Faux-Naturel: Constructed Natural Landscapes in Paris

The last time I was in Paris, I had about three hours to kill one morning before I caught a train to Normandy. I asked a friend of mine, an American ex-pat living in Paris, what he’d recommend I do for that time. I only  had until 11am or so – not enough to embroil myself in a museum, really. His suggestion? The Buttes Chaumont Park. 

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Map of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, late 19th century. Image courtesy of the Gallica archive. 

I’d never heard of it. I was honestly a bit skeptical, but as a Canadian who works outdoors for a living out in nature the crowds of Paris had been getting to me a bit, so I thought I’d give this park a try. It was an excellent decision, because after about a fifteen minute ride on the metro and a ten minutes’ walk, I encountered this dramatic landscape in the middle of Paris:

I spent a delightful few hours discovering view after dramatic view. There were crags and canyons, bridges four or five stories tall, statues of nature spirits, brightly coloured holly, waterfalls, and a beautiful view of the famous Sacré Coeur in Montmartre in the distance. However, for all its “natural” grandeur, this park is an entirely man-made landscape.

There was a helpful small but unstaffed museum that told me the history of this place. (This history- and nature-loving nerd always appreciates interpretive panels!)

It was once an old gypsum quarry outside of town. In fact, the park gets its name because the gypsum underneath apparently made the earth unsuitable for farming: “chaumont” = “mont chauve”, or bald hill, devoid of plants. At the height of the gypsum mining, the quarry’s galleries were 45 metres high. For many years, the place was used as a dumping ground for garbage and dead horses.

 

By the 1860s, the city of Paris was changing. Hausmann was famously widening boulevards, but Emperor Napoleon III was also ordering the creation of new inner city parks.  The Buttes Chaumont Park was created at this time from the remains of the old quarry. They retained 6 of the dramatic cliffs as the base of the park, then constructed a faux-Roman temple at the top of one of them and a tall bridge to take visitors there. The park was opened on April 1st, 1867, at the time of the Paris Universal Exhibition.

 

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Panoramic view of the Parc Buttes-Chaumont, taken in 1867. Image from the Portail des Bibliothèques Municipales Specialisées.

Trolling through archival photographs at Gallica, a lot of the photos emphasize the heights of the dramatic landscape. What does that more than photographing a famous parachutist jumping off its tallest bridge in 1925?

This park with its dramatic, history-filled landscapes is celebrating its 150th anniversary in April, 2017. Now is the perfect time to visit!

Further Resources

 

Edwardian Street Life

Happy New Year everyone! I can never escape from historical research. I have attempted to relax over the holidays (though scholarly pursuits are never far from my mind), and through the joys of the internet I have run across a few gems I’d like to share with you.

I’ve run across historical videos of “everyday scenes” before. Here, for example, is a link to a video taken from a tram in San Francisco in 1906, just prior to the famous earthquake and fire. I’m fascinated by historical videos and pictures of everyday life. One can learn a lot about portraits taken in studios, but of course most people would dress up for that, and until exposure times were shortened in the late 19th century poses were often very stiff and formal. (See here for an interesting article with photographs of Edwardian “street style” from London and Paris.)

Videos of everyday life can tell us so many things. They generally aren’t as posed. One can see how real people dressed (and moved in those dresses), how people interacted with their environment and the people around them, etc. You can see things like garbage and horse dung in the streets, cyclists taking risks, children running and laughing, and so on. It’s amazing.

Below is a video taken from a tram on various streets in Barcelona in 1908. I find it absolutely fascinating. I am intrigued by how people interacted with the tramway. The trams moved at about the same pace as the motorcars, the horses, and the cyclists. There is a wonderful flow to traffic in the video that I feel is absent today. When everything moves at about the same pace, there’s less of a chance of accidents, not as many sudden stops and starts, and everyone seems to interact more and be more aware of their surroundings. You can see children running ahead of the tram, men shaking hands and parting from the tracks at the last instant before the tram runs them over, cyclists constantly weaving in and out of traffic…

I also find the history of fashion to be quite fascinating. One person that caught my attention appears at about 4:15: a young girl with an enormous feathered hat. One tends to see the Merry Widow Hat on young women instead, so this is an intriguing example of children’s fashion to me. It’s interesting to see how the feathers of the hat actually move, too.

Some of the people seem to be aware of the camera and wave their hats at the cameraman, or at least the tram. If you pay close attention to one of the male figures near the front of the screen at about 5:05, I think he tries to “moon” the camera. At the very least he cheekily turns and presents his rear end to the camera and then grins.

On a slightly more adorable note, at about 5:20 a cart starts trundling along in front of the tram. During that time, many men lining the road wave their hats at the camera, and one of the men on the cart looks back several times. At about 5:45 they seem to have been told about the camera and the man on the left waves. I don’t suppose that these men were filmed very often! There’s something endearing to me about their reaction. (A subjective view, yes, I know.) Still, due to the power of moving pictures, people from over a hundred years ago seem to wave at me, out of history.

These films of everyday life are well worth a view.