Silent Nests

I discovered these centuries-old pigeon houses (pigeonniers or colombiers, in French) while traveling across northwestern France in 2002. I became intrigued by their architectural oddities (thousands of built-in niches line the circular walls to hold individual pigeon nests, for example), and by the stories behind them. So, over the course of four years, I made several journeys back to France to find and document these buildings with my Diana camera.

Thousands of colombiers were built between the 13th century and the French Revolution. They were used to house pigeons that, at the time, were among the most delectable meats; the eggs were consumed as well, and the droppings were paramount in the fertilization of the fields.

As one way to help ensure the loyalty of his noblemen, the king decreed them the right to own pigeons, a great sign of status. This resulted in the construction of pigeon houses (big status symbols), one per landowner. The number of pigeons allowed was directly related to the number of hectares owned which determined the size of the pigeonnier. Some housed as many as 3,000 pigeons. 

The French Revolution marked the demise of these structures — and of this way of life — because it was the end of aristocracy as it existed during those times. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of columbiers were burned or torn down during the rioting of the Revolution. 

Today, approximately 500 pigeonniers remain in Normandy and about 400 in Brittany. It is estimated that around 15 are lost each year, either torn down or having fallen to ruins. Many of them stand isolated in fields in various states of disrepair and have become a nuisance to farmers who do not have the substantial funds required for maintenance. Those in the best condition are generally found on the grounds of their original chateaux that have been held within the same families for generations. Many times, they are able to receive government subsidies for maintenance and in return are required to offer public tours of their grounds once a year when France celebrates its patrimoine.

When standing inside one of these columbiers, there is generally one window through which the birds would come and go, and sunlight streams through onto a wall, a bit of sky brought down to earth.

In addition to discovering these last remaining examples of a specific architectural and cultural history, I was intrigued by the power of light, of sun, and that compulsion we have about chasing light. My years of photographing pigeonniers was a quiet journey. I let this project take a good four years of my life, coming and going, waiting, looking, photographing. The interiors are still filled with endlessly changing dappled light. Many pigeon nests, boulins, are still tucked into the niches in the walls. And the smell in there is an animal smell, still.

— Vicki Topaz


 


Silent Nests

by Vicki Topaz
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag
Year: 2009

Hardcover
25.5 x 25.5 cm
96 pages
Printed in English and French
ISBN 978-3-86828-077-7