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.
THE ENGLISH WORD ‘square’ has been adopted by the French to describe a particular type of open space.
A Parisian ‘square’ is typically a small urban green space not large enough to be called a parc (the grassy variety) or a bois (the wooded variety) and not sufficiently formal in its plantings to be called a jardin.
There are a large number of squares dotted throughout the twenty arrondissements of Paris each of which offers the opportunity to escape, if only momentarily, from the urban environment and to partake of air and light. Sadly though, few Parisian squares are completely free from the noise pollution create by endless traffic.
Opened in 1857, the Square du Temple in the 3rd arrondissement is one of the squares created by Jean-Charles Alphand, directeur de la voie publique et des promenades de la Ville de Paris, during Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris in the late nineteenth-century.
The Square occupies part of the the site of a medieval fortress built by the Knights Templar in 1290. Covering some 130 hectares, the fortress or, l’enclos du Temple, featured a number of buildings important to the running of the Knights Templar Order including a church, a massive turreted keep known as the Grosse Tour (great tower), and a smaller tower called Tour de César (Caesar’s Tower).
Parts of the fortress were used as a prison during the French revolution. Louis XVI was a prisoner here from 13th August 1792 to 21st January 1793, before being taken to the guillotine and Marie Antoinette was here from 13th August 1792 to 1st August 1793 before being taken to the Conciergerie, from where she too went to the guillotine.
After the revolution, l’enclos du Temple become a place of pilgrimage for royalists so, in 1808, Napoleon I ordered its demolition. The final remnants were demolished around 1860 under Napoleon III.
Sounds in the Square du Temple:
Today, at the eastern end of the Square du Temple, also standing on part of the former l’enclos du Temple, is the majestic Marie du III Arrondissement, the local town hall.
While at the north-eastern end is the Carreau du Temple, originally a covered market built in 1863 but now a multipurpose space with a 250-seat auditorium along with sports and cultural facilities, including a recording studio.
I visited this typical Parisian square on a sunny, mid-October afternoon and, along with the lawns, the pond with its artificial waterfall tricking over rocks imported from the forest of Fontainebleau and the chestnut, Turkish hazel and Japanese Sophora trees, I found the sounds of children dominating the soundscape.
These sounds seemed especially poignant when I came upon this:
It’s a monument, inaugurated on 26th October 2007, carrying the names and ages of ‘87 tout-petits n’ont pas eu le temps de frequenter une ecole’: 87 Jewish toddlers aged from 2 months to 6 years living in the 3rd arrondissement who were deported from Paris between 1942 and 1944 and subsequently exterminated at Auschwitz.
Ne les oublions jamais.
Paris (IIIrd arrondissement). The Square du Temple around 1900. Auteur © Léon et Lévy / Roger-Viollet
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
ORIGINALLY A FOCUS for celebrations in Belleville before that commune was consumed into the City of Paris in 1863, today’s Place des Fêtes in the 19th arrondissement stands in the midst of the experiment that was 1970s urbanism.
Surrounded by 1970s tower blocks, the Place des Fêtes is a large pedestrianised space, 200 metres long and 150 meters wide, occupied for three mornings a week by a popular outdoor market. At its centre is an obelisk created by the Hungarian artist, Zoltán Zsakó.
The obelisk stands on a granite base and is made mostly from translucent glass with bass reliefs surrounding the graffiti encrusted lower portion.
Although I have no idea what the artistic intent behind the obelisk is, it does have a practical purpose. It covers the emergency exit from the underground car park beneath the Place des Fêtes.
Another artistic feature of the Place des Fêtes is la fontaine-labyrinthe, the fountain-maze, created by another Hungarian artist, Marta Pan.
La fontaine-labyrinthe is one of the fountains to emerge from the 1978 competition to create seven contemporary fountains in different squares in Paris. Another winner of that competition was La Fontaine Stravinsky in the centre of the city featured in this blog one year ago.
Sounds in Place des Fêtes:
The sounds I recorded in the Place des Fêtes on a hot August afternoon included the sounds of energetic youths skateboarding and young children enjoying the final days of summer before returning to school on 1st September.
Relief from the 1970s concrete jungle can be found on the western edge of the Place des Fêtes in the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, a garden designed by the ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, Jean-Charles Alphand, who worked for Baron Haussmann and his renovation of Paris in the late 19th century.
The garden was opened in 1863 and redeveloped, along with the rest of the Place des Fêtes, in the 1970s.
Today, the garden honours the memory of Monseigneur Fernand Maillet (1896 – 1963), a parish priest born close by who, in 1924, took over the direction of the renowned boy’s choir, la manécanterie des Petits Chanteurs à la Croix de bois. In 1963 he founded la Fédération internationale des Pueri Cantores, an international association bringing together twenty-seven national choral associations on five continents.
It seems entirely appropriate that the centrepiece of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet, the kiosque à Musique, or bandstand, reflects the musical association with Monseigneur Maillet.
At the eastern end of the Square Monseigneur-Maillet is a reminder of the garden in Alphand’s time, a nineteenth-century Wallace fountain.
This is not the classic large model fountain resting on an octagonal pedestal on which four caryatids are affixed with their backs turned and their arms supporting a pointed dome decorated by dolphins. This is the small model version, a simple pushbutton fountain that one can find in squares and public gardens across Paris and on a hot, late August day it was a fountain much in demand.
AFTER HIS FAILED ATTEMPT to oust King Louis-Philippe in 1836, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoléon I, spent a period of exile in England. He returned to France in 1848, organised a coup d’état in 1851 and took the throne as Napoléon III on 2nd December 1852.
While in exile in England, Louis-Napoléon developed a taste for English gardens and during his time as Emperor he established several English-style gardens in Paris. His re-designed Bois de Boulogne for example was based on Hyde Park in London.
One of the English-style gardens he ordered to be constructed was the Square des Batignolles in what is now the 17th arrondissement.
The engineer Jean-Charles Alphand, the architect, Gabriel Davioud, and the horticulturist and landscape architect, Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, were given the task of converting a wasteland into an English-style garden in the quartier Batignolles, a suburb absorbed into the City of Paris in 1860.
Covering about four acres, the Square des Batignolles was designed as an English landscape garden in a style first made popular by the English landscape architect, Capability Brown.
In contrast to earlier formal gardens with their geometrically designed parterres and pathways, severely clipped shrubbery, and the artificiality of their topiary, the English landscape garden gives the impression of working with nature rather than imposing the gardener’s will on nature.
The idea was to create the illusion that the gardens were untouched by human hands. The landscape architect employed his artistry, through the use of various forms of asymmetric balance, to convince the visitor that the apparent wildness and randomness of the terrain was the product of artful Nature, rather than the artifice of Man.
The English landscape garden also relies heavily on symbolism by using objects that are clearly man-made (architectural follies) as focal points for gazing at the overall landscape. These usually take the form of faux ruins, temples, tea-houses, belvederes, gazebos or pavilions.
The gazebo in Square des Batignolles
These follies were supplemented by vast rolling lawns, well-placed copses of trees, quaint stone bridges, pieces of statuary casually installed in the landscape, grottos, strategically located ponds and watercourses, small waterfalls, and artificial cascades. In the English-style gardens in Paris exotic vegetation was also planted, both to amaze the senses but also to display the power and reach of the Second Empire, which was capable of gathering and nurturing living species from all over the world.
Vautours (Vultures) created by Louis de Monard in 1930
The Square des Batignolles incorporates all the key features of the English landscape garden.
Amidst the extensive rolling lawns is a large pond fed by a natural stream, home to large Japanese koi carp and over three hundred ducks of various species. In the middle of the pond stands a statue created by Louis de Monard in 1930 called Vautours (Vultures) and close by is a bust of the poet, Léon Dierx (1838–1912), created by Bony de Lavergne in 1932. Perched on top of a mound looking out over the garden is a gazebo.
The pathways weaving through the garden are shaded by a variety of trees ranging from the 140 year old oriental plane trees to a relatively young giant sequoia. There are hazelnut trees from Asia Minor, Siberian elms, Japanese cherry trees, ash trees, willows, black walnuts, and others.
Undoubtedly, the Square des Batignolles brings an English landscape into this part of Paris … but what of its soundscape?
Well, if one sets aside the excruciating cacophony currently pervading the garden from construction of part of the new extension to Métro Line 14 immediately outside the southern entrance, a clue to the soundscape in the Square des Batignolles can be found in the lyrics of ‘Les Batignolles’ written by the French songwriter Yves Duteil:
“So, in the Square des Batignolles
I forded the river to see the pigeons flying.
We were running to catch them …
On the deck, watching the clouds,
We inhaled the crazy smell
That emerged from passing steam locomotives
And, at the heart of the white smoke,
Everything else disappeared …”
From the Square des Batignolles: Rail tracks running under Pont Cardinet
Sounds from the Square des Batignolles:
The locomotives may not run on steam any more and there is no white smoke but trains do still pass hard by the south-western side of the Square des Batignolles.
The Gare Saint-Lazare, one of the six main line railway stations in Paris, is within walking distance of the south-western tip of the Square des Batignolles. At the north-western tip is the Gare de Pont-Cardinet. From Gare Saint-Lazare, long distance Intercity trains run towards Normandy and regional Transilien trains run to the western suburbs of Paris. Some 1,600 trains enter and leave Gare Saint-Lazare every day and every one of them passes the Square des Batignolles.
While the mind-bending sounds of the Métro construction work just outside the garden are temporary, the sounds of the passing trains are a permanent feature of the garden’s soundscape; they’ve been here since before the garden was built.
I recorded the penetrating sounds of the trains from the south-western edge of the garden close to the railway lines but, further into the garden, the sounds of the trains become intricately woven with the sounds of playful children, trickling streams, artificial waterfalls, the wildlife and the Pétanque players, thus enhancing the soundscape rather than detracting from it.