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.
ON A RAINY SATURDAY in October this year I came upon the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux, a delightful garden hidden away in a former schoolyard in rue des Blancs-Manteaux in Paris’ 4th arrondissement.
Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs-Manteaux
Having discovered the garden, I resolved to go back before the end of the year and explore rue des Blancs-Manteaux itself. My preferred method for exploring Parisian streets is through sound so the other day I made my way to rue des Blancs-Manteaux in the Marais district and walked along the street recording the sounds around me.
Rue des Blancs-Manteaux towards the north-west
Rue des Blancs-Manteaux – A Soundwalk:
Running in a north-westerly direction from rue Vieille-du-Temple to rue du Temple, rue des Blancs-Manteaux is 330 metres long and 10 metres wide.
It’s an ancient Parisian street and it’s had a succession of names – ‘rue de la Petite-Parcheminerie’, ‘rue de la Vieille-Parcheminerie’, ‘rue de la Parcheminerie’ – but its present name was settled upon in 1289.
Rue des Blancs-Manteaux took its name from the neighbouring Couvent des Blancs Manteaux, a monastery of religious mendicants known as les Serfs de la Vierge Marie (Servants of the Virgin Mary). The order was distinctive because of the white habits they wore so they became known as the White Friars, hence the name Blancs-Manteaux.
The order of the Servants of the Virgin Mary was wound up, along with other mendicant orders, in 1274 and replaced by an order of Guillemites who wore black habits. However, the name Blancs-Manteaux was retained.
L’Espace d’animation des Blancs Manteaux
I began my soundwalk at the south-easterly end of the street at the junction with rue Vieille-du-Temple and the Halle des Blancs-Manteaux.
Designed by the French architect, Pierre-Jules Delespine, the Halle des Blancs-Manteaux was opened in 1819 as part of a large covered market. In 1992 it became l’Espace d’animation des Blancs Manteaux, a venue for concerts, exhibitions and other events.
Le marché des Blancs-Manteaux vers 1820 – Image via Wikipedia
On the day I went I discovered a contemporary art exhibition taking place in l’Espace d’animation des Blancs Manteaux, which included paintings and photographs …
And a variety of metal and mechanical artworks, some of which made delicious sounds.
Leaving the exhibition, I walked a short way along rue des Blancs-Manteaux to the Square Charles-Victor Langlois. This square is now a children’s playground but in the 13th century one of the buildings of the Couvent des Blancs Manteaux stood here.
Square Charles-Victor Langlois
My next stop was the Théatre des Blancs-Manteaux …
Théatre des Blancs-Manteaux
And then, directly opposite, l’Église Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux.
This church was once part of the Couvent des Blancs Manteaux. Originally, the church ran in the conventional east-west direction along rue de Blancs-Manteaux but between 1685 and 1690 the church was reconstructed on the north-south axis it occupies today.
Victor Baltard added the present day façade to the church in 1863. It was originally the façade of l’Église Saint-Éloi-des-Barnabites on boulevard du Palais on the Île de la Cité but that church was demolished during Haussmann’s redevelopment of the city.
I walked up the steps and went into the church.
Listening to the contrast between the sounds outside the church to those on the inside was the highlight of my soundwalk. Captured in sound, the change of atmosphere seemed quite dramatic.
And I couldn’t possibly visit this church without mentioning the organ.
The Grand Orgue de l’Eglise Notre-Dame des Blancs-Manteaux is a Callinet organ built in 1841. The Callinet family were French organ builders located in Colmar in Alsace and for a little over a century they built some 150 organs of which about 60 are preserved.
Mont de Piété
Leaving l’Église Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux I moved on to look at the building next door, the Mont de Piété.
A Mont de Piété is an institutional pawnbroker. Originating in Italy in the 15th century and operated by the Catholic Church as a charity, they were set up as a reform against money lending. They offered financial loans at a moderate interest to those in need.
The Mont de Piété worked by acquiring a monte, a collection of funds from voluntary donations by financially privileged people who had no intentions of regaining their money. People in need would come to the Mont de Piété and give an item of value in exchange for a monetary loan. The term of the loan would be for a year and would only be worth about two-thirds of the borrower’s item value. A pre-determined interest rate would be applied to the loan and these profits were used to pay the expenses of operating the Mont de Piété.
The Mont de Piété in rue des Blancs-Manteaux was opened in 1778 with Framboisier de Beaunay as its first director.
In 1918, to reflect its gradual move into banking, the Mont de Piété was renamed the Crédit Municipal de Paris, the name by which it’s still known.
In 1987, the Mont de Piété opened a network of local branches in Paris and the Île de France and in 1988 an art conservation department was opened.
In 1992, the Mont de Piété became the responsibility of the City of Paris, which is its sole shareholder.
Moving on from the Mont de Piété, I came to N°21 rue des Blancs-Manteaux, a former school behind which is the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs-Manteaux.
A little further on, it’s necessary to cross over rue des Archives before continuing along rue des Blancs-Manteaux to its end point where it meets rue du Temple.
Junction with Rue du Temple
It doesn’t take long to walk the length of rue des Blancs-Manteaux but, if like me, you can’t resist stopping to look at the sites, listen to the sounds and absorb the street’s history, it can take a whole afternoon.