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The Renaissance of Le Défenseur du Temps

Le Défenseur du Temps

In 1999 I lived in the massive 1970s apartment complex on the north side of the Centre Pompidou known as the Quartier de l’Horloge. The ground level had a few shops and pedestrian passages connecting the Rue du Grenier St-Lazare, Rue St-Martin, Rue Beaubourg, and Rue Rambuteau. It wasn’t a particularly attractive place to hang out (as 70s architecture in Paris rarely is), but its namesake mechanical clock (l’horloge) made it worth a detour.

Le Quartier de l’Horloge
Le Quartier de l’Horloge today

Le Défenseur du Temps, created in 1979 by the French artist Jacques Monestier, is more than just a clock. It’s a dramatic automaton sculpture of a hollow-eyed brass soldier that comes to life every hour from 9am 10pm to fight against time, represented by a rooster (symbolizing sky), a crab (symbolizing sea), and a dragon (symbolizing earth). Just before the hour, a soundtrack would come on, first with drumbeats to announce the time, then sound effects of crashing waves and a windswept clifftop to accompany the clanking mechanical movements, reminiscent of an old sci-fi film. In between the hourly battles, the dragon’s belly moved rhythmically in and out, his breath marking the passing of time (and, more importantly, letting you know the clock worked).

Here’s a video from when it was first installed (you can see the street behind it still under construction as the entire Beaubourg district — one of the last slums in Paris — was razed and rebuilt):

Unfortunately, although it was restored in 1995, due to a lack of finances to maintain the clock, it was shut off in 2003. Those interested in bringing the clock back to life created a non-profit association, Amis de Monestier, and lobbied the City of Paris to help out, but the Mayor’s office would only contribute 60% of the funding since it’s not a public structure, but privately owned by the association that manages the Quartier de l’Horloge complex (ASLQH). In 2014 the Amis of Monestier got a quote from the artist himself for the restoration for €154,000 (excluding tax) with maintenance costs of €1,500/month. Unable to raise the funds or find a sponsor, they found a company willing to do the repairs and maintenance for a lower price. But the artist rejected the idea of anyone touching his creation, and finally the non-profit gave up and shuttered its doors in 2015, leaving Le Défenseur du Temps to continue rotting.

I no longer live in the Quartier de l’Horloge, but I used to stop there with tour clients whenever we were nearby to show them the clock. Here’s a photo I took in 2015, where you can see it covered in bird poop, a pigeon happily perched on the warrior’s head, and the sign below it promising that it would some day be restored:

Le Défenseur du Temps in 2015
Le Défenseur du Temps in 2015

In 2022 the Berlin-based French artist Cyprien Gaillard decided to bring Le Défenseur du Temps back to life, and arranged for Prêtre et Fils — master clockmakers since 1780 — to carry out the restoration (the original artist Jacques Monestier is the technical consultant on the project, perhaps it’s because he’s in his 80s now). It was paid for by the Fondation Galeries Lafayette, which owns the contemporary art space Anticipations Lafayette (9 rue du Plâtre, 4th), where from October 2022 through January 8th 2023, the newly restored clock is on display as part of a larger exhibition by Gaillard called Humpty/Dumpty.

Le Défenseur du Temps at Anticipations Lafayette, December 2022.
Le Défenseur du Temps at Anticipations Lafayette, December 2022.

For this exposition, you can see Le Défenseur du Temps battling every 15 minutes (so…less of a wait time), with a few little movements in between, and two different soundtracks to accompany the animation. The Lafayette Anticipations exhibition space, opened in 2018 in a multi-level loft space between the Centre Pompidou and BHV, provides a nice setting to watch the automaton from below, at eye level, or from above, depending on which floor you’re on. You can read a Wallpaper* interview with Gaillard about the show: Cyprien Gaillard on chaos, reorder and excavating a Paris in flux

Le Défenseur du Temps at  Anticipations Lafayett
Waiting for Le Défenseur du Temps to start moving, at Anticipations Lafayette.

There are signs throughout the exhibit in both English and French, and a few benches to sit on while you wait for the “show”. Entry is free (mediated tours are available in French), and there’s a decent café and a small book/gift shop. Open daily except Tuesday, 11am-7pm (until 9pm on Thursday). Closing at 5pm on December 31st, and open exceptionally on January 1st.

I visited the exhibit with poet and author Lisa Pasold (pictured below in red), who recorded a podcast episode about Le Défenseur du Temps for her Improbable Walks series, listen here.

The Quartier de l'Horloge without the clock.
The clock will soon return to its home in the Quartier de l’Horloge…

If you have missed the exhibit, you’ll be able to find Le Défenseur du Temps back in his original home in the Quartier de l’Horloge (8 rue Bernard de Clairvaux, 3rd) in late January 2023 (official inauguration is February 6th at 11am).

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  • My, my, my ! Decades since I last saw that clock work ! And thanks for the glimpses of what Beaubourg was before the gutting out. To be honest, it was neither beau nor a bourg, it was indeed almost a slum. The überboring 70’s rabbit hutches which replaced the near-slum were clean, once, but the Time’s Defender did not do much to defend them from, well, Time.
    But what excellent news to know that the Defender shall breathe again. Heather, you’re a boon to the city : -)))
    Jean-Manuel

  • Thank you for sharing this. Whenever I am in Paris and nearby the clock I stop by to say hello. I’ll be back to Paris in February and am bummed to learn my timing, pun intended, is going to be off.

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