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.
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
ALONG WITH THE Canal de l’Ourcq, the Bassin de la Villette, the Canal Saint-Martin, and the Bassin de l’Arsenal, the Canal Saint-Denis is part of the 130 km Réseau des Canaux Parisiens – the Parisian Canal Network.
The Canal Saint-Denis looking from l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre to the Pont de Flandre
The Canal Saint-Denis links the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement to la Seine in the commune of Saint-Denis, 6.6 km to the northwest. From the Canal de l’Ourcq to la Seine the canal navigates seven remote-controlled locks and one remote-controlled swing bridge and it drops some 28 metres.
The route of the Canal Saint-Denis from the Canal de l’Ourcq to la Seine showing the locks, or ‘écluses’ in French
The canal is 3.2 metres deep at its shallowest point and 3.5 metres at its deepest and its width varies from 30 metres to 140 metres. It can accommodate vessels with a beam of up to 8 metres and a maximum displacement of up to 1,000 tons. It takes about two and a half hours for vessels to navigate the full length of the canal.
Like the Canal de l’Ourcq, the Canal Saint-Denis was born in the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte. Both canals were intended to provide an efficient means of communication for provisioning Paris but whereas the Canal de l’Ourcq was also intended to provide Paris with a plentiful supply of water, the Canal Saint-Denis was designed as what we might think of today as a ‘by-pass’, a means of reducing the number of ships and barges passing through the centre of the city. As well as being a by-pass for river traffic the Canal Saint-Denis was, and still is, a by-pass for water. By diverting excess water from the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine, the Canal Saint-Denis serves to maintain constant water levels in Paris’s canals thereby helping to prevent flooding.
The building and operating of the Canal Saint-Denis was achieved through what we would now call a public-private partnership. The City of Paris purchased the land and then tendered contracts to private banking firms requiring them to build and operate the canal in return for which they were permitted to collect tolls from traffic using the canal for a term of ninety-nine years.
Work on the Canal Saint-Denis began in 1805 under the supervision of the French ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, Édouard de Villiers du Terrage, and it opened in May 1821, on time and, at an estimated six million Francs, under budget.
I’ve been to explore the Canal Saint-Denis by walking from one end to the other and in this and in subsequent blog pieces I will share with you what I observed.
I began at the beginning, where the Canal Saint-Denis parts company from the Canal de l’Ourcq at the Parc de la Villette and runs alongside the Quai de la Gironde.
The green arrow runs along the Quai de la Gironde. The large rectangular building on the right is the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, the Museum of Science and Industry
The intersection of the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Canal Saint-Denis at the Parc de la Villette
Not only is the Parc de la Villette a large green space (at 35.5 hectares it’s the third largest park in Paris) it also houses one of the largest concentration of cultural venues in Paris, including the Cité des Sciences et de l’industrie (Museum of Science and Industry), three major concert venues and the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris.
The beginning of the Quai de la Gironde
From my starting point at the head of the canal, I had the beginning of the Quai de la Gironde on my left and the entrance to the first lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, on my right.
The start of the Canal Saint-Denis and the entrance to l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre. On the right is the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and the circus Big Top of the Cirque Plume
When the Canal Saint-Denis opened in 1821 there were twelve locks along its length. Between 1890 and 1895 the canal was rebuilt to accommodate bigger vessels and the number of locks was reduced from twelve to seven each comprising two adjacent chambers. The largest lock on the canal is the first lock, l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre, with a rise of 10 metres which, when it was built, was a world-record. Today, all seven locks and the swing bridge on the Canal Saint-Denis are remotely controlled from l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre.
L’Écluse du Pont de Flandre
Work is underway to renovate the quays on either side of the canal between l’Écluse du Pont de Flandre and the Pont de Flandre so it was not possible for me to walk close to the water along this stretch. But I was able to walk alongside the canal along the Quai de la Gironde, which has its own history.
In the early nineteenth-century, the Parisian flour and cereals warehouses were limited to the granary at Bastille and the Corn Exchange at Les Halles but with a rapidly growing population new storage facilities became necessary. The area around La Villette was chosen because of its canals, which provided easy and inexpensive transportation. In 1858-1859, two stores docks and additional warehousing capacity were built along the Quai de la Gironde to store flour, starch, grain, oil, alcohol and commodities from the French colonies.
In May 1871, during the last days of the Paris Commune, the warehouses were burned to the ground but they were rebuilt soon after and served Parisians for the next century.
These warehouses alongside the Canal Saint-Denis, together with those at the pont du Crimée and alongside the Bassin de la Villette, were known as the Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux de Paris. Today, they are being redeveloped and turned into up-market office space.
From the Pont de Flandre onwards, both the canal and the Quai de la Gironde take on a different feel. The slow moving, lumbering barges and the occasional leisure craft contrast with the sleek, high-speed (although not high-speed at this point) TGV trains crossing the railway bridge. And the Quai de la Gironde ceases to become a road and is transformed into a paved thoroughfare accommodating both pedestrians and cyclists.
The sleek trams of the fairly recently opened Tram Line 3b pass by on one side …
… while the navette fluviale taking visitors to and from the Millénaire shopping complex further downstream passes by on the other side.
And all the while the sound of construction work echoes in the background as the former Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux are rejuvenated.
It was from here amidst all the redevelopment work that I decided to pause and listen and to record a sound portrait of this stretch of the canal and the Quai de la Gironde.
The Canal Saint-Denis and the Quai de la Gironde – A Sound Portrait:
Next time, I will explore the canal from the end of the Quai de la Gironde to the swing bridge, the Pont Tournant du Canal Saint-Denis, but in the meantime, I will leave you with a view looking back along the canal from the end of the Quai de la Gironde – a very different view from that at its beginning.