LAST YEAR, I WALKED the full length of the Canal Saint-Denis from its junction with the Canal de l’Ourcq in the Parc de la Villette to the final lock, l’Écluse de la Briche, where the canal discharges into la Seine.
The last leg of that walk took me to the western edge of the municipality of Saint-Denis and since then I’ve been back to Saint-Denis many times to capture more of its sound tapestry.
Saint-Denis is one of the poorest municipalities around Paris and it often gets a bad press, not least because of its high crime rate – not to mention the dramatic headlines it made a couple of weeks ago in the aftermath of the 13th November attacks in Paris.
Mairie de Saint-Denis
The other day I went to Saint-Denis to record more sounds for my Paris Soundscapes Archive and among the sounds I captured were those from a soundwalk I did in Rue de la République, one of the main shopping streets.
Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, Saint-Denis hosts a huge market made up of an outdoor street market in the Place Jean Jaurès, which spills over into the surrounding streets, and a fabulous indoor food market in the neighbouring Grande Halle. I’ve recorded the sounds of these markets several times and I will feature some of them in a future blog piece.
Since Rue de la République is close to the outdoor market it becomes overwhelmed with people when the market is open but on my recent recording trip to Saint-Denis I wanted to capture the sounds in this street when it wasn’t at its liveliest – I simply wanted to capture the ordinary, everyday sounds of an ordinary street in Saint-Denis.
Soundwalking is a fascinating way of exploring and exploring ordinary streets can often reveal the unexpected.
I discovered that Rue de la République has an interesting ecclesiastical symmetry. At its eastern end is a masterpiece of Gothic art, the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France, containing the tombs of 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 great men of the realm.
The eastern end of Rue de la République with the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis
At the western end of the street is another church, l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée, still referred to as the ‘new church’. Compared to the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis of course, which dates from the 12th century, l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée is relatively new since it was completed as recently as 1867.
The western end of Rue de la République with l’Église Saint Denis de L’Estrée
I began my soundwalk along Rue de la République at its eastern end with the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis and the Mairie de Saint-Denis behind me.
Soundwalk along Rue de la République:
I didn’t realise it at the time but my soundwalk also reflected another symmetry in the street – the sound of a passing bus ringing its warning bell at the start and the sound of a warning bell on a tram on the recently opened Tram Line 8 passing by at the end.
The first fifty metres or so of the street is open to traffic but after that Rue de la République is reserved for pedestrians.
About halfway along Rue de la République I came upon the post office whose elegant exterior belies its rather scruffy interior.
What I discovered next was quite unexpected.
Directly opposite the post office is Rue du Corbillon, a seemingly ordinary side street leading off Rue de la République. But sometimes the ordinary is not what it seems.
At about 4.20 on the morning of 18th November, five days after the Paris attacks, the police sealed off the entire Rue de la République, evacuated local residents, and focussed their attention on N° 8 Rue du Corbillon.
N° 8 Rue du Corbillon
What followed was an intense gun battle with around a hundred heavily armed elite special forces, supported by the army, firing more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition amidst heavy explosions. The operation ended at 11.37 am by which time three people had died: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, the alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks, his 26-year-old cousin, Hasna Aït Boulahcen, and an unidentified third person. Eight people were arrested.
Listening to the everyday sounds at the junction of Rue de la République and Rue du Corbillon, I couldn’t help imagining the sounds that would have been heard here on the morning of 18th November – echoes of sounds heard across the city five days before.
Unlike at the sites attacked in Paris, there are no floral tributes or messages of sympathy outside the boarded up N° 8 Rue du Corbillon.
For me, the image of this building will soon be forgotten – quite unlike the images of the shuttered cafés and restaurants attacked on 13th November, which will live with me for a very long time.
Yesterday, the Café Bonne Biere in Rue du Faubourg du Temple, where five people died in the Paris attacks, reopened – the first of the attack sites to do so.
You can read about my walk along the Canal Saint-Denis by clicking the links below:
HOME FOR SOME, a workplace for others and a thoroughfare for all, the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot in the 11th arrondissement is a narrow street linking the relatively quiet Rue Amelot and the very busy Boulevard Voltaire.
Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot from Rue Amelot
At 275 metres long and 3.5 metres wide the street hosts a large Renault garage, offices for the telecommunications company, Orange, student accommodation and apartment buildings. There are no cafés, restaurants or shops. Cars may pass along the street but a speed limit of 15 km/h is in force.
Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot from Boulevard Voltaire
The Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot has been on my soundwalk ‘to do’ list for some time simply because it’s an ordinary Parisian street, and listening to and capturing the sound tapestry of ordinary Parisian streets, known and used by locals and largely ignored by tourists, appeals to me.
Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot – the offices of ‘Orange’ on the right
Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot – A Soundwalk:
At first hearing you might think these sounds are the ordinary, everyday sounds of an ordinary Parisian street and in one sense they are. But sounds don’t exist in a vacuum, either in reality or metaphorically, all sounds have a context and when you know the context ordinary sounds can sometimes become quite extraordinary.
When you hear the toothless man saying ‘Bon Courage’ and know that he is directing it at a police officer armed with a high-powered rifle, and when you hear the sounds of a police radio you might begin to suspect that all is not what it seems in the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot.
When you know that the wall on the left in the picture above belongs to the Bataclan café and concert venue where 89 people were shot dead on the night of 13th November and when you know that the large door along the wall is where many young people, some injured and others about to die, spilled out onto the street trying to escape, then these ordinary sounds become quite extraordinary.
The Bataclan emergency exit through which some people escaped and where some died
I recorded these sounds ten days on from the attack on the Bataclan. The police presence, although still there, is diminished and the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot is regaining its composure even though stark reminders of the tragic events are still to be seen.
For over a week after the attack, the Bataclan was completely cordoned off and it’s only in the last few days that the cordon has been partially removed. Now, leaving the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot and crossing over the Boulevard Voltaire, it’s possible to get a perspective on the scene.
The Bataclan with the entrance to Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot on the left
I began my work capturing and archiving the sounds of Paris several years ago and at that time I resolved to capture the city’s complex sound tapestry as comprehensively as I could. My aim was to capture sounds from all parts of the city and the surrounding suburbs, to capture sounds ranging from the spectacular to the ordinary and to be part of the soundscape without changing it.
Occasionally, I’ve become part of the media circus jostling with TV and radio crews to get prime position to capture major events but most of my work is carried out as an aural flâneur, working alone, simply observing through active listening. And working alone gives me the advantage of being able to choose where I record and what sounds I record.
Twice this year Paris has been attacked and twice I’ve had to choose what sounds to record to reflect these events.
Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January I published sounds on this blog from the national day of mourning and sounds from the huge wave of public sympathy that followed. I also recorded sounds that I chose not to publish.
Last week, I published sounds on this blog in the aftermath of the latest attacks but I’ve also recorded sounds that I’ve chosen not to publish.
During the last week I’ve visited all the attack sites again and I was surprised to find that I was affected by the experience more than I expected. At each site, although the media circus has long gone, the tributes are still there but the candle flames are dimmed, the flowers are wilting and the written tributes are fading. The pictures of some of the victims though stand out starkly and, looking at the pictures, it’s impossible not to make a personal connection with these victims.
The sounds I recorded in the Passage Saint-Pierre Amelot beside the Bataclan may be ordinary, everyday sounds to some but they are extraordinary and very personal sounds to me.
For me, these sounds will always reflect not only a moment in time and a sense of place, a place recovering its composure, but also echoes of the tragedy that took place here and across the city and the emotion that I felt as the events unfolded and in the aftermath.
FOR THE SECOND TIME this year, Emmanuel, the three-hundred year old, thirteen ton, Grand Bourdon de la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, the largest of Notre-Dame’s bells, tolled for the victims of a violent attack.
In January this year the Paris offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were attacked and twelve people were killed and eleven injured.
Last Friday evening a series of attacks took place in Paris that made the Charlie Hebdo attack look like a skirmish: 129 people were killed and 352 were wounded of which 99 are reportedly in a critical condition.
At 6.15 last Saturday evening le Grand Bourdon, Emmanuel, tolled mournfully ahead of a special Mass led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, for the victims of the latest attacks and their relatives in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
At midday yesterday a minute’s silence was held across France.
It’s very tempting in the face of the latest attacks to produce a blog piece about how much I love this city (which I do), about how Parisians have faced up to the situation with fortitude and solidarity (which they have) and how we must carry on as normal otherwise the bad guys win (which we must) – and I might have done that had it not been for an encounter I had yesterday afternoon.
At midday yesterday I, along with thousands of others, observed the minute’s silence after which I went to pay my respects at the sites where lives had been lost.
I’d already been to the Bataclan concert venue, where the biggest loss of life occurred, and to La Belle Équipe, a bistro I know well in rue de Charonne, although I only found out later that the attack on La Belle Équipe had left the owner, Grégory Reibenberg, cradling his dying wife in his arms.
I walked up to rue Fontaine de la Roi and the Casa Nostra restaurant to find bullet holes in the windows and blood stains on the street and then to rue Alibert and the café Le Carillon and the restaurant Le Petit Camboge.
I sat on a Parisian green bench looking across the street at the café and the restaurant, both the heart of the community in this neighbourhood. Yesterday, both were closed.
As usual, these places were busy last Friday evening but around 10.30 pm all that changed. A car pulled up, two young men got out, opened fire and within seconds fourteen people were dead. An eyewitness said the gunmen didn’t spray bullets randomly, instead they systematically picked their targets, shot them, and they fell like dominoes one at a time.
From my green bench I was trying to imagine the scene when I saw a predatory television producer trying first to seduce and then to pressure people to be interviewed, almost to the point of harassment.
Presently, a young woman, in her early twenties I suppose, walked across from Le Carillon, sat down beside me and began sobbing uncontrollably. She was distressed and inconsolable.
The TV producer began to walk towards us but then, seeing my icy stare, she thought better of it and moved on in search of other victims. It seems the insatiable appetite of the 24-hour news channels must be fed by whatever means.
Although I’d never met this young woman before and will probably never meet her again, both she and the predatory TV producer left an indelible mark on me and made me see these attacks for what they really were.
The apologists of course will ascribe blame for the attacks to whatever best suits their prejudices and politicians will attribute motives and promote remedies to suit their political preferences. The solidarity shown in the immediate aftermath of the attacks will inevitably break down and the recriminations will begin.
The world’s media camped out in tented villages across Paris will no doubt continue to feed off the tragic misfortune of others by regurgitating the same pictures over and over again and will continue to forage for morsels of information, speculation and so-called ‘human interest’ angles to keep the ‘story’ alive – at least until a bigger story comes along.
Whatever their motive, whatever banner they were following, whatever cause they claimed to believe in, the brutal fact is that eight young men rampaged through Paris last Friday evening and in the space of three hours systematically slaughtered 129 completely innocent, mainly young people, wounded 352 others and left 99 of them fighting for their lives – not to mention the resulting anguish of countless relatives and friends.
I doubt the young woman sobbing beside me yesterday had much thought for the motives behind the events of last Friday or the media’s coverage of them. The tragedy had clearly struck her hard, most likely personally.
Like all those who died or were injured, or those bereaved like Grégory Reibenberg at La Belle Équipe, or the relatives of those still unaccounted for, this young woman was a victim and, in the face of such indiscriminate violence, we are all victims.
The Bataclan – 89 dead
La Belle Equipe – 18 dead
Casa Nostra – 5 dead
Le Petite Camboge (and La Carillon) – 14 dead
HAD PARIS WON its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games today’s Parc Martin Luther King would have been the site of the athlete’s Olympic village.
Built on the site of old warehouses and a former railway yard in the 17th arrondissement, the park was designed by the landscape architect Jacqueline Osty. Four hectares of the park were opened in 2007 and by 2018 it will have been extended to cover ten hectares. The park is part of a wider urban development programme for the area, which includes 3,400 homes, 148,000 m2 of office space, 38,000 m2 of public facilities and 31,000 m2 of commerce, culture and leisure.
Originally named Parc Clichy – Batignolles, the two communes the park bisects, in 2008 it became Parc Clichy – Batignolles – Martin Luther King to mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the American pastor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King (1929-1968).
Parc Martin Luther King before … Image courtesy Atelier Jacqueline Osty
Parc Martin Luther King on completion … Image courtesy Atelier Jacqueline Osty
The park has a connection with railways because not only is it built on a former railway yard but its western edge runs adjacent to the Paris – Le Havre railway line and a section of the former railway line le Petite Ceinture runs across it.
And the rail connection doesn’t stop there. At the southern corner of the park work is under way to build a new Métro station, Pont Cardinet. As part of the Greater Paris Project, the plan to extend the city by absorbing some of the suburbs and redeveloping the city centre, this station is part of the extension to Métro Line 14 and it’s due to open in 2019.
Unlike the Square des Batignolles, a classical 19th century English garden across the street, Parc Martin Luther King has a contemporary design based on the themes of the seasons of the year, water and sport.
With the selection of vegetation providing an ever-changing landscape reflecting the seasons of the year, Jacqueline Osty has created a space suitable for contemplative relaxation, walking or, for the more active, sport and games.
The theme of water is represented by a variety of streams and a biotope basin, a lake with a rich and varied ecosystem supplied by non-potable water and rainwater. Water from the lake can be used to water the park during particularly dry spells. The lake is home to a variety of aquatic plants and of course to ducks.
As well as the long, straight aisles dedicated to walking and jogging, the theme of sport is represented by two playgrounds for children, a basketball court, space to play football and pétanque and an impressive skate park.
Sounds in Parc Martin Luther King:
This sound piece captures two of the themes of the park: water and sport.
I sat at the side of the lake listening to the water, the ducks and children running across the metal grill at the edge of the water simply because it made an entertaining noise. I then moved to the skate park where I found the sounds captivating – even though some of the language was a little ‘off-piste‘ from time to time!
This young man particularly impressed me though because his actions spoke much more than his words. He was doing back somersaults as he sped over the ramp!
One fascinating area of the park is the espace biologique protégé, a protected space left to flourish completely untouched.
With low-maintenance plants and shrubs and rainwater recycling and with the park buildings powered by solar panels and wind turbines, the park has been created with environmental protection very much in mind.
The urban development scheme, including the Parc Martin Luther King, is currently the largest construction project in Paris.
Alongside the western edge of the park the work continues with the skyline littered with cranes and the sounds of building work filling the air. On the eastern side though much of the development work has been completed with apartment blocks of contemporary design.
When all the work is completed and the new Métro station opened, Parc Martin Luther King will undoubtedly become the centrepiece of the neighbourhood.
AS YOU WALK ALONG rue Étienne-Dolet in Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement it’s hard to miss the imposing church, l’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix at the end of the street. The street was named after the French writer, poet, printer and humanist, Étienne Dolet, who was executed in 1546 for heresy and atheism after publishing a tract denying the existence of the soul. Ironically, the street was named after him in 1879 precisely because it leads to a church.
L’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix from rue Étienne-Dolet
The architect, Louis-Antoine Heret, designed l’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix to replace a former chapel that stood on the site. Combining neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic architecture the church is huge – 97 meters long, 38 meters wide, 20 meters high under the vault of the nave – not to mention the massive 78 metre bell tower.
Like many churches in Paris, l’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix was used to hold political meetings during the Paris Commune of 1871. In fact, it was here on 6th May 1871 that a resolution was passed by the Communards calling for the death of the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Georges Darboy. The resolution was carried out and the Archbishop was executed as the Paris Commune was about to be overthrown.
L’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix – the nave
One feature of l’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix that may go unnoticed by the casual visitor, but certainly not by me, is the organ. I’ve long been fascinated by church and cathedral organs and particularly the organs of the master French organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and this church boasts a very special Cavaillé-Coll organ, one classed as a monument historique.
The organ was built between 1872 and 1874 and it’s one of the rare examples of a Cavaillé-Coll organ that has not been altered to any significant extent.
Building the organ posed two major problems – a rose window that was not to be concealed and a bell passageway in the gallery used for the operation of the bells and as a route to bring them down for repair that was not to be obstructed.
Cavaillé-Coll came up with a technically complex but very neat solution; he built the organ case in two sections leaving the centre of the gallery and the rose window unmasked.
The Cavaillé-Coll split organ case, the rose window and the bell passageway above
Splitting the organ case though was not the complete solution. There remained a complex problem: the three-manual organ console could not be built in the usual position in the centre of the gallery with a direct action to the two organ cases.
How Aristide Cavaillé-Coll resolved this problem is worth a blog piece of its own!
L’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix is built on a hill so to enter by the main entrance it’s necessary to climb fifty-four steps of the grand staircase that leads up from the street.
It was from these steps that I was able to look out over one of my favourite Parisian hideaways – Place Maurice Chevalier.
Located at the corner of Rue Étienne-Dolet the square was originally called Place Gerard Manvusa but that was changed in 1978 in honour of the French singer and entertainer, Maurice Chevalier, a Ménilmontant celebrity who was born close by at 29, rue du Retrait.
The commune of Ménilmontant is far removed from the glamour of central Paris but, for me, that’s its attraction. I’ve spent many hours here, au coin de la rue, watching and listening to everyday life passing by.
Ménilmontant: Sounds in Place Maurice Chevalier – Au Coin de la Rue:
With l’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix as a backdrop I sit on a green bench in the leaf-strewn square and begin to listen. It’s a little before 5.00 pm and with a Wallace fountain, a café and a boulangerie and another café across the street all echoing to the sound of passing footsteps crunching the autumn leaves I absorb the mixture of ecclesiastical and secular sounds that fill the air.
A refuse truck pulls up and loads some rubbish. A street sweeper gathers leaves from the gutter. A group of schoolchildren surround me on their way back from an outing. A bell sounds out from l’Église Notre-Dame de la Croix calling the faithful to worship. A group of small schoolchildren walk past hand in hand on my right gaily chanting, ‘à gauche … à droite’. A dog barks. A school bus comes to a squeaking halt at the foot of the steps to the church blocking the traffic. As the schoolchildren disembark from the bus music pulsates from a car radio and car horns sound impatiently. The schoolchildren pass me and their sounds fade into the distance. A metal bottle top falls to the ground. A youngster on a bicycle taunts the pigeons. The church clock chimes five o’clock. The pigeons speak. A shopping trolley passes.
Paris has many charms but, to my phonographer’s ear, ordinary people creating a deftly woven sound tapestry as they go about their daily lives in this part of cosmopolitan Paris is one of the most fascinating.
MANY PEOPLE VISIT GARDENS to look at them and maybe even smell them but few I suspect go to listen to them. It wasn’t what I had in mind when I left home, but I spent part of a recent Saturday afternoon doing just that – listening to a garden.
I had decided to go to le Marais, a part of Paris I know reasonably well but don’t go to all that often, save for my regular visits to the Musée Carnavalet of course.
I emerged from the Métro station Saint-Paul into the Saturday afternoon bustle of le Marias and spent the next three hours or so walking the streets, dodging the showers, listening and hunting for sounds to add to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
Towards the end of the afternoon I found myself in an unfamiliar street, Rue des Blancs Manteaux. I’ve since discovered that the street takes its name from a monastery where, in 1258, Louis IX settled beggar monks belonging to the order of the Servants of Mary. The monks were noted for the white habits they wore hence, Rue des Blancs Manteaux.
Walking along the street I discovered the square Charles-Victor-Langlois, once the site of the monastery, a church, l’église Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux and a theatre, le théâtre des Blancs-Manteaux.
But it was at N° 21 Rue des Blancs Manteaux that I came upon a complete surprise.
Behind a large wooden door was a passageway leading to a garden, the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux.
L’Association des Jardiniers du 4ème (4th arrondissement Gardner’s Association) opened a small garden here in October 2010, which was extended in 2012. Nestling at the bottom of a former schoolyard, the 100 square metre garden is maintained partly by the Gardner’s Association and partly by the Paris City gardeners. The garden is divided into separate plots including vegetable plots based on the theme of ‘urban agriculture’, with peas, tomatoes, herbs, potatoes and maïs amongst other things.
I went to investigate the garden and was immediately struck by how quiet it was. The quietness was enhanced because, with the bustling streets of le Marais just a few steps away, quietness was not what I was expecting.
So unusual is quietness in the heart of the city that I couldn’t resist capturing it. As I began to record it started to rain so I had to scurry off for shelter under a rickety wooden roof covering the compost. It was from there that I listened to and recorded the sounds in the garden.
Sounds of the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux:
Listening to the garden was fascinating. The sounds of light rain falling intermittently, dead leaves rolling on the ground, the gentle rustle of the plants swaying in the wind and two ladies walking round the garden talking and passing right in front of me standing amidst the compostage were overlaid with the faint rumble of traffic in the distance, a light aircraft flying overhead, distant birdsong and remarkably, the brief sound of a demonstration drifting on the wind all the way from Place de la Bastille.
In the introduction to her fascinating book, ‘City of Noise – Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris’, Aimée Boutin quotes John Sanderson who first set foot in Paris in July 1835:
“As for the noise of the streets, I need not attempt to describe it. What idea can ears, used only to the ordinary and human noises, conceive of this unceasing racket … All things of this earth seek, at one time or another, repose – all but the noise of Paris. The waves of the sea are sometimes still, but the chaos of these streets is perpetual from generation to generation; it is the noise that never dies.”
As a professional listener to Paris I have some sympathy with John Sanderson and his first impression of the city. But in the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux the sounds of the street, the ‘noise that never dies’ just a few steps beyond the wooden portal, if not in complete repose are at least subdued enough to let the garden speak for itself.
Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux
21 Rue des Blancs Manteaux, Paris 75004
Open: Saturday and Sunday from 11am
Nearest Métro: Hôtel de Ville or Rambuteau
THE GALERIE COLBERT is one of the surviving examples of the Parisian passages couverts, the nineteenth century covered arcades built on the Right Bank of the Seine.
The passages couverts were an early form of shopping arcade that sprang up mainly in the first half of the nineteenth century. Most of them were concentrated either in the fashionable area around the Palais Royal, the Boulevard des Italiens and the Boulevard Montmartre, or around the much less fashionable, rue Saint-Denis.
Like most of the passages couverts, the Galerie Colbert began as a speculative venture.
The story begins I suppose with Cardinal Richelieu, who in 1634 built the Palais-Cardinal, subsequently the Palais-Royal, the seventeenth century social centre of the capital. Richelieu’s palace paved the way for the development of the surrounding area including l’hôtel Bautru at the corner of the rue Petits-Champs and rue Vivienne.
L’hôtel Bautru was designed by the French classical architect, Louis le Vau, with the aide of the master mason, Michel Villedo. It was built for Guillaume Bautru, a protégé of Richelieu.
In 1665, l’hôtel Bautru became home to l’Intendant des finances et superintendant des bâtiments du Roi, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister under Louis XIV. With a change of occupant came a change of name, the building became l’hôtel Colbert.
In subsequent years, l’hôtel Colbert saw a succession of occupants; for a time it housed the stables of Philippe d’Orléans, regent of France during the minority of Louis XV, and from 1806 until 1825 it was la Caisse de la dette publique, the public debt commission.
By the early nineteenth century, passages couverts were beginning to appear in Paris. Highly ornamented and decorated covered arcades with a collection of boutiques under one roof, away from the mud of the streets and indifferent to the weather and with light pouring in through their glass roofs in the daytime and illuminated by gas lamps at night, these arcades were a new concept and they were attracting customers – lots of them.
In 1825, the Galerie Vivienne opened. It was, and still is, the doyen of the Parisian passages couverts. A company of speculators, Adam et Cie, saw an opportunity. They bought the l’Hôtel Colbert and engaged the architect, Jacques Billaud, to design and build an arcade cheek by jowl with the Galerie Vivienne.
With a nod to the last occupants of the Hôtel Colbert, the arcade was to be called le passage du Trésor but eventually the name Galerie Colbert was settled upon and it was opened in 1827.
The Galerie Colbert in 1831
The Galerie Colbert may have been competing for customers with the neighbouring Galerie Vivienne but architecturally it secured its place as an equal.
Billaud’s design included a main passage lined with boutiques surmounted by a glass roof supported by a series of triangular pediments. The polychromatic decoration included columns made from yellow marble with red marble bases and a veined grey marble frieze.
Undoubtedly, the centrepiece of the Galerie Colbert was the great rotunda, a sumptuous fifteen metre diameter glass dome.
Rotonde, Galerie Colbert
Under the dome stood a bronze candelabrum supporting a ring of seven crystal globes lit with gas. This ‘Cocotier Lumineux’, or ‘luminous coconut tree’ as it was known became the foremost destination for romantic trysts under the July Monarchy. It has since disappeared and been replaced by Charles-Françcois Leboeuf’s statue, Eurydice mourante.
Charles-François Leboeuf (1792-1865), Eurydice mourante
The 1833 edition of the Almanach du Commerce de Paris reveals that alongside the marble columns, mosaics and crystal candelabras, an eclectic collection of traders occupied the Galerie Colbert, including:
At No. 3, M. Delaroque, bookseller;
At No. 6, at the rotunda, M. Arrondelle, shoemaker and Chinese sock manufacturer;
At No. 13, Georges Legois, umbrella manufacturer;
At No. 16-18, M. Salmon, gunsmith;
At No. 23-25, the Gabriel Pleyel piano store;
At No. 28, M. Bouis, hernia truss supplier and manufacturer of belts preventing masturbation for children of all ages.
There is mention of the Colbert Pharmacy, whose flagship products included ‘stomach pills’ and ‘sarsaparilla essence’ – a cure for ‘sores, scabs, rheumatic and gouty pains, acrid blood, black humour and melancholy … and syphilis’.
Other sources report a hairdresser, tailors, seamstresses, milliners, a glove maker, a quill pen merchant, a music publisher and reading rooms with French and English newspapers. Mme. Brigitte Mathé reportedly had a bookshop with 15,000 volumes and the ‘complete collections of the principal authors’.
In the 1830s a novelty shop opened, Au Grand Colbert, later to become a famous restaurant, Le Grand Colbert, which still exists.
As a means of attracting customers, and keeping the children amused, a Géorama, an aerial trompe l’oeil, was installed at the main entrance.
When it opened, the Galerie Colbert was a success – but the success was short-lived. In 1867, the French writer and journalist, Alfred Delvau noted, “The passages Colbert and Vivienne are clean, spacious but useless because … life has withdrawn to go elsewhere on the boulevards.”
All the passages couverts faced the same problem – the tide of progress, and in the mid nineteenth century the tide was unstoppable.
The main means of mass transportation in the early nineteenth century was the stagecoach and most of the passages couverts were built close to a stagecoach terminus in order to capture potential customers waiting for or alighting from stagecoaches. The coming of the railways in the mid nineteenth century ensured the demise of both the stagecoach and the potential customers.
Progress in the form of Baron Haussmann’s redevelopment of Paris consumed some of the passages couverts but it was the mid nineteenth century seismic revolution in shopping – the birth of the department store, that signalled the end of the road for the passages couverts.
Referring to the passages couverts in his monumental Arcades Project, the German philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin quotes from the 1852 Illustrated Guide to Paris:
These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glass-roofed, marble-panelled corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of the corridors, which get their light from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the arcade is a city, a world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need.
The mid nineteenth century department store revolution saw Aristide Boucicaut’s Au Bon Marché, Ernest Cognacq’s La Samaritaine, Jules Jaluzot and Jean-Alfred Duclos’ Printemps and Albert Kahn and Théophile Bader’s Galeries Lafayette become retail giants, taking the arcades’ world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need and replicating it on an industrial scale.
Eugène Atget, La galerie Colbert, 1906, BnF, département des Estampes et de la photographie. Source : Gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France
Faced with all this progress the Galerie Colbert inevitably began a painful decline. Abandoned by its customers and by its traders, by 1890 it had become almost deserted. Eugène Atget’s 1906 photograph illustrates this; the lustre and even the candelabrum with its seven crystal globes has gone – the romantic trysting place is no more.
In 1916, the Commission du Vieux Paris declared that the Galerie Colbert and the neighbouring passages couverts were ‘meurent d’anémie commerciale’, dying of commercial anaemia.
It took a while but a renaissance was to come. In the 1970s there was a revival of interest in nineteenth century architecture and in 1974, the Galerie Colbert was declared a monument historique. In the early 1980s it was bought by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France who commissioned its restoration.
The gallery was in such a state of disrepair that it had to be partly demolished before any reconstruction could begin. The work was supervised by the French architect, Louis Blanchet, who ensured that the flamboyant pastiche we see today is a true representation of the original Galerie Colbert.
In 1996, the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art moved in and between 1999 and 2004, the architects, Dominique Pinon and Pascale Kaparis, were commissioned to redesign some of areas around the historic passage and rotunda.
There are no boutiques in the Galerie Colbert today, save of course for Le Grand Colbert restaurant. Instead, the spaces once occupied by the eclectic band of traders are now meeting rooms.
As well as the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, the Galerie Colbert is also home to the Institut national du patrimoine and various other cultural organisations as well as providing research facilities for several Paris universities.
Sounds in the Galerie Colbert:
One hundred and fifty passages couverts were built in Paris, most of them between 1823 and 1847, but only twenty survive today. I have recorded sounds in all the surviving passages and one part of my Paris Soundscapes Archive is dedicated to their sounds.
Since we cannot listen to the sounds of these passages couverts in their hey-day, I think it important that their contemporary sounds be preserved as insurance against the day when even they may face ‘meurent d’anémie commerciale’.
Galerie Colbert: 6 rue des Petits-Champs : 2 rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris
IMAGINE THE SCENE: It’s 22nd October 1895 and the Granville to Paris express, operated by the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest, is approaching Paris. Steam locomotive No. 721, hauling three baggage vans, a post van and six passenger carriages with 131 people on board, left Granville on time at 8:45 am but it is now several minutes late for its 15:55 scheduled arrival at the Paris Montparnasse terminus.
Trying to make up lost time the driver, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, a 19-year veteran of the company, makes the decision to approach Montparnasse station at cruising speed – some 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph).
Realising that the train is entering the station too fast, Pellerin applies the locomotive’s Westinghouse air brake – but it fails to operate. One of the guards, Albert Mariette, is preoccupied with filling out paperwork as they enter the station and fails to notice in time that train is going faster than it should be. Just as he applies the emergency hand brake the train smashes through the buffer stop.
Amid the deafening noise and with steam belching from the engine and sparks flying, people scatter as the engine clatters across almost 30 metres of the station concourse, crashes through a 60-centimetre thick wall, shoots across a terrace and smashes out of the station, plummeting onto the Place de Rennes 10 metres below where it ends up on its nose.
Photograph by Studio Lévy and Sons
Remarkably, there is only one fatality. Marie-Augustine Aguilard, has been standing in for her husband, a newspaper vendor, while he goes to collect the evening papers. She is hit and killed by falling masonry.
Two passengers, the fireman, two guards and a passerby in the street sustain injuries.
Photograph by Henri Roger-Viollet
In the aftermath, the passenger carriages are undamaged and removed easily and within forty-eight hours work has begun to remove the locomotive and the tender. An attempt is made to move the locomotive with fourteen horses but this fails so a 250 tonne winch is brought to the scene and with 10 men hauling the winch the locomotive is lowered to the ground and the tender lifted the back in to the station.
Gare Montparnasse, 1871 – Photograph by Charles Marville
The station the Granville to Paris express slammed through was built by architect Victor Lenoir and the engineer Eugène Flachat in 1852, replacing the original 1840 Gare de l’Ouest station, which was unable to cope with the mid 19th century growth in traffic.
In 1909 the state bought the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Ouest including the Gare Montparnasse, which it used for new lines to Tours, Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle.
In the 1930s a separate extension was added to the station, the Gare du Maine, designed by the French architect and designer Henri Pacon in Art Deco style. Eventually, this extension became the terminus for the main lines and the old station was reserved for commuter traffic.
Site of the original Gare du Maine extension which was demolished in the 1960s.
Both the 1852 Gare Montparnasse and the Place de Rennes into which the express nose-dived are no more.
In 1951, Place de Rennes was renamed Place du 18 juin 1940 in commemoration of the radio broadcast Charles de Gaulle made from London on 18th June 1940 (L’Appel du 18 juin), in which he urged the French people to resist the Nazi occupiers (who had invaded the previous month), thereby launching the French Resistance Movement.
Place du 18 juin 1940 today – Formerly Place de Rennes and site of the original Gare Montparnasse
During the 1960s, a new Gare Montparnasse, integrated into a complex of office buildings, was built and in 1969, the old station was torn down and the Tour Montparnasse was built in its place.
The Gare Montparnasse today
Over 50 million passengers a year pass through today’s Gare Montparnasse, one of the six mainline railway stations in Paris. They use intercity TGV trains to the west and south-west of France including Tours, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rennes and Nantes, and suburban and regional services on the Transilien Paris – Montparnasse routes. They also use the busy Métro station, an intersection for Métro lines 4, 6, 12 and 13.
I went to the Gare Montparnasse the other day to capture the sounds inside the station. My soundwalk took me from the main entrance, up an escalator to Hall 1 and then to the intercity platforms in time to capture the sounds of the 15:28 departure to Bordeaux and Toulouse.
I was surprised to find that amid the hustle and bustle of the main concourse and the platforms there were places that were relatively calm and quiet. Closer to the platforms of course it was the trains that made their voices heard.
Sounds stimulate the imagination so, if like me, you have a fascination for sound and a sense of history, you might be forgiven for imagining that the sound of the gasps of compressed air escaping from the parked trains are not too far removed from the sound of steam escaping from the Granville to Paris express hurtling towards its resting place in the Place de Rennes.
The Gare Montparnasse in sound:
The fate of the Granville to Paris express was well documented in pictures. As well as the iconic photographs by Studio Lévey and Sons and Henri Roger-Viollet (above), a third equally well-known photograph of the scene by L. Mercier is displayed in the Musée d’Orsay.
But nowhere was the event or its aftermath captured in sound – a good example of just how recent our ability to capture topical sounds is and a perfect example of how much of our sonic history has passed by completely unrecorded.
I’m pleased to say that while I was in the Gare Montparnasse all the trains stayed very firmly on their tracks with none of them attempting to cross the concourse and venture outside!
Gare Montparnasse Platform 9: The 15:28 departure for Bordeaux and Toulouse
IT’S BEEN A WHILE since I last featured any street music on this blog but I now have the opportunity to put that right.
Changing trains at the Métro station Charles de Gaulle Étoile the other day I came upon a street musician who is often to be found playing his xylophone on the platform of Métro Line 6, the line that follows a semi-circular route around the southern half of the city from Étoile to Nation.
Getting a seat on a train on Line 6 at Étoile can sometimes be a challenge. A large crowd often assembles on the platform and I usually find myself forsaking the pleasure of listening to the music in favour of elbowing my way through the crowd in the hope of securing a seat on the arriving train. Which is a shame really because most of the musicians playing in the Métro stations are very good.
It’s not generally known, but musicians who play in the Métro – at least those who play there legally – have actually been selected to play there following a formal audition process.
The auditions were introduced because the Métro was becoming infested with itinerant so-called musicians who could barely scrape out a note from their battered violins or accordions.
Now, some 2,000 musicians attend the auditions and the artistic director of the Musiciens du Métro programme and representatives of RATP, the Paris mass-transit authority, judge their performances. Only 300 of them will be awarded the coveted badge that lets them play legally in the Métro and so, with a potential audience of some four million passengers a day, that’s a gig worth having.
When I was changing trains at Étoile the other day I had time on my side so I stopped to listen to the xylophone player, one of the successful badge holders, playing his music. And what a delight it was!
Music on the Métro:
CAN YOU IMAGINE a city without traffic? Well, in Paris last Sunday we had a glimpse of what such a city might look and sound like.
In August 2014, an organisation called Paris sans Voitures, a citizen collective made up of scientists and high-profile individuals, residents of all ages, professionals, activists and dreamers, put forward a proposal to the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to reclaim Paris and liberate the streets. Their vision was for a car-free day; a day when private vehicles would be banned in Paris and public transport would be free.
Anne Hidalgo was impressed but the Paris police were more difficult to convince. Nevertheless, a decision was reached on 5th March this year that for one day Paris would experience ‘une journée sans voiture’ – a car free day.
The Mayor was not able to persuade the police that the car free zone should extend across the entire city so an accommodation was reached.
Click to enlarge
On Sunday 27th September, between 1100 and 1800, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th arrondissements – the heart of the city – were car free zones. Several areas away from the centre, including part of the quai on the Left Bank, most of the Champs-Élysées, the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes and the tourist area of Montmartre were also to be car free.
There were exceptions – buses, taxis and emergency vehicles were allowed.
I spend a large part of my life recording the street sounds of Paris and the sound of traffic is my constant companion so this ‘Journée Sans Voitures’ was an opportunity for me to capture an unusual sound tapestry of the city, one without the weft of constant traffic.
L’Avenue de l’Opéra on Sunday afternoon
On Sunday afternoon I walked along the Avenue de l’Opéra from Place de l’Opéra to Place Colette and, apart from occasional buses and taxis, the restriction on other motor vehicles seemed for the most part to be effective.
I thought it would be particularly interesting to contrast the sounds in Place Colette on this unique day to those found in the same place on a normal working day.
Place Colette on a normal working day
Sounds in Place Colette on a normal working day:
On a normal working day Place Colette is a space shared between Parisians going about their daily business and tourists passing through. The sounds of passing traffic pervade the air all the time.
Place Colette: Journée sans Voitures
Sounds in Place Colette – ‘Journée Sans Voitures’:
On Sunday in Place Colette there were Parisians and tourists but the sound tapestry was very different. The absence of traffic highlighted sounds that are always there but seldom heard, the rustle of the leaves in the trees for example. The sounds of the people reclaiming the city took centre stage.
When you listen to these sounds, remember that they were recorded in exactly the same place as the working day sounds above.
One might conclude that the Journée sans Voitures was either an experiment worth trying or simply a wheeze by the city authorities to provide a late summer’s fun day out. But it’s worth remembering that for a few hours in March this year Paris gained the unwelcome accolade of being the most polluted city in the world.
Excessive vehicle emissions were at the root of the problem. These emissions, combined with sunshine, a drop in temperature and an absence of wind to disperse the pollutants, caused a stagnant cover of warm air to settle over Paris. A toxic haze enveloped the city obscuring some of its most well known landmarks. Schools were instructed to keep children in classrooms and limit sports activities and health warnings were issued to the elderly to avoid even moderate exercise.
Paris usually enjoys relatively clean air for a city its size so the bad press stung the city authorities.
Is it too fanciful to suggest that the Journée sans Voitures might be a signpost to the future – cities without noxious vehicle emissions, cleaner air and a much less polluted sonic environment?