ONE OF THE ADVANTAGES of living in the west of Paris is the proximity of the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park located along the western edge of the 16th arrondissement. Covering an area of 845 hectares (2,090 acres), the Bois de Boulogne is, after the Bois de Vincennes in the east of Paris, the second largest public park in Paris.
From my home it takes me a little over ten minutes to walk to the northern edge of the Bois de Boulogne and the Mere de Saint-James, once a sand and gravel quarry but now a lake with two islands, which are a sanctuary for birds and small animals. The Mere de Saint-James is one of several lakes in the park.
The Mere de Saint-James
Today’s Bois de Boulogne was originally an ancient oak forest, the Forêt de Rouvray, where French monarchs from Dagobert, the King of the Franks in the seventh century, to Louis XVI in the eighteenth century came to hunt bears, deer, and other game.
The landscape of what is now the Bois de Boulogne has changed considerably since the time of Dagobert and Louis XVI. The Hundred Years War ravaged the forest in the fifteenth century and then thousands of trees were cut down for firewood and to build shelters when 40,000 soldiers of the British and Russian armies camped in the forest following the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1814, leaving an assortment of bleak ruined meadows, tree stumps and dismal stagnant ponds.
When Napoléon III elevated himself from President of the French Republic to Emperor of the French in 1852, one of his schemes was to create two large public parks on the eastern and western edges of the city where both the rich and the ordinary people could enjoy themselves. Under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man responsible for executing most of Napoléon III’s schemes, the French engineer, Jean-Charles Alphand was engaged to turn the bleak remains of the military occupation into the Bois de Boulogne, an undulating landscape of lakes, hills, islands, groves, lawns, and grassy slopes – an idealisation of nature.
And Alphand’s Bois de Boulogne might have been what we see today had it not been for the ‘storm of the century’, the memorable hurricane of 1999. I remember it well!
In the early hours of 26th December 1999 hurricane force winds whipped across France causing immense damage. A ten-minute walk from my home, some 40% of the surface of the Bois de Boulogne was completely devastated with the wind felling around ten thousand trees.
Thanks to prompt action by the Paris City Council oak trees now cover about 50% of what was once the Forêt de Rouvray and cedars, plane trees, ginkgo-bilobas and countless other species share the rest.
As for the wildlife: well, the bears, deer and the other game that Dagobert and his successors hunted with such relish no longer wander amidst the present day oaks. Today, if you can set aside the ever-present noise pollution drifting in on the wind, you might be lucky enough to see and hear a variety of birds; woodpeckers, chiffchaffs, nuthatches and goldcrests along with wrens, robins, blackbirds, wood pigeons and thrushes. The keen-eyed might even spot the occasional sparrowhawk or kestrel passing overhead.
Standing beside the lakes in the Bois de Boulogne though one is almost guaranteed to see and hear a variety of waterfowl. When I went to the Mere de Saint-James the other day I was able record the cacophony of mallard ducks, moorhens, geese and mute swans.
Sounds of the waterfowl in the Bois de Boulogne:
Spending as much time as I do recording and archiving the urban soundscapes of Paris, the sounds of the human species in the Parisian streets, I relish the chance to record wildlife sounds in the urban environment when I can. Sadly, the opportunity doesn’t come along all that often so when it does, I make the most of it.
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.