Temple de la Sibylle, Buttes Chaumont park, Paris (1866)

Temple de la Sibylle, Buttes Chaumont park, Paris (1866)

Contributor: Joanna Beaufoy

Location: Paris, France

Description: ‘Temple d’amour’, a ‘Rousseau-ist rêverie’, ‘an ode to landscape art’… the small temple perched atop an artificial cliff in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris is worth the climb, so long as you are prepared for it for be closed once you get to the top.

Indeed, visitors to the Temple de la Sibylle over the last few decades have rarely seen it completely free of green and white plastic barricades, the French code for ‘keep out’. As the temple is in several ways hors-champ, there is a pleasing symbolism here. It is a celebration of the sublime within a city re-design that distanced itself from Romanticism. It is a perilous, impractical site requiring multiple restorations, but founded on the design principles of security, order and efficiency of Haussmanisation (urban destruction and rebuilding of Paris, 1853-1870). It provides a panorama over a non-æstheticised outer Paris, whereas elsewhere in the city’s redesign, citizens and visitors’ attention was carefully directed in an urban theatre of reveal/conceal to show off the most prestigious city sights. The temple feels slightly other-worldly, a celebration of the spiritual and the impossible, perhaps why still today it is a favourite meeting place for lovers.

Designed in 1866 by Gabriel Davioud, the Temple de la Sibylle, known by locals simply as ‘le kiosque’, is the highest point of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a 25-hectare park in north-east Paris, inaugurated in the spring of 1867. The Buttes Chaumont is a jardin anglais, loosely meaning Romantic. It stands as a dramatic contrast to the more famous Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg, jardins français in the style of Le Nôtre. The park’s design seems influenced by two types of the Picturesque movement that emerged in the eighteenth century: the Italian style influenced by Claude and Poussin where classical buildings feature in a landscape; and a rugged landscape of rocks, mountains, caves and waterfalls which became popular features in gardens.

The choice of the Picturesque sublime belonging to the Romantic period is at odds with the architectural principles of Haussmanisation, ‘an enormous checkers board of geometric symmetry’, as Zola lamented (quoted by Peylet & Kuon, 95). The chief architect of the Buttes Chaumont, Alphonse Alphand, presented the work in Les Promenades de Paris (1867-1873) which is introduced by a fiery manifesto against an architectural period he identifies as ‘the last century’, meaning the eighteenth century. Arguing that ornamental features of a garden can be charming, he nevertheless states that ‘these little constructions may be decorative because of their elegance, but they need to be justified by a genuine necessity […] we must not give them, for example, the artificial look of a Classical temple […] Nothing is as beautiful as that which is true.’ One ponders this with furrowed brow when gazing at the Temple de la Sibylle, a profoundly artificial construction that is pretending to be natural.

The Buttes Chaumont with its temple is a committed example of the Romantic in an urban garden, and the explanation is probably practical above all: the site of the park was a gypsum quarry, acquired by the city of Paris in 1863. The quarry activity had made sharp contours in the earth, and Alphand decided to make these escarpments picturesque, including a 32-metre waterfall, several grottos, and imitation Swiss chalets housing cafés, further recalling an Alpine landscape. These are still running today: one of them, Le Rosa Bonheur, plays host to one of the city’s best LGBTQ+ parties on Sundays. The park also includes a wooden suspension bridge over the lake designed by Eiffel (1867). The Temple de la Sibylle, inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, stands on a rocky crag, and is perched 40 metres above the lake that encircles it.

Meandering up the winding path to the temple, gazing down at the sharp drops, one is inexorably in the Romantic period. This powerful descriptive passage from Rousseau’s Confessions of approaching Chambéry through an alpine landscape is uncannily recalled by the Buttes Chaumont and the view from the Temple de la Sibylle:

Jamais pays de plaine, quelque beau qu’il fût, ne parut tel à mes yeux. Il me faut des torrents, des rochers, des sapins, des bois noirs, des montagnes, des chemins raboteux à monter et à descendre, des précipices à mes côtés, qui me fassent bien peur. […] On a bordé le chemin d’un parapet, pour prévenir les malheurs : cela faisait que je pouvais contempler au fond, et gagner des vertiges tout à mon aise ; car ce qu’il y a de plaisant dans mon goût pour les lieux escarpés est qu’ils me font tourner la tête ; et j’aime beaucoup ce tournoiement, pourvu que je sois en sûreté.

English translation:

No flat country, however beautiful, has ever seemed so to my eyes. I must have mountain torrents, rocks, firs, dark forests, mountains, steep roads to climb or descend, precipices at my side to frighten me. […] Along the side of the road is a parapet to prevent accidents, which enabled me to look down and be as giddy as I pleased; for the amusing thing about my taste for steep places is, that I am very fond of the feeling of giddiness which they give rise to, provided I am in a safe position.

The ‘safe position’ is key, as theorised later with the ‘prospect-refuge’ principle developed by Appleton (1975), whereby environments meet psychological needs when they ‘provide people with the capacity to observe (prospect) without being seen (refuge).’ (Dosen & Ostwald, 2013).  With its crumbling foundation, the refuge has rarely been guaranteed in the temple’s history, but we may hope that the latest restoration begun in 2022, described by the Paris administration as ‘historic’, will put the visiting lovers on surer footing without levelling out the Romantic atmosphere.

Date : 1880-1945 (exact date of image unknown)

Creator : (unknown)

Subject : The Buttes Chaumont, with the Temple de la Sibylle designed by Gabriel Davioud in 1867.

Media : Postcard

Media rights: Public domain

Language: French

Related objects and collectionsRomantic LandscapesThe Falls at TerniMont BlancLe Temple de la Nature, ChamonixRousseau’s Trapdoor

Publisher: Ville de Paris / Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris. https://bibliotheques-specialisees.paris.fr/ark:/73873/pf0002227229/0002?

Catalogue number: CPA-5692


Alphand, Adolphe. 1867-1973. Les promenades de Paris : histoire, description des embellissements, dépenses de création et d’entretien des Bois de Boulogne et de Vincennes, Champs-Elysées, parcs, squares, boulevards, places plantées, études sur l’art des jardins et arboretum. Planches / par A. Alphand,… ; dessins par E. Hochereau. Paris : Rotschild / Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Alphand, Adolphe. 1879. Instructions générales réglementaires du service d’architecture, 20 décembre 1876. Paris : A.Chaix / Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Brown, Jane. 1999. The Pursuit of Paradise: A Social History of Gardens and Gardening. UK: Harper Collins.

Dosen, Annemarie S. and Ostwald, Michael J. 2013. “Prospect and Refuge Theory: Constructing a Critical Definition for Architecture and Design”. (The International Journal of Design in Society, 6). Illinois, USA: Common Ground Research Networks.

Solda, Pierre. 2005. “Emile Zola et l’haussmannisation de Paris.” (Eidôlon, 68). Bordeaux, France : Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux.