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
THE CANAL DE L’OURCQ was born in the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte. He recognised that a plentiful supply of water was a key to public health and so, in 1802, he ordered the construction of the canal to begin.
Work began well away from Paris in Picardy where the river Ourcq was canalised and construction began to bring the waters the one hundred and eight kilometres to the Basin de la Villette in the northeast of Paris. From here the Canal de l’Ourcq linked, and still links, to the Canal Saint-Denis which enters the Seine close to Saint-Denis to the north, and the Canal Saint-Martin which enters the Seine south of Place de la Bastille.
Building the Canal de l’Ourcq was not only a considerable engineering feat it was also a very smart move. On the one hand it provided a plentiful supply of water to the city but it also provided an efficient means of communication for provisioning of the city. The canal’s construction was in part funded by a tax on wine so it’s a good example of turning wine into water!
The canal is still an important source of water for the city of Paris today. It supplies about half of the daily water requirement for the city’s public works. The canal’s commercial traffic may have declined but it still exists to some degree. Working barges are still to be seen and heard passing by leaving their extended sonic footprint behind them.
A Passing Barge:
All working waterways attract industry around them. Inevitably, some of that industry doesn’t survive and we are often left with its ghostly reminder.
Buildings like this have an almost magnetic attraction for me. I am fascinated by industrial archaeology and I always think that buildings like this demand to be explored. The fact that this building is fenced off and made distinctly unwelcoming somehow adds to its attraction.
I understand that psychogeography is the contemporary term for this sort of exploration but with my interest in sound, I much prefer the term sonic archaeology.
Some of the industry though associated with the Canal de l’Ourcq has survived. The Grande Blanchisserie de Pantin was founded in 1883 as an industrial laundry. Under a different name, but in the same premises, it survives today doing exactly the same thing.
The Grande Blanchisserie de Pantin:
Before reaching the Basin de la Villette, the Canal de l’Ourcq bisects the enormous Parc de la Villette. Designed by the French architect Bernard Tschumi and built on the site of the former Parisian abbatoirs, the Parc de la Villette includes the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, City of Science and Industry, the largest science museum in Europe; La Géode, an IMAX theatre inside a 36 metre diameter geodesic dome; the Cité de la Musique, City of Music, an interactive museum of historical musical instruments and a concert hall and Le Zénith, a 6,300 seat concert arena, among the largest in Paris.
The Parc de la Villette is a parent’s delight. There’s something here to keep the kids entertained all day long.
Children playing in the Parc de la Villette:
One day I shall travel the full length of the Canal de l’Ourcq but in the meantime, I am quite content to spend an afternoon walking from the Basin de la Villette to Pantin on one side of the canal and then back again on the other. I recommend it.