The park that Paris built , les Buttes Chaumont

6 May

Photo Buttes 1

Photo @ Miranda Creswell

If you were to climb a hill in the Park des Buttes Chaumont and look across northeast Paris, it is hard to imagine that the ground you are standing on ,was once a quarry, producing plaster. Plaster, so widely distributed and used, that even now Plaster of Paris is an internationally recognized material.

 The Buttes Chaumont quarries became the finishing materials of buildings, became orthopedic castes, mending sore limbs and bones, was to be found in ceilings in the form of moldings, in church frescoes over which artist painted vivid colors in pigment. The job of a plasterer could sometimes be to use this quarried material to simulate wood, metal and shells.

Strange that the act of covering and simulating became a recurring theme in the Buttes Chaumont: a park with abundant vegetation, and faux wood cement balustrades and yet with no perceivable links to the lunar landscape over which it lies.


A simulation of a Roman Temple in Tivoli, dedicated to the goddess Minerva was built when the park first opened in 1867 and dominates the skyline.



Photo @Miranda Creswell

The Red Cross used this symbol in a stamp after the first World war, alongside the words: ‘rescuing the war wounded’, the medics presumably using plaster and bandages as part of their care.

buttes chaumont stamp correct scale small 1

Was this Temple built for no practicing religion, the reason for its continued use in symbolizing this part of Paris?

blue print Buttes Chaumont

Archives de Paris 

Ingenieur ordinaire

Archives de Paris

The plastering over, the reinvention of the landscape and symbolic materials has not always been to simply improve and mend. The quarry was once a dumping ground (pre 1867) for horse and other carcasses, which may have been the reason why the French state bought the land in 1862 for 3 / 4 million francs, a quarter of the cost of the Bois de Boulogne and yet 34 times less in size (1) as historian Francois Hanon writes:

‘Il sagit d’assainir et d’embellir une zone indigne de la capital ‘ ( 2)

‘ It was to sanities and make beautiful an unworthy area of the capital city’

 In the ‘semaine sanglante ‘ of 1871, 600 people ( federes ) were massacred in the park, 300 of which were thrown in the lac ( 3) a bridge spans this lake now and most Saturdays it is a place for newly weds of all backgrounds and nationalities to smile and be photographed, being a step away from the registrar in the Mairie of the 19eme arrondissement.


watercolour buttes chaumont

Archive de Paris ( map showing sink holes )

In front of the place where I stood for days, while developing a drawing (4), stands an empty plinth, here it seems the making better, the park’s thematic covering over stops. There was once a sculptor called Louis Auguste Hiolin (5) who made a large sculpture ‘Au Loup’ of a young shepherd chasing a wolf saving his flock of lambs. The sculpture was seized and melted down in the German occupation of Paris in the Second World War and nearby a notice exists with a list of names and ages, a sad reminder of the Jewish children disappearing at a similar time from this gentle neighborhood.

Au loup 1

Figaro crop 1 pale blue

Figaro 23 December 1941 (6)

The statue was never replaced, but being of a certain height and accessibility, it is in constant use by people sitting and talking and by many birds, especially in the early mornings.

Socle vide Buttes Chaumont

Photo @Miranda Creswell

As I drew one day, a lady came to talk to me and pointed to the mature trees in the view, she said that they felt to her almost like ancestors, but unlike her forebears they grew taller larger each year. Indeed this park, made beautiful by many talented and knowledgeable gardeners, is filled with people who feel strongly for what it brings them; silent ‘tai chi’, running, always conversations, this is indeed a landscape that is never still.

Crow Buttes Chaumont 

(1) Antoine Picon , ‘ Nature et ingenierie : le parc des Buttes- Chaumont ‘ Romantisme  4/2010 ( no 150), p 35-49

(2) Francoise Hanon ‘Les Buttes Chaumont ‘ , Les parcs et jardins dans l’urbanisme parisien XIX – XX siecle , Delegation a l’Action Artistique de la Ville de Paris , 2001 p 99-100

(3) www.parisrevolutionnaire#3C2AD5

(4)La Materialite de L’Invisible , exhibition at the Cent Quatre 19eme Paris 



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