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.
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
LOCATED AT THE southern edge of the Bois de Boulogne in the 16th arrondissement, the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil is a botanical garden set within a large greenhouse complex. This garden, along with the Parc de Bagatelle, the Parc floral de Paris, and the Arboretum de l’École du Breuil, make up the Jardin botanique de la Ville de Paris, a collection of four gardens maintained by the city each with their own history and architectural and botanical heritage.
The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil
The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil was created in 1761 under Louis XV. The garden is arranged around a parterre in the traditional French style. Today’s five main greenhouses, designed and constructed between 1895-1898 by the architect Jean-Camille Formigé were constructed around this central area.
Among the botanical collection are many varieties of plants including azaleas, orchids, begonias, cactus, ferns and some carnivorous plants as well as trees of course. There is also a palm house and an aviary with tropical birds.
The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil may be a relatively peaceful and tranquil oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy city but the impact of urbanisation has left its mark. The building of the Boulevard Periphérique, the Paris ring road, in 1968 and the subsequent development of Porte d’Auteuil reduced the size of the garden by about one-third. The environmental impact of the traffic on the northern side of the garden where the Boulevard Périphérique and the A13 autoroute pass close by is hard to ignore. On the day I went, a grey mist hung in the air from the traffic emissions and the vehicular noise pollution not only pervaded the air but penetrated deep inside the greenhouses.
The Grande Serre
A little respite from the worst of the noise pollution can be found inside the grande serre, the largest of the greenhouses. In here, the unwanted man-made sounds can still be heard but they are overtaken to some extent by the sounds of nature – the sounds of tropical birds.
Sounds inside the grande serre:
Standing under the high domed roof of this huge glass building surrounded by the sounds of tropical birdsong and with over-size fish swimming in the pool at my feet, it was hard to imagine that the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil is again under threat, this time from a neighbour who slumbers peacefully for most of the year but for two weeks at the end of May and the beginning of June each year bursts in raucous life.
The neighbour in question is the Stade Roland Garros, an international tennis complex, home to the Fédération Française de Tennis and to the French Open Tennis Championships. Along with the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, the French Open is one of the four prestigious Grand Slam tennis tournaments that take place each year.
Some time ago, it became clear that the Stade Roland Garros risked losing its place as a Grand Slam venue unless it expanded to better cater for the needs of the tournament’s corporate sponsors. Not wishing to go the same way as the now defunct French Formula 1 Grand Prix, the Fédération Française de Tennis hatched a plan.
Rejecting an option to build a completely new venue outside Paris at Marne-la-Vallee, Gonesse or Versailles, they decided instead to come up with a planned extension to the existing site taking it from the existing 8.5 hectares to 13 hectares.
As you can see from this Google Earth image, the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil and the Stade Roland Garros live cheek by jowl. And yes, you’ve guessed it, the plan calls for an extension to the east into the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.
The plan is for the centre court, the Philippe Chatrier court, to be given a retractable roof, while another, semi-sunken, court with seating capacity for 5,000 spectators will be built in the south-east part of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil. This will replace the current No.1 Court, which will be demolished to make room for a vast green esplanade spreading over a hectare – the new Place des Mousquetaires. The western side will see the Fonds des Princes having a new lay-out featuring a competition area with seven courts, one of which will have a capacity of 2,200 seats.
To accommodate the new court in the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil the plan is to demolish the existing greenhouses and build new ones around the new tennis court in the same Formigé style.
Local residents associations and supporters of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil of course are opposed to the plan and they’ve come up with an alternative. Instead of the eastward expansion proposed by the Fédération Française de Tennis, they have proposed an expansion across the A13 motorway. Their plan calls for the motorway to be covered and the new 5,000 seat court to be built on top of it so that the motorway passes underneath.
The proposal to redevelop the Stade Roland Garros of course is not new, it was originally announced back in 2011. What is new though is that the Paris City Council, having originally supported the Fédération Française de Tennis proposal, has now put a spanner in the works.
On Wednesday, 18th March, they unanimously adopted a resolution that a further study into the alternative plan should be conducted by an independent organisation, not by the Fédération Française de Tennis, so that the Paris City Council can debate and then vote on it.
So maybe all is not yet quite lost for the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil as we know it today. A notice on the door of one of the greenhouses shows that the fight goes on.
What the future holds for the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil remains to be seen but, although I care about these gardens and think they should be preserved, I’m particularly interested in how the soundscape might change if either proposal goes ahead.
If the decision goes one way and the A13 autoroute is covered we might at least get some amelioration of the vehicular noise pollution that pervades this space throughout the year and that will certainly change the soundscape for the better.
If the decision goes the other way and a semi-sunken tennis court surrounded by 5,000 seats is built in the south-east corner of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, not only will the landscape change but so will the soundscape. For two weeks of the year the sounds of cheering crowds, the endless grunts of tennis players, the clink of champagne glasses and the sound of cash filling the coffers of the Fédération Française de Tennis will no doubt dominate, but for the other fifty weeks of the year the reshaped landscape will inevitably create a reshaped soundscape.
The existing greenhouses, including the grande serre, will be demolished, to be replaced by copies positioned around the new tennis court, which means that the existing sounds inside today’s grande serre will disappear forever. So it could well be that the sounds I recorded on my visit to the garden the other day will find themselves added to my ever-growing list of the vanishing sounds of Paris.
Whatever the decision, and no doubt a decision will be reached eventually, I shall be there to record the effect of that decision on the soundscape.
But, just in case Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil does disappear, here are some more sights of it as it is today.
I WAS WALKING THROUGH the Jardin du Luxembourg heading for my 82 bus when I came upon something quite unusual, something I couldn’t possibly walk past without stopping to record.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me on this particular day so here’s a picture of the Jardin du Luxembourg I prepared earlier!
A group of young musicians were assembled on the bandstand and I just caught the very end of their performance. They were high school and college students from the United States called the Virginia Ambassadors of Music and they were on a summer European tour.
Virginia Ambassadors of Music:
Unfortunately, this was one of those rare days when I didn’t have my camera with me but no matter, their spirited performance of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever more than makes up for that.
As you can hear, the audience gathered around the bandstand were very enthusiastic. And special congratulations to the two young lady flute players who earned their own well-deserved round of applause.
The Virginia Ambassadors of Music don’t seem to have a web site, or at least I can’t find one, so if anyone knows more about them perhaps you’d like to get in touch.
WE’VE HAD SOME beautiful sunshine in Paris over the last week or so – and when the sun shines people head to the parks.
Returning from a recording assignment the other day, I walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg to catch my bus home. The sun was shining and this most popular of Parisian parks was simply awash with people – perhaps more people I think than I’ve seen there before.
All these people were doing what people do in parks – walking, jogging, reading, having picnics, meeting friends or simply sitting and doing nothing in particular.
Since I had time on my hands I decided to stop and record some of the sounds in the park, something I’ve done many times before, but this time I wanted to capture the very particular sounds that I always associate with Parisian parks, the sounds of footsteps over the gravel paths.
I’ve recorded the sounds of footsteps in Parisian parks before but this time I wanted to do it slightly differently, to capture these distinctive sounds from a different perspective. I placed two small microphones (like the ones TV newsreaders wear) about six inches above the ground in the middle of a path and waited for people to walk or run past them.
The Sounds of Spring in the Jardin du Luxembourg:
People usually associate the arrival of Spring with the natural world bursting into life, the leaves on the tress, flowers coming into bloom and the sound of birdsong. But, as a city dweller and someone who is passionately interested in our sonic environment, it is these natural sounds of the human species that signal to me that the Parisian Spring has arrived.
The sounds of pétanque being played and the occasional birdsong in the background add a sense of ‘place’ and perspective but these sounds are secondary to the sounds of the footsteps over the gravel, which for me at any rate are the dominating sounds of Parisian parks in the springtime.
Of course, footsteps are not the only sounds to be heard in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Other sounds often become the centre of attention …
Music in the Jardin du Luxembourg:
I SPENT THE AFTERNOON of Christmas Day in the Jardin des Tuileries. The weather was perfect with bright sunshine and a gentle breeze.
I had rather expected the Jardin des Tuileries to be a haven of tranquillity, this was Christmas Day after all … but it was not so. I discovered that lots of other people had also decided to spend the afternoon of Christmas Day in this former garden of the Tuileries Palace created by Catherine de Medicis in 1564.
On the afternoon of Christmas Day people were doing what they’ve always done here, meeting friends, promenading and relaxing.
And what was I doing? I was listening to the feast of sounds around me – footsteps over the gravel, half-heard conversations, distinctive Parisian park chairs being hauled into just the right place, birds scavenging for their Christmas lunch, tourists admiring the Louvre, a student singing and two Gendarmes on horseback passing in front of the Café Marly.
So here are the sights and sounds I enjoyed on the afternoon of Christmas Day.
Christmas Day in the Jardin des Tuileries:
LA FONTAINE DE 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.
IT IS SAID THAT Paris is the most visited city in the world and during the month of August when most Parisians are away on holiday the tourists usually have the city pretty much to themselves.
The other day I went to the Hôtel de Sully, an hôtel particulier, or private mansion, in the Marais district of Paris. It was designed by the architect Jean Androuet du Cerceau and built between 1625 and 1630 in the Louis XIII style.
Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, former Superintendent of Finances to King Henri IV, purchased the property in 1634 and since then it’s had a variety of owners. It was classified as a monument historique in 1862 and then bought by the state in 1944. Today, it’s the Centre des monuments nationaux, a public body under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Communication responsible for the management of historic buildings and monuments in the care of the state.
Not surprisingly, since it’s both an historic monument and it’s next to the fashionable Place des Vosges, the Hôtel de Sully is a popular stop on the Parisian tourist trail and, especially in the summer, it becomes awash with tourist groups.
I’ve been to, or passed by, the Hôtel de Sully many times so I’m quite familiar with it and I can quite understand why it should be on the tourist itinerary. But when I went the other day it wasn’t the sights that fascinated me but rather the sounds.
Sounds of the tourist trail around the Hôtel de Sully:
I spend a good deal of my time listening attentively to the sounds of Paris and it’s not always the obvious sounds that capture my attention. The sounds of brilliant Parisian street musicians, the endless street demonstrations, the Paris Métro and the colourful sounds of the annual fêtes are all part of the sonic tapestry of this city but the less obvious and equally compelling snatches of half-heard conversations, the rustle of clothing, the sound of footsteps over the pavé or over the gravel, all create never to be forgotten images and stories waiting to be told.
For me, the sounds of visitors to Paris pounding the tourist trail across the gravel in the garden of the Hôtel de Sully are some of the characteristic sounds of Paris, sounds that you can also hear in most of the city centre parks.
I always try to make time to stop and listen to sounds like these because I find them fascinating and even compelling. But what I also find fascinating is that while most of the people responsible for these sounds, those trudging wearily from one tourist spot to another, may be aware of these sounds I doubt that many, if any, actually stop to listen to them. And yet these sounds are as just as much a part of the fabric of the Hôtel de Sully as the building itself.
Unlike hearing, listening is an art and it requires hard work and constant practice. I spend most of my time listening to Paris. And when one listens one’s curiosity is aroused.
If you’ve listened to the whole of my recording in the garden of the Hôtel de Sully you will have probably drawn your own picture of the scene. My photographs may have given you the context but you will have undoubtedly created your own pictures in your mind. If you’ve listened attentively you will have heard a rather curious and unexplained sound – a repetitive chanting in the background, a rather eerie sound.
That sound came from this lady. Not everyone who pounds the tourist trail through the Hôtel de Sully is a tourist.
THE JARDIN ANNE-FRANK is easily missed. It’s tucked away in a cul-de-sac, the Impasse Berthaud, in the 3rd arrondissement next to the Musée de la Poupée, a private museum housing a collection of some 500 French dolls.
The Jardin Anne-Frank, as the name suggests, is a green space dedicated to the memory of Anne Frank who gained international fame posthumously after her diary was published in which she documented her experiences hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, aged 15.
Sounds of the Jardin Anne-Frank:
Covering some 4,000 M2, the Jardin Anne-Frank stands in the former gardens of l’Hôtel Saint-Aignan, now the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme, a museum dedicated to the art and history of Judaïsme.
The garden was opened in June 2007 in the presence of Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, Pierre Aidenbaum, Mayor of the 3e arrondissement, and Hans Westra, Director of the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.
The Jardin Anne-Frank is a delightful and tranquil place to spend a sunny summer afternoon.
14 Impasse Berthaud
Métro Station Rambuteau: Line 11
SITUATED AT THE WESTERN edge of Paris, the Bois de Boulogne is the second largest public park in the city covering some 2,090 acres, which makes it two and a half times bigger than Central Park in New York and about the same size as Richmond Park in London.
Amongst other things, the Bois de Boulogne is home to the Hippodrome de Longchamp where each year, on the first Sunday in October, one of Europe’s most prestigious horse races, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe takes place. It’s also home to the Stade Roland Garros, the stadium where the French Open tennis tournament is held each year.
World-class horse racing and tennis are not the only sports played in the Bois de Boulogne. At weekends especially, ad hoc games of football, rugby and even the occasional game of cricket can be found taking place here. Few games though can be as curious as the one I stumbled across recently.
On a stroll through the park late one afternoon last week I came upon a game of football – but football with a difference. Young men and women encased in plastic bubbles trying to kick a football seemed to me a bizarre way to spend an afternoon.
‘Bonding’ in the Bois de Boulogne:
It soon became clear though that this was more than simply a curious game of football. This was an idea dreamt up by some overpaid management consultancy where they take perfectly normal employees in a perfectly normal company and encourage them to make complete fools of themselves in the interests of team-building or ‘bonding’ – a ghastly phrase only a management consultant could come up with!
I learnt that this was only one of several activities that these people were put through throughout the day – each one becoming more bizarre as the day went on.
Throughout each activity, each individual was being watched and scored against a range of criteria no doubt also dreamt up the management consultants. All seemed to be having fun but I couldn’t help wondering if that was genuine, or simply an act to impress the scorers.