IT WAS IN APRIL 2011 when I last visited the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in the Bois de Vincennes at Nogent-sur-Marne on the eastern edge of Paris. Then, I went there several times to record sounds for the 2011 Paris Obscura Day event organised by Adam, curator of Invisible Paris.
Recently, I decided it was time to return to Nogent-sur-Marne and explore a little more.
Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale
I am fascinated by industrial archaeology and particularly by the mid-nineteenth century iron and glass structures to be found in Paris – structures like la Grande Halle de la Villette or Henri Labrouste’s sumptuous reading room at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève.
Sadly, I was never able to see the eight Victor Baltard iron and glass pavilions at Les Halles, the traditional central market in Paris founded in 1183.
Les Halles, the former central market in Paris. Photograph: Sophie Boegly/Musée d’Orsay
Unable to compete in the new market economy and in need of massive repairs, the central market was relocated to Rungis, south of Paris, in 1971 and all but two of Baltard’s iron and glass pavilions were destroyed. The two that survived were dismantled and then re-erected, one in Yokohama, Japan and the other in Nogent-sur-Marne.
When I went back to Nogent-sur-Marne recently I sought out this surviving Baltard pavilion.
The Pavillon Baltard, Nogent-sur-Marne
This pavilion was used originally for selling eggs and poultry at the Les Halles market. Today it’s surround by iron gates – the original gates from Les Halles – and it’s used for a variety of events including concerts, exhibitions and corporate functions.
Unfortunately, I was not able to gain entry to the pavilion, which was a shame because as well seeing the pavilion itself I particularly wanted to see something housed inside.
As well as acquiring the Baltard pavilion, Nogent-sur-Marne also managed to acquire the four manual, sixteen rank, Christie cinema organ once housed in the massive 5,500 seat Gaumont Palace cinema in Paris. Built in 1931 by the English organ builders, Hill Norman and Beard, the organ now resides in the Baltard pavilion.
The art-deco Gaumont Palace cinema in Paris
This famous theatre organ will always be linked with the organist, Tommy Desserre, who played the instrument until the Gaumont Palace closed in 1972.
The Christie organ console in the Pavilion Baltard
Although I wasn’t able to go in and see the organ, I have found this 1988 recording of John Mann playing an Hommage to Edith Piaf on the organ in the Baltard pavilion so you can hear what it sounds like.
Having seen the Baltard pavilion, if only from the outside, I took myself off to a nearby bistro for lunch where I found this lady posing for me.
After lunch I decided to make a return visit to the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale at the eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes. The last time I was here I spent four days recording sounds for Adam’s Paris Obscura Day event so I was anxious to see what sounds I might capture on this summer’s day.
I settled myself down beside the Indochinese temple and began to record the wildlife, the rustle of the bamboo trees and the ever-present man-made sounds around me.
Summer sounds in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale:
The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was created in 1899 as a ‘jardin d’essai colonial’, a research garden, with the aim of coordinating agricultural experiments that would lead to the introduction or reintroduction of exotic plants like coffee, bananas, rubber trees, cocoa and vanilla across the French colonies.
During the summer of 1907 the garden became the site of a Colonial exhibition organised by the French Colonisation Society.
The exhibition was designed not only to show off exotic plants, animals, and other products of the French empire but also to show off people from the colonies who lived in five different villages on the site recreating their ‘typical’ environments. There were villages for people representing the Congo, Indochina, Madagascar, Sudan, and New Caledonia as well as a camp for the Tuaregs from the Sahara.
This ‘human zoo’ proved to be very popular attracting around one and a half million visitors.
The Tuareg camp at the 1907 exhibition
At the end of the summer of 1907 the exhibition closed, the residents returned home and the exhibition site was left abandoned. During World War II, the site was used as a hospital for colonial troops and in the post-war years part of it housed the École d’agronomie tropicale and the Centre technique forestier tropical. The remnants of the Colonial villages though were left to decay.
In 2003, the city of Paris acquired the site and began a development programme and the garden was opened to the public in 2006.
Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale – The Colonial Bridge
Even though I didn’t get to see the Christie cinema organ, I enjoyed my day in Nogent-sur-Marne. Seeing the Pavillon Baltard has been on my ‘to do’ list for a long time and sitting in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale listening to its sounds was a delightful way to spend a summer afternoon.
Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale – The Indochina War Memorial
AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS of planning and five years of construction work, La Canopée des Halles was officially opened on 5th April.
Designed by the architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti, La Canopée is a gigantic 7,000-ton steel structure shaped in vegetable-inspired curves covering nearly 2.5 hectares of Les Halles in the 1st arrondissement.
La Canopée stands on the site of the traditional central market of Paris dating from 1183. In the 1850s, Victor Baltard designed the famous glass and iron pavilions, Les Halles, which featured in Émile Zola’s novel Le Ventre de Paris, (The Belly of Paris), set in the busy market of the 19th century.
View of Les Halles from Saint-Eustache in 1870
In the 1970s, the Les Halles market closed and moved out to Rungis on the outskirts of the city. All of Baltard’s glass and iron pavilions were dismantled, save for two which survived and have since been re-erected, one in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne and the other in Yokohama, Japan.
The Baltard Pavilion at Nogent-sur-Marne
The closure of Les Halles left a vacuum, a vacuum filled by an eminently forgettable spasm of 1970s urban renewal – a claustrophobic underground shopping mall and flimsy street-level pavilions.
Speaking at the Canopée opening ceremony, Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris said, “We had to fix this broken place.”
La Canopée is part of a €1 billion project to ‘fix this broken place’; to re-integrate it into the urban environment and make it a more agreeable experience for everyone who uses it.
With a maximum span of 96 metres, La Canopée incorporates 15 translucent slats made of sheet glass, which provide natural ventilation and, at either end, glass awnings offer shelter to the street-level pedestrian walkways. La Canopée also captures solar energy from photovoltaic panels mounted on the north and south buildings as well as rainwater, which will be used to feed the fountains in the neighbouring, still to be constructed, gardens.
Together, the north and south wings of the Canopée accommodate a number of spacious and diversified cultural facilities including a 2,600 square metre conservatory, offering instruction in music, drama and dance as well as concerts, master classes and lectures. There is a 1,050 square metre library, over 1,000 square metres of public workshop and studio space for amateurs and professionals of all hues, a hip-hop centre where young people can express themselves, as well as a swimming pool and a cinema.
And, of course, let’s not forget the more than 6,000 square metres of underground retail shopping.
Sounds under La Canopée des Halles:
Whether or not the Canopée des Halles becomes what the Mayor of Paris has called, ‘the new heart of Paris’, remains to be seen but for me at least it is certainly an improvement on the ‘broken place’ that preceded it.
I SPEND A LOT of my time walking the streets of Paris listening to and recording the everyday sounds around me, the sound tapestry of the city.
Recording urban soundscapes is not as easy as you might think. In our modern digital world where we’ve come to expect affordable technology to turn us all into instant experts, one might be forgiven for thinking that recording urban soundscapes is simply a matter of pointing and shooting and hoping for the best – but it doesn’t quite work like that. Capturing the most expressive and lasting images of the sounds around us requires a heady cocktail of active listening, enthusiasm, hard work, endless patience, attention to detail and an ear for a captivating subject, not to mention copious amounts of shoe leather.
Captivating sounds seldom appear to order, they are often elusive and need to be hunted out and to hunt them one needs time, often lots of time. Few things are more frustrating than spending an entire day pounding the streets searching for that special sound only to come home empty-handed. But on a good day, it only takes one chance moment to come home with an absolute gem.
The great 20th century Parisian street photographer, Robert Doisneau, summed up this element of chance by saying, “Chance … You have to pay for it and you have to pay for it with your life, you pay for it with time – not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”
And sometimes the spending of time can bring a huge reward.
Les Halles – the former ‘belly of Paris’
Recently, I was wandering around Les Halles, once the huge covered food market known as the ‘Belly of Paris’, and a part of Paris now undergoing much needed renovation. I’ve recorded there many times but this time captivating sounds seemed particularly elusive. I’d been there for most of the afternoon spending time but recording nothing and I was on the point of giving up and going home when the element of chance that Robert Doisneau spoke about intervened.
In the distance I could hear the sound of bells, the bells of the Église Saint Eustache, the gothic masterpiece in which the young Louis XIV received communion, the church chosen by Mozart for his mother’s funeral, the church where Richelieu was baptised and where both the future Madame de Pompadour and Molière were married. I followed the sound of the bells and began recording. The sounds led me into a little courtyard at the side of the church. I waited until the sounds of the bells faded and then, spying a very old, well-worn door, I opened it, entered the church and walked into a magnificent wall of sound coming from the Van den Heuvel organ being played by a young man sitting at the giant five manual console in the nave.
The Bells and Organ of Église Saint Eustache:
“… not the wasting of time but the spending of time.” And in this place, on this day, the spending of time was an investment richly rewarded.
Yesterday marked the third birthday of this blog. When I began it the world of blogging was very new to me and I had little idea of what I was doing or what shape this blog would take. All I had was a vague idea that I wanted to share two of my passions – the city of Paris and recording the everyday sounds around me. Now, three years on, this blog has taken on a life of its own with over 200,000 visitors and over 1,000 loyal followers.
To all those who visit this blog regularly, to those who just stop by as they’re passing and to all the friends I’ve made all over the world as a result of this blog I just want to say a heartfelt “Thank You”.
This recording of the sounds of the bells and the organ of Église Saint Eustache is a celebration of the life that this blog has taken on and I dedicate these sounds to you all.
IT’S AUGUST AND Paris is much less busy than usual but, whilst the locals may be away on their summer holidays, there’s no shortage of tourists in town. On Saturday the Beaubourg, the area close to Les Halles, rue Montorgueil and the Marais, with the Centre Georges Pompidou at its heart, was awash with visitors.
The area behind the Pompidou Centre is a magnet for the crowds who come to watch the street entertainers perform. Their talents range from the very professional to the utterly bizarre. In the former category was this superb mime artist and children’s entertainer who had both children and adults enthralled.
Entertaining the Crowd:
In the bizarre category was this man whose performance involved eating razor blades, burning cigarettes and matches. I found it rather gruesome but he too had attracted a large crowd.
Slightly away from the crowds I found this man sitting on a stool looking perfectly content playing his Chinese violin.
The Chinese violin or, to give it its proper name, the Erhu, is a Chinese two-stringed instrument whose roots go back to the Tang dynasty (618-907). It’s one of the huqin family of traditional bowed string instruments used by various ethnic groups of China.
The Sound of the Erhu in the Beaubourg:
A very versatile instrument, the erhu is used in both traditional and contemporary music either as a solo instrument or as part of an orchestra.
The sound of this Chinese violin in the Beaubourg was a great contrast to the laughter generated by the children’s entertainer and the grotesque eating habits of the man with the razor blades and burning cigarettes. But, it’s all part of the rich tapestry that is Paris.
To hear a stunning performance of the erhu in concert click here.
I was out sound hunting yesterday around Les Halles at Châtelet.
No sooner had I got there than a manifestation hove into view.
It was a manifestation to mark La Journée Mondiale des Sourds, literally – World Day of the Deaf. More particularly, it was to promote the use of sign language in everyday life. The irony didn’t escape me. Here was I trying recording an almost completely silent manifestation. As with most manifestations in Paris it was all very good natured and everyone was enjoying themselves but there was none of the usual chanting, shouting and singing. What the participants lacked in making sound they more than made up for in the use of signing which was very enthusiastic..
The manifestation was not completely devoid of sound though. These guys were having fun beating their drum.
And all this was taking place in the shadow of the magnificent Eglise Saint Eustache.