“Our waking existence… is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld – a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise.” -Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Few places in the world are as enshrined in the pantheon of urban explorer mythology as the Carrières de Paris, often referred to more colloquially (though inaccurately) as the Paris Catacombs. Since 2008, we have spent dozens of hours underneath Paris, exploring the system and meeting those who map and build it. And despite that lively and active present day cataphile culture, it is clear from looking at the history of these spaces that we are all only a blip in the long history of subsurface Paris. Parisians are melded into the very fabric of the earth through these quarries.
As early as the 13th Century, open air quarries, and later mines, were sunk into the Left Bank of Paris to feed architectural projects on the Right Bank. Eventually, as the city became pressured for space, people began building over the Left Bank. A voidspace was created which, since the 13th Century, has been continually lost and relocated, condemned and celebrated, backfilled and re-excavated. As Winch writes on his blog, exercising access to this voidspace is not a right or a privilege, it’s just something that can be done. And we do – again and again. These sunken tombs have a magnetic pull, despite, or maybe due to, the potential for visceral terror they harbour.
Taking the privilege
While in the quarries, we find ourselves in a negative space, a spatial gap that exists because earth matter has been excavated to build something else entirely. In architecture and urban planning this is sometimes referred to as space left over after planning or SLOAP. Geographers and urban planners find that those modern negative spaces are used for various urban subversions, like skateboarding and street art, being largely ignored and disused space; but we rarely imagine SLOAP being as vast as the urban underground in Paris. As Marc Explo told me while we were wandering the 180 miles of subterranean galleries and chambers “if you want to know how big the quarries are, just look at all the buildings made of limestone in Paris. Then you understand the immensity of what we’re in.”
In 1774, a hundred feet of the Rue d’Enfer collapsed, revealing the voidspace underneath. When King Louis XVI asked engineers to report on the implosion, he was told that much of Paris could collapse; it was built over fragile quarries that stretched for miles. This triggered an epic ongoing urban stabilisation project that spawned many of the shafts, rooms, mines and galleries that we now temporarily occupy. But the rich history of these spaces had just begun by this point. Into the 19th century, the caverns and tunnels were mined for building stone and by the end of that period, they would contain the skeletal remains of eleven million Parisians exhumed from graves where they impeded development – the quarries were transformed into a massive Necropolis.
This system have harboured criminals, French revolutionaries and Nazis, they have been used to grow mushrooms and store wine and, increasingly, give Parisians an unmonitored space to throw parties and get high in our age of the ever-present watchers. Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. This is our urban playground, a timeless organic underworld of caves, water, bone and soil.
The contemporary relationship between explorers and the catas is thought to stretch back to 1793 when a Frenchman named Philibert Aspairt journeyed by candlelight into the abandoned quarry system to find a “lost” wine cellar. His body was found eleven years later and a monument erected to his memory, which still stands to this day. In Ninjaicious’ Infiltration Zine Issue 9, back in 1998, the urban explorer Murray Battle tells tales of multi-day sub-urban rambling, nipple-crunching tunnel crawls and and port sipping in La Plage. Not much has changed since then. As National Geographic wrote in their recent article, entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules – freedom reigns underground, even anarchy. One of the cataphiles the authors run into down there is a guy called Yopi who says “many people come down here to party, some people to paint. Some people to destroy or to create or to explore. We do what we want here. We don’t have rules.” Our time in the catas costs us nothing but the battering on our bodies and psychological stability – an increasingly rare direct feed into the nervous system and hypothalamus – and contributes nothing to society except to add the the surreal project in whatever ways we desire. Money is of no use here, imagination is the currency.
Of course, the phenomenological primacy of accessing the void cannot be ignored. After entering the Paris catacombs last year, on our Kinky Paris trip, our expectations of what to expect, think and feel began to melt with every sip of port, dripping off of us with the sweat and blood and caked quarry mud. It seemed all we could do was act, except in those moments when we were so shocked by some sight, smell or crushing feeling we were rendered temporarily inert. We would sometimes run into other sub-urban dwellers down there, cataphiles who spend the majority of their lives below the City of Light. We also encountered groups of people hunched over single file with bobbing headlights and plastic cups full of beer, and we would nod hello as we passed, acknowledging our shared experience in this space of unregulated sensory madness. It seemed to go on endlessly, and we achieved a state of supreme disillusionment or exceptional clarity (the meld). When we left and had to reconform to social expectations the come down hit hard.
Every time I am in the catas, I can’t help but think I am headed to the last party at Zion, just before the machines drill through to inevitably annihilate the remaining humans and their wonderful little dystopia. The catas feel like a post-capitalist future where everyone took the red pill and woke up. And yet, an 1877 engraving by Charles Barbant also relays this sense that we need not go to Herculaneum or Pompeii to find buried cities, for they occur beneath our own feet. Whether those spaces are a terror or a utopia, or indeed both simultaneously, perhaps can only be known subjectively to each distinct voidspace entrant. These experiences, like so many we seek as the intrepid explorers of this age, often verge on incommunicability (perhaps contributing to my reliance on multimedia in attempts to relay these stories – see below).
So where do these thoughts fit into the hack? Well my friends, the quarries of Paris are perhaps the best Western example of a place where humanity has become intricately interwoven into the informal subterranean urban matrix. Paris culture would suffer a grave setback with loss of access to these spaces (not that such a thing could ever happen, they are far too vast). A co-addictive symbiotic relationship has been built over nine centuries where the populace continually hacked the closed system open again and again, leading to a consistent stratigraphic memorialisation of rediscovery and renewal that is now layered so thick with history and culture you can almost eat it (I tried). The catacombs are proof that just as virtual social systems can be maintained by the multitude, so can physical space. Enter the void.
Want to see more? Have a look at the video footage from my first trip to the Carrières de Paris:
Then read about it in my just-released article in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies: