THE GARE DU NORD railway station in Paris is on the cusp of great change. Over the next few years the physical architecture of this station will be transformed and consequently, so will its sonic architecture.
For many years I have been recording and archiving the sounds of the Gare du Nord. My particular interest lies in investigating how sounds can define, or help to define, a place and how the soundscape of a particular place changes over time. The Gare du Nord is a valuable case study in both these areas.
The first Gare du Nord station was built in 1846 but an increase in traffic meant that a new, bigger station was soon required.
The original 1846 chemin de fer du nord station
Rebuilding took place under the direction of the German-born French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff with the new station combining the advanced structural use of new materials, notably cast iron, with conservative Beaux-Arts classicism. Hittorff’s Gare du Nord was completed in 1864.
La “Gare de la Compagnie du chemin de fer du Nord” photographiée vers 1864 par Charles-Henri Plaut
Significant changes to the station were made in 1981 to accommodate RER Line B and then in 1993 to accommodate the TGV and the Eurostar. The last major change was 2001 with a major expansion of the departures hall.
Gare du Nord TGV Departure Hall in 2017
And now the Gare du Nord is about to undergo further change.
Subject to negotiations due to be concluded by the end of this year, SNCF Gares & Connections and the global real estate company Ceetrus will set up a joint venture to carry out a transformation of the Gare du Nord. Ceetrus, in association with architect Denis Valode (Valode and Pistre architects), will lead a transformation as big as that led by the Hittorff in 1864. The transformation is due to be completed in time for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord
The transformation will see the station triple in size from 36,000m2 to 110,000 m2. With 700,000 passengers using the station each day, excluding those who use the associated Métro station, the Gare du Nord is already the busiest railway station in Europe. Following the transformation the daily passenger numbers are expected to increase to 800,000 in 2024 and 900,000 in 2030.
The transformation will include a new departure terminal in which the flow of arrivals and departures from the station will be distinct thus improving fluidity and comfort for travellers. A new station facade is proposed on rue du faubourg Saint-Denis with direct access to the departure terminal.
The Eurostar terminal will be expanded to meet the challenge of strengthened customs controls linked to Brexit.
Accessibility will be enhanced with more elevators and escalators. The new station will have 55 lifts and 105 escalators. Station security will be enhanced with more CCTV being installed.
Access to the three metro lines will be improved. The bus station with its 12 bus lines and 7 Noctilian services will be connected directly with the departure terminal, and 1,200 bicycle parking spaces will be available with direct access from the square in front of the station.
Traffic circulation around the station will be redesigned to take account of the redesigned access to the station and also the expected development of new electric mobility solutions.
The transformed station will also include a 2,000 m2 ‘European Academy of Culture’, a concept devised by the writer Olivier Guez, including a 1,600 m2 space to host events and concerts.
There will be 5,500 m2 of co-working space, a nursery, new restaurants and a one-kilometre running track on the station roof.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord
The transformation of the Gare du Nord will clearly change the visual landscape of the station but it will also change its sonic landscape. There are six main line railway stations in Paris, five of which sound very similar. The exception is the current Gare du Nord, which has a very distinctive soundscape. The size of the main departures terminal together with Hittorff’s 19th century iron and glass construction and the cacophony of waiting passengers squeezed between the parked trains and the street outside gives the Gare du Nord a very particular sonic ambience.
This is what the Gare du Nord sounded like in 2011.
Gare du Nord 2011:
Gare du Nord Departures Hall 2011
Although the major transformation project is not due to start until next year, some improvements to the Gare du Nord are already underway. When I went there last week I found men laying a new stone floor in the main departures hall, which gives us a clue as to how the soundscape of the station will change as the major construction work progresses. The sounds of the gasping trains will have to compete with the cacophony of building work for some considerable time to come.
Gare du Nord 2018:
Having recorded the soundscape of the current Gare du Nord many times I shall continue to record and archive the sounds as the station’s transformation takes place. I shall be fascinated to discover the sounds of the new, ultra-modern Gare du Nord when all the work is completed. I will though still go back to my archive from time to time and listen to the sounds of the ‘old’ Gare du Nord; sounds that have been so familiar to me for almost the last twenty years and sounds that are about to disappear.
Artist’s impression of the transformed Gare du Nord
THE EARLIEST REFERENCES to the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis date as far back as the Mérovingians, around 750 AD. The street became popular in the Middle Ages because it was the most direct route between Paris and the increasingly prestigious Abbeye de Saint-Denis, the Royal Necropolis of France.
The Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis crosses the 10th arrondissement of Paris linking the Boulevard de la Chapelle in the north and the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle further south. The street is called the rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis because it’s an extension of the Rue Saint-Denis to the faubourg, the area formerly outside the Paris city walls as marked today by the Porte Saint-Denis.
In September last year I produced a blog piece about the northern part of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis from the Boulevard de la Chapelle to the Gare du Nord railway station, the area known as Little Jaffna because of the Tamil population who live and work there. You can see that blog piece here.
Having completed a soundwalk of that part of the street, I thought it was now time to complete my sonic exploration of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis by doing a soundwalk along the remainder of the street from the Gare du Nord to Porte Saint-Denis. The street may have lost the glitter it once had when it formed part of the King’s processional route to the Basilica of Saint Denis and the accents may have changed – you’re more likely to hear Indian, Arabic or Turkish than anything else, but the street has its own character and is full of interest.
Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis – A Soundwalk:
WE DON’T KNOW TOO MUCH about the smallest house in Paris but we do know that it’s wedged between two tall buildings in the Rue du Château d’Eau, at N° 39, and if you don’t know it’s there it’s easily missed.
The house is approximately 1.10 metres wide and 5 metres high and it comprises a ground floor shop and one upstairs room. It is said that it was built as a result of a family quarrel.
The land where the house now stands used to be a passage connecting the Rue du Château d’Eau to the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin. It seems that in a dispute, the heirs to the land were unable to reach agreement so the owner resolved the problem by building this tiny house and blocking the passage.
There is however, more to the Rue du Château d’Eau than just the smallest house in Paris. The street stretches for almost half a mile from the Boulevard de Magenta to Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis.
I always think of this street as comprising two parts. The first part, from the Boulevard de Magenta close to République to the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin, is fairly quiet and very French. It includes the popular Marché Saint-Martin.
From the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin to the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis the street takes on a very different hue reflecting the multi-cultural atmosphere of this city. We move from France to Africa.
Sounds of Rue du Château d’Eau:
Hairdressers, beauty salons, nail bars, noisy African men, beautiful African women and a mélange of sounds dominate this part of the fascinating Rue du Château d’Eau.
AT THE END OF AUGUST I made a blog piece about La Fête de Ganesh, the annual festival to celebrate Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune. In July, I made a piece about the Passage Brady with its exotic smells and the atmosphere of an Indian bazaar. So yesterday, when I found myself in ‘Little Jaffna’ in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement, I couldn’t help feeling that, unwittingly, a theme was developing.
Stretching from the Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle to the Boulevard de la Chapelle, the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis is a mélange of Turkish, African, and Indian communities. Yesterday, it was the stretch from the Metro station, La Chapelle, to the railway station, Gare du Nord that particularly interested me and it was along here that I did a Soundwalk.
A Soundwalk in ‘Little Jaffna’:
This part of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis is quite distinctive. It would be easy to call it, “Little India”, but that would be an over-generalisation, even though one of the shops bears that name. The fact is, that what we often refer to as the Indian community here comprises a far wider diversity than just “Indian”.
Of the immigrants originating from the Indian sub-continent who have settled in Paris, only a minority are natives of India proper. Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Punjabis, and Sri-Lankan Tamils form culturally and socially distinct groups in Paris. Something I didn’t know until recently, is that the largest these communities is the Tamil.
Most of the Parisian Tamils fled Sri-Lanka as refugees in the 1980’s during the violent civil war. Over time, they have thrived in a close-knit community in this part of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. The soubriquet, “Little Jaffna”, comes from the name Jaffna, the capital of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, the area from which most of these people are descended.
I began my Soundwalk at the Metro station, la Chapelle, where the African and Indian communities meet. The distinctive sounds of “M’Ice, M’Ice, M’Ice” and “Vum Ice, Vum Ice, Vum Ice”, are the African ladies outside the metro station busily trying to sell ice cubes from plastic bags tucked away in shopping trolleys. They are a common feature in all the African communities in Paris but I’ve yet to see any of them actually making a sale.
Passing through the entrance to the Metro station, crossing the road and walking towards the Gare du Nord, I leave Africa behind and enter into the world of the Indian sub-continent with all its colour, exotic smells and sounds.
A greengrocer is selling exotic fruit and vegetables outside his shop whilst inside, the checkouts are working at a frantic pace.
An Halal butcher, surrounded by colourful sari and textile shops, is chopping meat. Conversation abounds.
This is so much more than a place to shop; this is a place to see and be seen, a place to meet friends, neighbours and family, a place savour and to enjoy. This is “Little Jaffna” and these are its sounds.