France, Belgium and The Netherlands stopping at Brussels (Bruxelles in French), Antwerp (Anvers in French), Rotterdam and Schiphol, before arriving at Amsterdam Centraal Station three hours and seventeen minutes after leaving Paris.
Thanks to a very sensible piece of joined-up thinking, Schiphol railway station is directly under Schiphol airport so for anyone flying from Schiphol, a short escalator ride from the train platform will deposit you directly inside the airline departures area.
Just as with the airlines, train ticketing remains a complete mystery to most of us but since I had the luxury of being able to book my tickets several weeks in advance, I was able to travel in Comfort Class 1 for less than the price of an Economy Class ticket bought close to the day of departure.
Inside Comfort Class 1 at Amsterdam Centraal Station after all the passengers had left
Since I never travel anywhere without microphones and a sound recorder I couldn’t resist recording my departure from Paris.
From Paris by Thalys:
I began recording as I was walking along Platform 9 at the Gare du Nord towards my carriage, N°13. A very smart young man in a Thalys uniform clipped my ticket and I boarded the train.
I am fascinated by what I call ‘transitional sounds’, the changing sounds we experience as we move from one environment to another. In this case, the sounds of the busy station platform merging into the relative silence of the train carriage.
It doesn’t take long though before this relative silence is penetrated by a different range of sounds – people stowing their luggage and settling into their seats, the rustle of papers, snatches of conversation, a lady progressing along the carriage offering to book taxis for those alighting at Brussels (a perk of travelling business class) and the loudspeaker announcements. On Thalys trains, the announcements are made in four languages, French, Dutch, German and English and since my journey started in Paris protocol dictates that the announcements begin in French. On the return journey from Amsterdam they begin with the Dutch version.
The lady announcer, who speaks all four languages, tells us that departure is imminent, the doors close and almost imperceptibly the train moves off. It’s not until we’re well clear of the station that the sound of the wheels rattling over rails is heard.
I continued recording until we passed Saint-Denis in the northeast of Paris and began picking up speed by which time I’d learned from the announcer that I was on the right train, the Thalys bar was open in the adjacent carriage and that I should keep my ticket with me at all times.
Presently, Charles de Gaulle airport hove into view in the distance and I couldn’t resist raising a glass to all the passengers there mired in the endless check-in queues, complex security procedures and all the other irritations associated with air travel. As one who used to make 150+ flights every year I’m quite content now to leave all that behind and let the train take the strain.
THE GARE DU NORD is one of the six terminus railway stations in Paris and it’s the one I use most often.
It’s reputed to be the busiest railway station in Europe with 190 million passengers passing through it each year. That equates to the population of the United Kingdom, France and Italy combined, or the entire population of Brazil.
From the Gare du Nord French SNCF trains head to northern France, Thalys trains to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and the Eurostar to both Brussels and to the United Kingdom. The station is also home to some French commuter train services.
The original station was opened in 1846 but traffic expanded at such a rate that in the 1860’s the French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff was engaged to redesign and rebuild the station. His creation is the Gare du Nord that we see today.
For me, the Gare du Nord is the only station in Paris that has really distinctive sounds enveloped in their own distinctive acoustics. The other main Paris stations sound rather ordinary by comparison.
Inside the Gare du Nord:
The inside of the Gare du Nord is always busy with constant waves of people ebbing and flowing. Outside, the ebb and flow continues but less with people and more with traffic.
Just behind the Gare du Nord is a very busy bus station, which I know well. It’s from here that I catch my 43 bus home every time I arrive at this station after a rail journey.
Outside the Gare du Nord:
Parisian buses may not be the first thing that leap to mind when one thinks of the Gare du Nord but for me, these sounds are also an integral part of the Gare du Nord’s rich sound tapestry.