Parc de la Villette – From Abattoir To Arts & Sciences

Dedicated to the arts and sciences, Parc de la Villette's collection of buildings, thematic gardens, lawns, and walkways range from miniature to monumental. Construction began in 1984 and it took two decades to transform the 19th-century meat market into the largest park in Paris, other than the two bois.

Although the park hangs on the edge of the 19th Arrondissement in the northeast of the city, it's one of the cultural hubs of Paris. Here you find Europe's largest science museum, three major concert venues, plus the music Conservatoire de Paris.


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History & Design at Parc de la Villette

Villette Abattoir 1974

In the mid 19th century, during the massive renovation of Paris driven by Napoleon II and his prefect Haussmann, the city was not only rebuilt but expanded as well, by bringing into the city limits nearby village and towns. One of those villages, to the northeast of Paris, was La Villette, with a history that goes back to at least the Roman era. (In the 12th century La Villette was home to a leper's hospital.)

In 1859 La Villette was incorporated into the newly-created 19th Arrondissement. At the same time it was decided to create a new, central abattoir to replace five large slaughterhouses found in Paris at Montmartre; at Ménilmontant (another village, brought into the 20th Arrondissement); Roule, on the Right Bank not too far away from the Louvre; Grenelle (in the current 15th); and Villejuif, in the current 13th.

As the city grew over the next 100 years, the Villette abattoir was moved to locations outside of Paris. With the exception the Grande Halle de la Villette (formerly called the Halle aux Boeufs, which still exists today and is shown above in a photo from 1860) most of the Villette buildings were razed in the mid-1970s. Following an international design competition the first stage of Parc de la Villette was built between 1984 and 1987.

The idea was to transform the 135 acres into a modern 20th-century park filled with activity — in sharp contrast to 19th-century parks where rest and leisure reigned supreme. One essential design feature was keeping the north-south perspective open to view. The park's central structure is the Grande Halle de la Villette, with new buildings scattered around it.

Today Parc de la Villette is home to museums, concert halls, performance theatres, themed parks, playgrounds, and thirty-five red architectural folies. In case you've forgotten your Architecture 101, folies are buildings meant for decoration rather than practical purposes.


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Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie

Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie

It's a long way from an abattoir to the largest science museum in Europe, but that's the story of the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie. Today, its planetarium, submarine and exhibits are well worth a visit. There are frequent special science exhibitions and the museum is often filled with Parisian students on school field trips.

The modern exposed blue structural details on both the interior and exterior may remind you of Centre Pompidou. The museum prides itself on its many interactive displays, including with an aquarium, a multimedia library, and the Cité des Enfants, for children up to age 12. Explora on level 1 holds the permanent exhibitions while on the top floor are the Planetarium and the temporary exhibitions.

Cité de la Musique

Cité de la Musique

The other large museum & arts complex at Villette is the Cité de la Musique, at once a museum of music history and a very large performance center with numerous concert halls and rehearsal rooms. The museum displays over 1,000 instruments, including ones owned by Frederic Chopin and even Frank Zappa.

In 2015 an expanded musical complex was opened at Villette, Philharmonie de Paris, with an innovative, modernistic design and superior acoustics. This is now the largest music venue in Paris. While Cité de la Musique has been renamed Philharmonie 2, we still have the original name stuck in our heads!


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La Grande Halle

La Grande Halle

When the La Villette complex opened in the 1860s there were three market halls, but as we mentioned, only the Grande Halle aux Boeufs was preserved for its architectural value. Made of iron and glass as one of Napoleon III's projects, it was completed in 1867 by architect Jules de Merindol. In 1985, the Grande Halle was transformed into a multi-use exposition center. It's one of the few 19th-century structures that survive in the park.

By the way, the fountain in front of La Grande Halle was originally located on the site that became Place de la République (where the 3rd, 11th, and 20th Arrondissements now come together). When Haussmann built this grande new place, he relocated the Fontaine aux Lions de Nubie (as it is called) out to the new slaughterhouse complex at Villette. Cattle used to drink from the fountain.

Ten Theme Gardens

Bamboo Garden

A walk through Parc de la Villette reveals ten themed gardens, playgrounds, and buildings housing theaters. Jardin des Miroirs is a quiet, shaded, hidden corner of the surrounding park. From a distance the garden appears to be filled with massive concrete blocks, but once you're within the garden, the mirrored surfaces make the concrete disappear. There are in fact, nearly thirty mirrors set among the pines and maple trees.

Other themed gardens to explore here include the Garden of Dunes, the Garden of Trellises, the Bamboo Garden, the Garden of Movement, the Garden of Balance with metallic kites, and even a Garden of Childhood Fears with a walkway playing eerie music.


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Other Villette Features & Folies

La Géode, photo by Mark Craft

Ourcq Canal

The Ourcq Canal runs through the middle of Parc de la Villette. Here you can catch a boat that connects to Canal St Martin and takes you on a cruise though its locks to reach the Seine. There are two pedestrian bridges than span the canal to the other side of the park. During the summer a mobile floating bridge is installed between these two bridges.

Argonaute Submarine

Launched in 1958, the Argonaute submarine spent 2,000 days at sea and 32,000 hours underwater. The submarine finally was retired in 1982. Seven years later, the Argonaute was transferred through seven locks of the Saint-Denis Canal to her final destination in the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie where she can be viewed today.

Zenith Performance Hall

Zenith, a 6,000-person performance hall, was intended to be temporary when it was built in 1983. (Something like the Eiffel Tower was in 1889.) At the time, the metal framework and lightweight silver polyester fabric was quickly erected. Since then the theater has become a permanent part of the park and has inspired similar theaters throughout France.

La Géode

La Géode is a geodesic dome with stainless-steel, mirror-like faces, that is located next to the Cité des Sciences. (Photo above.) It houses an IMAX(or OmniMax) theatre. Continuing north through the park, and crossing the Canal de l'Ourcq, you come to the Kiosque a Musique, which is surrounded by an outdoor dance area.

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