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20
Apr

The Bassin de la Villette And Its Sounds

AT THE END OF the 12th century, Ville Neuve Saint Ladres was little more than a hamlet alongside the Roman road leading from Paris to Flanders. When a church was constructed in 1426 the hamlet’s name was changed to La Villette Saint-Ladres-lez-Paris. In 1790, La Villette, then with a population of some 1,800 souls, was formerly recognised as a commune and in 1860, by which time the population had increased to around 30,000, it was incorporated into the City of Paris.

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Bassin de la Villette

La Villette though was to play an important role in the life of the city before its formal incorporation.

In 1802, mindful that a plentiful supply of water was a key to public health and to public morale, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered work to begin on the construction of a canal, the Canal de l’Ourcq, stretching one hundred and eight kilometres from Picardy to Paris. When completed, this canal would not only provide a plentiful supply of water to the city but also provide an efficient means of communication for provisioning the city.

The Bassin de la Villette was created at the Paris end of the Canal de l’Ourcq from where the canal would link, and still links, to the Canal Saint-Denis, which enters the Seine close to Saint-Denis to the north and the Canal Saint-Martin which enters the Seine south of Place de la Bastille.

Napoleon Bonaparte opened the Bassin de la Villette in 1808.

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Bassin de la Villette with the lock gates leading to the Canal Saint-Martin

Once the Canal Saint-Martin and the Canal Saint-Denis were completed in the 1820s the area around the Bassin de la Villette became not only a transit centre but also a busy commercial hub.

Warehousing companies including the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux set up on the quays alongside the Bassin mainly to store grain and flour as did a cattle market and several abattoirs.

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Bassin de la Villette – Les Entrepôts

Image via Wikipedia

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Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux: Share certificate from 1952

Image via http://www.scriponet.com/salle.php?idP=6009

This industrialisation of the Bassin de la Villette lasted until the late 1960s by which time decline had set in and the warehouses were either abandoned or demolished. The cattle market and the abattoirs closed in the early 1970s.

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Bassin de la Villette looking towards the Canal de l’Ourcq with some of the original and now renovated warehouses just beyond the boats

The Bassin de la Villette is in effect a man-made lake and at eight hundred metres long and seventy metres wide it’s the largest artificial lake in Paris but, despite its industrial decline, it still plays an important part in the life of the city.

The Canal de l’Ourcq, which terminates at the Bassin de la Villette, still supplies about half of the daily water requirement for the city’s public works. The Bassin is still a transport hub with the intersection where the Canal de l’Ourcq meets the Canal Saint-Denis with its mainly industrial canal traffic and the Canal Saint-Martin with its now thriving and lucrative tourist traffic.

But the Bassin de la Villette has also undergone a revival with some of the former warehouses being converted into cinemas and restaurants and some of the barges into cultural venues.

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La Péniche Opéra for example is berthed on one side of the Basin de la Villette on the Quai de Loire. It’s a former industrial barge now billed as the smallest opera house in the world and it puts on a wide range of operatic events.

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At the head of the Bassin de la Villette in what is now the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad is another reminder of the history of La Villette.

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La Rotonde de la Villette

Built by one of the earliest exponents of French Neoclassical architecture, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, the Rotonde de la Villette was originally one of the barrières d’octroi in the mur des Fermiers généraux, the Wall of the Farmers-General.

This wall, built between 1784 and 1791 by the Ferme générale, the corporation of tax farmers, surrounded Paris and was intended to ensure the payment of a toll (octroi) on all goods entering Paris.

The Rotonde de la Villette or the barrière Saint-Martin as it was known at the time, was one of sixty-two such tax collection points in the wall. With the expansion of Paris in 1860 and with the octroi by then abolished most of these tax collection points were demolished. The Rotonde de la Villette escaped demolition and survived to become a bonded warehouse for the Compagnie des Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux. Today, it’s a restaurant unsurprisingly called La Rotonde.

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On my visit to the Bassin de la Villette I not only wanted to explore its history but also its sounds.

I recorded a soundwalk for my Paris Soundscapes Archive beginning at the fountain next to La Rotonde de la Villette. I walked along the Quai de Seine on one side of the Bassin, then over the Passerelle de la Moselle to the Quai de Loire on the other side, which brought me back to the head of the Bassin but this time at the Écluses de la Villette, the double lock at the head of the Canal Saint-Martin.

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Écluses de la Villette – Picture taken from on top of the Passerelle des écluses de la Villette from which all distances on the Canal Saint-Martin are measured

The Canal Saint-Martin links the Bassin de la Villette to la Seine. It’s four and a half kilometres long, two kilometres of it run underground and it passes through nine locks and two swing bridges. From the Bassin de la Villette to la Seine the canal drops a height of twenty-five metres, the first eight metres of which occurs at the Écluses de la Villette.

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The first set of lock gates at the Écluses de la Villette

The sounds of a boat full of tourists passing through the Écluses de la Villette seemed to be too good to miss since it seemed to me that they would represent a good part of the life of today’s Bassin de la Villette so I positioned myself just beyond the first pair of lock gates and waited.

This was one of those occasions when I felt that the story would be best told by fixing my microphones in one position and simply waiting for something to happen – a technique I learned from studying the work of the great photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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The red arrow indicates my recording position

Sounds at the first Écluse de la Villette:


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And presently something did happen – something completely unexpected.

As a Paris Canal boat hove into view people were passing behind me and then I heard the sound of horses hooves. I turned round to see two splendid horses from the Gendarmerie passing by. They passed very quickly but it was long enough for their sounds to transport me back for a fleeting moment to the Bassin de la Villette in a different age.

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Presently, the first lock gates opened and the Paris Canal boat, complete with its running commentary, slowly and carefully entered the first part of the lock. Once in, the gates behind it were closed and the sluices on the gates ahead of it were opened and the boat began the first part of its descent.

Going down ….

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The sounds tell the story as the boat descends.

In making this recording I left the microphones and the recording levels untouched throughout so what you hear is what I heard. If you listen carefully, you will hear the sound texture change as the boat descends and, as the boat gets lower, the voices of the passengers can be heard more clearly.

Eventually, the lock gates ahead of the boat open and the boat slowly moves forward into the second stage of the lock and the sounds get fainter.

If you listen really carefully, above the hissing sound of the water leaking through the first set of lock gates, you will hear two faint thuds as the second set of lock gates close one after the other behind the boat. Immediately after, the sluice on the first set of gates opens and water gushes in to refill the first part of the lock.

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That’s where my sound portrait ends but for the boat and its passengers, now in the second part of the lock, they began their second descent until they were completely out of sight from street level. They then moved off into the tunnel taking them under the road and onto the next part of their journey along the Canal Saint-Martin. Meanwhile, the first part of the lock was continuing to refill ready for the next boat to repeat the process.

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I came away from the Bassin de la Villette with a good and varied collection of sounds for my Paris Soundscapes Archive but I couldn’t help wondering what rich pickings there might have been for a sound hunter like me if I’d been there when it had been a centre of industry rather than of tourism.

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13
Apr

The Passerelle Senghor and its Sounds

OF THE THIRTY-SEVEN bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits four of them are pedestrian footbridges or “passerelles piétonnières”.

As part of my ‘Paris Bridges’ project I’ve been to explore one of them, the Passerelle Senghor or to give it its full name, the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor.

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The Passerelle Senghor stretches from the Quai Anatole France and the Musée d’Orsay on the Left Bank to the Quai des Tuileries
 and the Jardin des Tuileries on the Right Bank.

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Passerelle Senghor from upstream

It was in 1861 when the first bridge to cross la Seine at this point was opened. It was a three-arch cast iron bridge built for vehicular traffic.

Built by the French engineers, Paul-Martin Gallocher de Lagalisserie and Jules Savarin, the bridge was named Pont de Solférino after the 1859 French victory of the Battle of Solférino.

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Pont de Solférino 1859 – 1960

Image – Annales des Ponts et Chaussées – 4ème série – Mémoires et Documents, Tome 8 – 1864 – p207-209.

This bridge survived for a century before wear and tear took its toll and it was demolished and replaced in 1961 with a steel footbridge, which survived until 1992.

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Passerelle Senghor from downstream

Work began on a new footbridge in 1997. Designed by the French architect, Marc Mimram, the bridge crosses the river in a single span with no intermediate support. The sweeping steel span is anchored by means of two abutments, one at each end, which sink fifteen metres below ground.

The French engineering company, Eiffel Constructions Métalliques, part of the Eiffage Group, were responsible for the metal components of the bridge and of course, Eiffel Constructions Métalliques is descended from the same company that made the Tour Eiffel, the Statue of Liberty and in more recent times the spectacular Millau Viaduct.

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The walkways on the bridge are made from the exotic hardwood, Lophira alata, commonly known as azobé, or red ironwood.

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This new bridge, the Passerelle Solférino, was opened on 14th December 1999 but not without controversy. There were complaints about the lack of accessibility for people with reduced mobility, environmentalists complained about the choice of wood for the walkways and others complained that when wet the walkways would be dangerous. Most serious of all was that on the opening day several of the guests said that they could feel the bridge swaying as they stood on it. As a consequence, less than a week after it was opened the bridge was closed.

It wasn’t until 12th November 2000, almost one year later, and after an anti-skid system had been applied to the walkways and dampers installed to temper the swaying, that the bridge finally opened to the public. The original cost of the bridge was 91.6 million Francs and the additional work added another 6 million Francs all of which was financed by the State through l’Etablissement public de maîtrise d’ouvrage des travaux culturels, part of the Ministry of Culture.

Upon its reopening the bridge proved to be a great success.

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And the final chapter in the story of this footbridge is that in October 2006 the bridge’s name was changed from the Passerelle Solférino to the Passerelle Senghor. The name change marked the centenary of the birth of Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906 – 2001), a Senegalese poet, politician, and cultural theorist who from 1960 to 1980 served as the first president of Senegal. He was also the first African to be elected as a member of the Académie Française.

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My Paris Bridges project is not only about exploring the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, it’s also about identifying and capturing the characteristic sounds of each bridge.

So, what are the characteristic sounds of the Passerelle Senghor?

Passerelle Senghor – Under the Bridge:


In a previous post about my Paris Bridges project I said that all the Paris bridges have two sets of sounds in common – the sounds of water and the sounds of river and vehicular traffic although these sounds might in some cases vary sufficiently to help identify each bridge. I also said that my challenge is to find other sounds that are unique to each bridge.

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Passerelle Senghor – River traffic passing from upstream

The Passerelle Senghor certainly has its fair share of passing river traffic. The boats seem to arrive in clusters from both upstream and downstream. Standing on the Quai des Tuileries there were quite long periods with just the sounds of water and then a clutch of boats would arrive sometimes two or three abreast. The tourist boats of course provide most of the traffic with the Bateaux Mouches, the Vedettes de Paris and the Batobus passing regularly but sometimes very long, very workmanlike, industrial barges also pass by.

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Picture taken from the Quai Voltaire looking upstream towards the Passerelle Senghor

The Passerelle Senghor is one of the few bridges in Paris where the sound of river traffic dominates the sound of vehicular traffic for most of the time.

But are there any other characteristic sounds that we might say are unique to this bridge?

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Passerelle Senghor – On the bridge looking upstream

Passerelle Senghor – On the Bridge:


I took my microphones onto the bridge to see what I could find. I sat in the centre of the bridge on the top deck facing upstream and began to record.

The voices of people passing by me with snatches of half-heard conversations, which I always find fascinating, punctuated with the sounds of boats passing to and fro directly underneath me and the distant sounds of traffic on the Quai des Tuileries on one side and the Quai Anatole France on the other provided the canvas upon which was painted the unique sounds of the bridge – the sounds of footsteps passing over the exotic wood of the walkway.

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Although the sounds of footsteps over the exotic wooden walkways of the Passerelle Senghor certainly are characteristic sounds of this bridge I have to be cautious about saying that they are unique to this bridge.

There is another elegant, modern footbridge crossing la Seine further upstream that also has exotic wooden walkways, the Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir. I have yet to explore this bridge in detail and it could be that the sounds of the footsteps over this bridge are the same, or similar to the sounds of footsteps over the Passerelle Senghor.

Still, distinguishing the subtleties and nuances of the sounds of each of the Paris bridges is one of the things that makes this project so fascinating.

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As well has searching for unique sounds on the Passerelle Senghor there is one unique visual feature that I found – this statue of Thomas Jefferson, US ambassador to France from 1785 to 1789 and then President of the United Sates. The statue by the French sculptor, Jean Cardot, was erected on 4th July 2004, American Independence Day.

Here are some more sights of the Passerelle Senghor:

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7
Apr

The Paris Marathon 2014

THE THIRTY-EIGHTH PARIS MARATHON took place yesterday. More than forty thousand runners from over one hundred countries competed over the 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 kilometres) course from the Champs-Elysées to the Avenue Foch via the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne.

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In 2012, I watched the race and recorded sounds close to the finish in the Avenue Foch so this year I thought I would find a vantage point somewhere near the start.

I wanted to capture the sounds of all the runners passing by so at just before eight o’clock on Sunday morning I established my pitch and set up my microphones in the rue de Rivoli just beyond the one-mile point.

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When I arrived, the rue de Rivoli seemed a little eerie. It was the only time since I’ve lived in Paris that I’ve seen this most elegant of streets completely deserted – save for the police trucks hastily towing away the last remaining parked cars which I’m sure completely ruined several people’s day!

The Paris Marathon starts in the Champs Elysées and the first to start were the wheelchair athletes. At a little after 8.30 and accompanied by a convoy of police and official cars they passed by me.

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Following the wheelchairs came the handisports athletes including several blind runners each tethered to a guide.

Paris Marathon 2014 – Wheelchair and Handisports Athletes:


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The sound of these athletes passing was soon subsumed by the sound of the French television helicopter slithering sideways overhead with its powerful cameras trained on the elite athletes who were about to enter the rue de Rivoli.

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At the head of the elite group was a tightly packed bunch of world-class marathon athletes setting what was to prove to be a blistering pace.

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And quite close behind came another elite group including two of the fastest women in the race.

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And next came the best of the rest.

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Paris Marathon 2014:


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After the elite group and the best of the rest, a mass of runners converged in the rue de Rivoli each with their own personal challenge ahead of them. Wave after wave of them passed me right down to the very last man.

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The last runner to enter the rue de Rivoli

I stayed in my place on rue de Rivoli and recorded the sounds until every one of the competitors in this year’s Paris Marathon had passed by me. It took a little under two hours for them all to pass.

I didn’t think about it at the time but I now know that about ten minutes after the last runner entered the rue de Rivoli with about 26 miles of running still ahead of him, the winner was crossing the finishing line in the Avenue Foch.

And the winner was Kenenisa Bekele from Ethiopia.

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Image via ‪ethiopiaforums.com

Bekele, the three-time Olympic champion on the track and 5,000m and 10,000m record holder, crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 3 seconds – breaking the previous course record set by Kenya’s Stanley Biwott in 2012.

In the women’s race, the pre-race favourite, Flomena Cheyech of Kenya finished in a new personal best time of 2 hours, 22 minutes, 41 seconds.

The double Paralympic silver medallist, Marcel Hug, won the wheelchair race.

The first six men and women finishers were:

Men

1. Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) 2:05:03

2. Limenih Getachew (ETH) 2:06:49

3. Luca Kanda (KEN) 2:08:01

4. Robert Kwambai (KEN) 2:08:48

5. Jackson Limo (KEN) 2:09:05

6. Gideon Kipketer (KEN) 2:10:35

Women


1. Flomena Cheyech (KEN) 2:22:44

2. Yebrqual Melese (ETH) 2:26:21

3. Zemzem Ahmed (ETH) 2:29:35

4. Faith Chemaoi (KEN) 2:31:59

5. Gebisse Godana Derbi (ETH) 2:36:27

6. Martha Komu (FRA) 2:36:33

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All the sounds I recorded in the rue de Rivoli have been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive as a permanent record of yesterday’s event.

Incidentally, why is it that some women runners who see a man wearing headphones standing behind a microphone on the edge of the road give a wave and a friendly smile whereas some men insist on leaning over and shouting into the microphone? Maybe it’s a question of testosterone overload!

In all, 39,115 athletes completed the 2014 Paris Marathon. Here are more images of some of them as they began their marathon run around Paris.

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4
Apr

Gare du Champs de Mars

WHEN I TRAVEL IN Paris I mostly use either the Métro or the buses but rarely the RER. The RER, or Réseau Express Régional, of course does crisscross Paris but I only seem to use it when travelling further afield to the Parisian suburbs.

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The RER Network across Paris and the Île-de-France

The other day I was on an RER train returning to Paris from a sound recording assignment in the suburbs when I alighted at the RER station ‘Champs de Mars – Tour Eiffel’. Although I pass this station frequently on my regular 82 bus journeys I had never actually been inside so I took this opportunity to have a look round and, of course, to capture the atmosphere in sound.

Inside the Gare du Champs de Mars:


There are two unassuming entrances to the station, one at the junction of the Quai Branly and the Avenue de Suffren …

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… and the other further along the Quai Branly at the Pont Bir-Hakeim.

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Entering the station from the entrance close to the Avenue de Suffren the unassuming feel continues. There is no huge concourse but rather a narrow corridor leading to the ticket barrier.

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There are only two platforms at the station conveniently named ‘A’ and ‘B’ and the signage is good too, which is just as well since thousands of tourists use this station to get to and from the most visited attraction in Paris, Le Tour Eiffel. Many tourists wanting to venture from the city centre to the Palace of Versailles also use this station.

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It’s only once you pass the ticket barrier and have figured out which platform you need (for the Palace of Versailles you need Platform ‘A’ by the way) that you begin to get a different feel for this station.

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RER Line ‘C’ – Direction Pontoise

The sweeping platforms are very long and from Platform ‘B’ you can look out across La Seine.

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RER Line ‘C’ – Direction Versailles

Today’s Champs de Mars – Tour Eiffel station dates from 1988 when the Vallée de Montmorency – Invalides branch of RER Line ‘C’ opened. This stretch of line used a large part of the infrastructure of the former ligne de petite ceinture dating from 1867.

Today’s station may have only been here since 1988 but it is in fact the fifth railway station to have occupied this site.

The first Gare du Champs de Mars was built to connect the Petite-Ceinture to the Champ de Mars and the site of the 1867 Exposition Universelle, or World’s Fair. This station was demolished shortly after the Exposition.

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Bird’s Eye view of the site of the 1867 Exposition Universelle in the Champs de Mars

Image via Wikipedia

For the 1878 Exposition Universelle, again held in Paris on the Champs de Mars, another Gare du Champs de Mars was built.

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Gare du Champs de Mars in 1878

Image via Wikipedia

This station was designed and built by the French architect, Juste Lisch who, amongst other things, also designed the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. This station survived longer than its predecessor and it was used for the 1889 Exposition Universelle as well. In 1897 though the station was demolished and moved to Bois-Colombes on the outskirts of Paris.

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The 1878 Gare du Champs de Mars in situ at Bois-Colombes

Image via Wikipedia

For the 1900 Exposition Universelle, this time featuring the newly built Tour Eiffel, another Gare du Champs de Mars was built and the line was moved closer to la Seine and extended to Invalides.

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Gare du Champs de Mars in 1900

Image via Wikipedia

As well as a station for passengers, a goods station was built close by between the Avenue de Suffren and the Boulevard de Grenelle. After the 1900 Exposition the passenger station was closed, the goods station became a coal depot and from 1937 it was transformed into engine sheds. The former goods station was finally closed in 1971.

Although the 1900 Gare du Champs de Mars no longer exists it is possible to imagine something of it by walking along the Promenade du quai Branly between the Pont d’Iéna (opposite the Tour Eiffel) and the Pont Bir-Hakeim and looking back towards the Tour Eiffel. Along this stretch of the Promenade du quai Branly some of the original wall of the 1900 station remains.

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Part of the original wall of the 1900 Gare du Champs de Mars

The Gare du Champs de Mars and its association with the Expositions Universelle held in the Champs de Mars close by is of interest to me partly because I find the history of these Expos fascinating (Paris also hosted the 1937 one as well) but also because Paris is bidding to hold the Exposition Universelle in 2025.

It just so happens that my local Mayor and Deputé (Member of Parliament) is leading the bid so I must ask him if we can expect yet another new Gare du Champs de Mars in 2025!

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29
Mar

The Pont au Change and its Sounds

MORE RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges project took me to a bridge right in the heart of Paris the other day, the Pont au Change.

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The Pont au Change connects the Île de la Cité, one of the two natural islands in the Seine (the other being the Île Saint-Louis), to the Right Bank.

When Julius Caesar arrived in 52 BC, the island we now know as the Île de la Cité was a Gallic settlement, home to the Parisii tribe. A low-lying area subject to flooding, the island was quite an inhospitable place but it did offer a convenient place to cross the Seine and a refuge in times of invasion. Although they set up camp there, the Romans didn’t like the island much and they began to develop their more permanent settlement, Lutetia, in the healthier air on the slopes above the Left Bank of the river.

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The Pont au Change from the Quai de Gesvres

It is thought that a wooden bridge crossing La Seine at or somewhere near today’s Pont au Change existed before the Romans arrived. A stone bridge was built in the 9th century at around the time of the Viking invasion and there have been several others since.  Known until the late 13th century as the Grand Pont, this bridge was a major medieval artery connecting the Île de la Cité to the developing Right bank of the Seine. The Grand Pont may have been important but it was very inefficient. Like the narrow, winding streets surrounding it the bridge was perennially over-crowded making it difficult to transport goods through the city – not to mention the high risk of accidents from the traffic. In 1131 Louis VI’s son and heir was killed when a runaway pig caused him to be thrown from his horse.

By the end of the 13th century a large number of Italian money-changers, mainly natives of Lombardy, had established themselves in Paris. At the time when the King and the lords of his court sold prebendaries, bishoprics and benefices by auction the Lombards lent money at a high rate of interest and made immense fortunes. In 1296 a new Grand Pont was built and by Royal decree these money-changers were obliged to conduct their business out in the open on this new bridge and so it became known as the Pont aux Changeurs or Pont au Change (Exchange Bridge).

In 1621 this bridge was completely destroyed by fire. The money-changers asked the King for permission to rebuild the bridge at their own expense, provided that they could erect houses on it and this was approved by Royal edict in May 1639. The new bridge, built between 1639 and 1647, comprised seven stone arches and at 32 metres wide it became the widest bridge in the city at the time.

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View of the Ancient Pont au Change from an engraving of the ‘Topography of Paris’

Image via http://www.myartprints.co.uk

In the mid-19th century the Pont au Change came under the scrutiny of Baron Haussmann and his urban redevelopment of Paris. To fit with Haussmann’s plans, the bridge needed to be realigned and so in 1858 work began on a new bridge.

Designed by the French engineers, Paul-Martin Gallocher de Lagalisserie and Paul Vaudrey, the new Pont au Change was opened on 15th August 1860 and it’s the bridge we see today.

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The bridge comprises three elliptical arches, each with a 31 metres span, it’s 103 metres long and 30 metres wide with an 18 metre roadway and two pavements each 6 metres wide.

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Pont au Change from upstream with the Conciergerie on the left and Place du Châtelet on the right

The Pont au Change connects the Île de la Cité from the Palais de Justice and the Conciergerie on the Left Bank to the Place du Châtelet on the Right Bank. The Voie Georges Pompidou, a two-lane road, runs under the arch closest to the Right Bank. For most of the year this road carries a seemingly endless stream of traffic but for part of July and August each year traffic is forbidden, tons of sand are brought in and this road becomes part of the popular Paris-Plages, the seaside in Paris.

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Pont au Change from the Voie Georges Pompidou

My Paris Bridges project is not only about tracing the history of all the thirty-seven bridges that cross La Seine within the Paris city limits, it’s also about trying to identify and to capture the characteristic sounds of each bridge.  And identifying and then capturing these characteristic sounds is not as easy as it might seem, it involves a lot of time, legwork and endless patience.

All the bridges included in my Paris Bridges project have two things in common, they all cross La Seine and they are all within the Paris city limits. You might therefore conclude that their characteristic sounds are also likely to have things in common – the sound of water, the sound of river traffic and the sound of endless vehicular traffic.  And of course, this is true – at least up to a point. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the sounds of the water and the river and vehicular traffic will be the same at each bridge – at least not if you’re an acute listener. And what about the other sounds, are there any sounds that are unique to any particular bridge?

Previously, I’ve published posts about the Pont National and the Pont de Bercy both of which have unique sounds, trams running over the former and the Métro running over the viaduct on the latter – and the Pont au Change too has its own unique sound.

But before we come to that unique sound, it can’t be denied that both the water and the traffic are integral parts of the sound tapestry of the Pont au Change.

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Under Pont au Change on the Voie Georges Pompidou with the Pont Neuf beyond

I went down to the Voie Georges Pompidou to explore the sounds under the bridge. I stood under the arch close to the road facing into the bridge with the traffic passing me from right to left.

Pont au Change – Under the bridge:


Listening to sound is a very subjective thing. Whether or not you find these sounds of the traffic passing under the bridge interesting or maybe even enjoyable is a matter of personal taste, but in my opinion at least, these sounds have a value. They may be just the sounds of passing traffic but they are a documentary record of the sounds in this place on a particular day in 2014 and they are some of the characteristic sounds associated with the Pont au Change. Personally, I find that these sounds have a rhythm to them that becomes absorbing with repeated listening.

Interestingly, the traffic passing along this road sounds completely different when listened to from the Quai de Gesvres above.

And what about the other characteristic sounds we might expect to find at a Paris bridge – the sounds of water perhaps?

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Pont au Change from the Quai de la Corse 

Recording the sounds of the water from the Voie Georges Pompidou would have been a thankless task not only because it would be perilous in the extreme but also because the sound of the passing traffic is all consuming. There seemed to be better prospects though on the opposite side of the river.

From the Quai de la Course a set of stone steps leads down to and then below the water. Looking at the Pont au Change from here on this very dull and overcast day reminded me that in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, police Inspector Javert finds himself unable to reconcile his duty to surrender Jean Valjean to the authorities with the fact that Valjean saved his life. Javert comes to the Pont au Change and throws himself into the Seine.

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With no wish to throw myself into the Seine I ventured down the steps and began to record.

Pont au Change – Water at Quai de la Corse:


Echoes of Inspector Javert though were present in the shape of the police sirens in the distance and then the sound of a rubber dinghy containing three police frogmen armed to the teeth zooming by. It seems that I had chosen to visit the Pont au Change on the same day that the President of China had chosen to visit Paris so presumably the frogmen were part of the elaborate security apparatus.

While the sound of the passing dinghy is not a characteristic sound of the Pont au Change, it just happened to be there at this time on this day, the sound of the water certainly is.

Perhaps it’s worth pausing to consider what I mean by ‘characteristic’ sounds.

Most of the sound work I do in Paris is concerned with the concept of ‘sound’ and ‘place’ – the relationship between the two and particularly how sound can help to define a place.

In the context of my ‘Paris Bridges’ project, I’m seeking to find the characteristic sounds that define each bridge. I’ve already said that the sound of water and of river and vehicular traffic are pretty much common to all the bridges within the Paris city limits but that doesn’t mean that these sounds are all the same. The sounds of the Bateaux Mouches passing under the Pont Saint-Michel are very different to the sounds of the same boat passing under the Pont des Arts for example. The sounds of the water at the foot of the steps at the Pont au Change are different from the sounds of the water at the Pont Neuf, the next downstream bridge, and the sounds of vehicular traffic passing under the Pont au Change are very different to the sounds of the traffic passing over it as we shall see in a moment.

I contend that the sounds of water and of river and vehicular traffic are ‘characteristic’ sounds of the Paris bridges and, if listened to carefully enough, the very subtle differences can help to define each bridge. My real challenge though is to find the characteristic sounds for each bridge that don’t require an explanation or expert listening, the sounds that simply shout out, “I’m here, I’m unique, I AM the sound of this bridge!” I’ve already mentioned two examples, the trams running over the Pont National and the Métro running over the viaduct on the Pont de Bercy but for some other Paris bridges such obvious defining sounds may be harder to find.

What makes these sounds ‘characteristic’ though, whether they are very subtle or very obvious, is that they are permanent. They are not simply passing sounds like the police frogmen that might be there one day and not the next; they are always there – at least until some major reconstruction takes place that removes them.

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The Pont au Change and the Conciergerie

And so, back to the Pont au Change.

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The Pont au Change looking downstream

Between the pavements on either side of the Pont au Change is a roadway layered with pavé. Clearly, the sound texture of the traffic passing over this pavé surface on the bridge is going to be different from the sound of the traffic passing over the tarmac road under the bridge.

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Pont au Change looking towards Place du Châtelet

But as well as the rather subtle sounds of the traffic over the pavé, is there a more obvious sound at the Pont au Change, a sound that shouts out and demands to be heard?

In my Paris Soundscapes Archive I have some sounds of Paris that last for over an hour and some that last only for seconds. Often, the shorter sounds can say as much as the longer ones. In the midst of all the sounds on the Pont au Change there is a sound that really defines this bridge. When I was at the bridge this sound only lasted for about three-seconds (sometimes it’s shorter and sometimes it’s longer) but while the sounds of the passing traffic and the people are transient, this sound is permanent and it has been heard here for hundreds of years. It’s the sound of l’Horloge du palais de la Cité, the oldest public clock in Paris.

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Pont au Change – l’Horloge du palais de la Cité

Pont au Change – On the bridge:


The clock is to be found in the Northeast corner of the Palais de Justice at the Left Bank end of the Pont au Change and its chimes can be heard across the bridge. It dates from 1370 and it was built and installed by at the behest of Jean le Bon (John the Good), King of France from 1350 until his death in 1364.

At this part of the Palais de Justice is la Conciergerie, both a former Royal Palace and later, a notorious prison. As chance would have it, I recorded the clock chiming at three o’clock in the afternoon. At exactly the same time on 17th July 1793 Charlotte Corday was sentenced inside the Conciergerie to be executed by guillotine for the assassination of the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat during the French Revolution. While she was being sentenced this same clock would have been chiming outside as it would at eight o’clock the same evening when she was beheaded.

The clock has been restored several times throughout its lifetime, the latest restoration being in 2012, and today it looks and sounds probably better than it has ever done.

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Pont au Change looking upstream towards the Pont Notre Dame

My exploration of the Pont au Change has taken me from the home of the ancient Parisii tribe on the swampland of an island in the middle of La Seine, to a Roman and then a Viking invasion, to the Lombardy money-changers, to Jean le Bon’s public clock, to the French Revolution and to Baron Haussmann’s urban development of Paris. And let’s not forget police Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables … and three armed police frogmen.

I’ve also tracked down and captured the contemporary sounds of the Pont au Change – the sounds that I believe are the characteristic sounds of this bridge.

And yet, one mystery remains.

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Halfway down the steps leading to the river from the Quai de la Corse are the remains of a window and a shuttered doorway in the wall. Even though there are no houses anywhere on this side of the Quai de la Corse the number 21 appears above the door.

What is this place and what stories lie within?

I can’t help feeling that police Inspector Javert is keeping a beady eye on it from his watery grave.

23
Mar

Rue Dauphine – A Soundwalk

I RECENTLY PUBLISHED a blog piece about the Musée Curie, which is located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillion of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement in what was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934. In the piece I mentioned that Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre, died in a street accident in Paris in 1906 when, crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.

The other day I found myself in Rue Dauphine so I decided to record a soundwalk as I explored the street.

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Rue Dauphine dates from 1607 and it derives its name from the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, son of Henry IV and Marie de Médicis. It’s quite a short street, just 288 metres long.  It stretches from the junction of the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Quai de Conti (opposite the oldest bridge in Paris, the Pont Neuf) to the junction of Rue Saint-André-des-Arts and Rue Mazarine.

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I began my soundwalk at the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts/Rue Mazarine end of the street and then made my way towards the Pont Neuf ending at the spot where Pierre Curie died.

This is what I saw and heard …

Rue Dauphine – A Soundwalk:


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It was while crossing the street at this spot that Pierre Curie slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.

17
Mar

Sounds of the Parisian Spring

WE’VE HAD SOME beautiful sunshine in Paris over the last week or so  – and when the sun shines people head to the parks.

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Returning from a recording assignment the other day, I walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg to catch my bus home. The sun was shining and this most popular of Parisian parks was simply awash with people – perhaps more people I think than I’ve seen there before.

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All these people were doing what people do in parks – walking, jogging, reading, having picnics, meeting friends or simply sitting and doing nothing in particular.

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Since I had time on my hands I decided to stop and record some of the sounds in the park, something I’ve done many times before, but this time I wanted to capture the very particular sounds that I always associate with Parisian parks, the sounds of footsteps over the gravel paths.

I’ve recorded the sounds of footsteps in Parisian parks before but this time I wanted to do it slightly differently, to capture these distinctive sounds from a different perspective. I placed two small microphones (like the ones TV newsreaders wear) about six inches above the ground in the middle of a path and waited for people to walk or run past them.

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The Sounds of Spring in the Jardin du Luxembourg:


People usually associate the arrival of Spring with the natural world bursting into life, the leaves on the tress, flowers coming into bloom and the sound of birdsong. But, as a city dweller and someone who is passionately interested in our sonic environment, it is these natural sounds of the human species that signal to me that the Parisian Spring has arrived.

The sounds of pétanque being played and the occasional birdsong in the background add a sense of ‘place’ and perspective but these sounds are secondary to the sounds of the footsteps over the gravel, which for me at any rate are the dominating sounds of Parisian parks in the springtime.

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Of course, footsteps are not the only sounds to be heard in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Other sounds often become the centre of attention …

Music in the Jardin du Luxembourg:


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11
Mar

The Musée Curie Marks International Women’s Day

I WENT TO THE fascinating Musée Curie last week. To coincide with International Women’s Day the Musée Curie opened a temporary exhibition in the garden of the museum made up of photographic portraits celebrating the careers of prominent women, past and present, who worked or are currently working in the fields of science and medicine.

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A photographic portrait of Marie Curie in the garden of the Musée Curie

The Musée Curie was founded in 1934 just after the death of Marie Curie. It’s located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavillon of the Institut du Radium in the 5th arrondissement and it was formerly Marie Curie’s laboratory where she carried out her research from 1914 until her death in 1934.

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Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a remarkable woman. Born in 1867 in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire, she completed her early education in Warsaw before moving to Paris in 1891 to continue her studies and to begin her scientific career.

Despite the disadvantages and indignities that went with being a woman in what was considered then (and many argue still is) a man’s world, Marie Curie’s achievements were prodigious. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she was the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice and she remains the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different sciences. She won the Physics Prize in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity (shared with her husband Pierre Curie and the physicist, Henri Becquerel) and the Chemistry Prize in 1911 for the isolation of pure radium.

Her achievements included not only creating a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined) and isolating radioactive isotopes but also the discovery of two elements, polonium (which she named after her native Poland) and radium.  She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris and, under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of tumours using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. During World War I she established the first military field radiological centres and it was the excessive doses of radiation that she was exposed to while doing this work that contributed to her subsequent death.

Marie Curie was also the first woman to be interred in the Panthéon in Paris in her own right.

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Institut du Radium – Pavillon Curie

Marie Curie’s achievements were indeed prodigious but so were those of the rest of her family, between them they were awarded five Nobel Prizes.

As well as the 1903 Prize for physics, which Marie shared with her husband Pierre and the 1911 Prize for Chemistry which was hers alone, her daughter and son-in law, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie each received the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.

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From L to R – Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, Frédéric Joliot-Curie

Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre Curie, was a physicist working in crystallography, magnetism and piezoelectricity when they first met but he became so interested in the work Marie was doing that he joined her and they began to work together.

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Marie and Pierre Curie in the garden of the Musée Curie – Note how Marie is on the left and Pierre is on the right but in the text below their names are reversed.

Sadly their partnership was all to short, Pierre died in a street accident in Paris in 1906. Crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in the rain at the Quai de Conti, he slipped and fell under a heavy horse-drawn cart. He died instantly when one of the wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull. They were reunited though in 1995 when both Pierre and Marie were interred in the crypt of the Panthéon.

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Housed in Marie Curie’s former laboratory, the Musée Curie contains a permanent historical exhibition about radioactivity and its applications, notably in medicine, focusing primarily on the Curies and it displays some of the most important research apparatus used before 1940. It also contains an historical resource centre, which contains archives, photographs, and documentation on the Curies, Joliot-Curies, the Institut Curie, and the history of radioactivity and oncology.

So here is the record of my visit to the Musée Curie on International Women’s Day:

Inside the Musée Curie:


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Marie Curie’s office where she worked for 20 years

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Marie Curie’s chemistry laboratory next to her office

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An original laboratory report

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In 1921, Marie Curie was welcomed triumphantly when she toured the United States to raise funds for research on radium. US President Warren G. Harding received her at the White House to present her with the 1 gram of radium collected in the United States. This is the specially lined box that contained the precious radium handed to Marie by the US President.

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Above and below – In their time, cutting-edge research apparatus

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The Garden Exhibition:

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Institut Curie – Hôpital de Paris – Part of the Institut Curie, one of the leading medical, biological and biophysical research centres in the world.

Marie Curie’s pioneering work affects us all and today we take it for granted – from our simple luminous wristwatch to the most sophisticated cancer treatments. Yet in her lifetime and despite her huge achievements she faced enormous prejudice, not for her work, but for simply being a woman.

Marie Curie succeeded by rising above that prejudice as have all the enormously talented and successful women portrayed in the photographic exhibition in the garden of the Musée Curie.

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Musée Curie, 1, rue Pierre et Marie Curie, 75005 Paris

Open Wednesday to Saturday, from 1pm to 5pm. Admission is free.

The exhibition in the museum garden runs from 8th March to 31st October 2014.

5
Mar

The Pont de Bercy and its Sounds

THE PONT DE BERCY is the fourth of the thirty-five named bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits if you start counting from where la Seine enters Paris at its upstream end in the south east of the city.

The other day I went to explore the Pont de Bercy as part of the research for my Paris Bridges project, which you can find out more about here.

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The Pont de Bercy is an interesting bridge that now seems to have found itself on the Parisian tourist trail. It’s quite common to see tourists exploring the bridge with cameras in hand … and with good reason.

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Pont de Bercy from upstream with the floating Piscine Joséphine Baker on the left and part of the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances centre right

After six months of construction work the original Pont de Bercy, then outside the Paris city limits, was opened in 1832. It was built by the engineers Ferdinand Jean Bayard de la Vingtrie and Marie Fortuné de Verges of the Bayard de la Vingtrie & de Verges Company. It was a suspension bridge 133 metres long with a central span of 44 metres and two side spans of 45 metres each and it was also a toll bridge that could only be crossed by paying a tax – one centime per pedestrian, three centimes for two-wheeled vehicles and five centimes for four wheelers.

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Pont de Bercy in 1832 – Image from Paris Illustré 1863 page 82

The amount of traffic this suspension bridge could carry was limited by its structure, which soon proved to be inadequate.

In 1861 the bridge and the area around it were incorporated into the city of Paris and it was decided to demolish the original bridge and replace it with a stronger structure. Responsibility for this new bridge fell to Edmond Jules Feline-Romany, ingénieur municipal et chef de service de la Seine dans Paris (municipal engineer and head of department of the Seine in Paris) and his deputy Paul-Emile Vaudrey.  Construction began in 1863 and the bridge was completed in 1864. This new bridge was made of stone, it was 175 meters long and 20 meters wide and it comprised five elliptical arches each 29 metres wide.

But Paris wasn’t finished with this new bridge. In 1904 the French engineer Jean Résal was engaged to widen it by 5.5 metres to accommodate Métro Line 6, the semi-circular Métro route around the southern half of the city, which was to be extended to its present day terminus at Nation. Because this part of the Métro line was (and still is) an elevated section the work involved building a viaduct with forty-one semi-circular arches to accommodate the track.

The work was completed in 1909 and Métro Line 6 began to use the viaduct the same year.

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Pont de Bercy and its new viaduct soon after it opened in 1909

It wasn’t until 1986 that further structural work was carried out on the Pont de Bercy. By then the flow of traffic had increased to the point where the bridge couldn’t cope and so, on the 20th January 1986, the Paris City Council agreed to double the width of the bridge. Work began in 1989 under the direction of the engineer Jacques Monthioux. His task was to increase the width of the bridge to forty metres while at the same time making the extension structurally identical in appearance to the existing bridge with the new piers exactly aligned with the old ones and the underside and tympana of the extension mirroring those on the existing bridge.

The new, widened, Pont de Bercy was finally opened in 1992 and it’s the bridge that we see today.

Looking at the bridge today from both the upstream and downstream sides we can see that Jacques Monthioux almost met his brief. To those not in the know it’s impossible to tell that the downstream side is the original …

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Pont de Bercy from downstream

And the upstream side is the extension, which despite its appearance, is not made of stone but of reinforced concrete. It does though have a genuine stone facing.

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Pont de Bercy from upstream

It’s only when you venture underneath the bridge that you can actually see the join …

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Pont de Bercy – with the 1864 stone bridge on the left and the modern reinforced concrete extension on the right

The work that I’m doing with my Paris Bridges project involves not only exploring the history of each of the bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits but also trying to identify and capture the characteristic sounds of each bridge.

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Pont de Bercy from downstream

For anyone visiting the Pont de Bercy for the first time it’s the magnificent viaduct with its forty-one arches carrying Métro Line 6 across la Seine that is the dominating feature. My research has shown that bridges like this can have several characteristic sounds depending upon where you are listening from but if the viaduct is the dominating visual feature of the Pont de Bercy, then the sounds of the Métro passing across it must be at least one of the characteristic sounds of the bridge. So listening to and then recording the sounds of the Métro seemed like a good place to start.

I arrived at the Pont de Bercy at the nearest Métro station, Quai de la Gare, which is one of Fulgence Bienvenüe’s stations aériennes and from the platform I had an excellent view of the route of Métro Line 6 over the bridge.

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Métro Line 6 crossing the Pont de Bercy viaduct

To set the scene, I recorded the sounds of trains coming in and out of the station having just passed, or about to pass over the viaduct.

Pont de Bercy – Métro station Quai de la Gare:


Although these sounds are themselves interesting they only reflect the sounds of the approach to the bridge rather than the sounds of the Métro actually on the bridge.

I thought that one way to capture the sounds of the Métro on the bridge would be to take a ride across the viaduct and listen to the sounds from inside a Métro train. So, when the next train arrived, I hopped on and made the short journey from Quai de la Gare to the next station, Bercy.

Pont de Bercy – Crossing the viaduct from Quai de la Gare to Bercy:


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Descending from the Pont de Bercy to the underground Bercy Métro station

Of course, I could also record, and in fact did record, the sounds of the Métro crossing the bridge from street level but I wanted to capture something a bit extra, something that better reflected the sounds that are there but the sounds that are usually hidden from all but the most attentive listener.

It’s clear from the pictures above that any attempt to get onto the line to record the sound of the Métro as it crossed the bridge would at best result in my immediate arrest or, at worst, something far more unpleasant. An alternative plan of action was called for.

Ever mindful of the great photographer, Robert Capa’s dictum: “If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough”, I began to investigate how, if I couldn’t actually get onto the line, I might at least get as close as possible. And, as always, if there’s a will, there’s a way!

Métro Line 6 leaves the Quai de la Gare station, crosses the viaduct and then descends underground before curving to the right and entering the next station, Bercy.

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Pont de Bercy viaduct sloping down to Bercy Métro station

By climbing onto a narrow ledge of the wall that separates the viaduct from the street as the Métro line begins its descent underground towards Bercy station, I was able to clamber up the ledge and by pushing my microphone through a convenient hole in the fence (I didn’t make the hole, it was already there!) I was able to capture the sounds of the trains on the slope of the viaduct. The trains passing from the left were going up the slope and those from the right were coming down.

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Pont de Bercy viaduct – An MS (mid-side) stereo microphone at work

Pont de Bercy – Métro trains passing on the slope of the viaduct:


I think this recording is probably unique. I can’t think of any other place on the Paris Métro system where it’s possible to get so close to the Métro trains other than inside a station. Had I been able to put my hand through the fence I would have been able to touch the trains closest to me coming from the left.

I recorded these sounds on a Saturday afternoon while the bean counters at the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances across the street were away from their offices enjoying their weekend. Had it been a normal working day I’m sure that one of them at least would have seen me and become very suspicious about a man climbing up a wall aiming a pointy thing at a Métro train!

So, having established that the sounds of the Métro crossing the viaduct are one of the characteristic sounds of the Pont de Bercy, does the bridge have any other characteristic sounds?

I went under the viaduct to explore.

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The Pont de Bercy viaduct sits on top of the bridge. On either side three lanes of traffic pass in both directions and beyond the traffic each side of the bridge carries a footpath. Beyond the bridge, the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances sits on one side and the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, a giant indoor sports arena and concert hall, sits on the other.

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With its forty-one stone arches along each side and the Métro track above forming a roof the view under the Pont de Bercy viaduct at street level is quite impressive.

I walked under the viaduct listening carefully to the sounds – the sounds of passing traffic of course as well as the rather muffled sounds of the Métro passing overhead contrasting nicely with the expansive sounds of the trains I’d recorded a few minutes before. And then I came upon this …

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A large puddle stretching across the two cycle lanes that run the full length of the viaduct. Right in the centre of the puddle water was dripping down from the Métro line above. This seemed to be the perfect place from which to record the sounds on the bridge.

Pont de Bercy – Sounds on the bridge:


I rather like the sound of the dripping water set as it is against the general hubbub of everything else that’s going on especially since tomorrow it most probably will have disappeared forever.

Towards the end of this sound piece you will have heard the sound of car horns and I will return to that in a moment but first, let’s explore the sounds under the bridge.

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Pont de Bercy – Under the bridge

A set of stone steps leads down from the footpath on the Pont de Bercy to the Quai de la Gare and the first stone arch of the bridge at its south-westerly end. I went down to see what sounds I could find.

Pont de Bercy – Sounds under the bridge


At first the sounds were pretty much as I’d expected, the sound of water lapping against the arch, the hum of a police boat disappearing into the distance, the sound of a jogger passing by and the buzz of the traffic on the bridge overhead. But then my ear was drawn to another sound.

Moving to the edge of the arch on the upstream side I heard the sonorous tone of a boat straining at its moorings. I love sounds like this, it almost seemed as though boat was speaking directly to me.

And then a bonus, the sound of a Métro train passing over the Pont de Bercy viaduct way above me. Since I’d begun my exploration of the Pont de Bercy by recording the sounds of the Métro it seemed fitting to end with the same sounds but from yet another perspective.

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Pont de Bercy – A boat straining at its moorings

And finally, back to those car horns. What were they all about?

Well, one of the things that I enjoy most about the work I do recording the urban soundscape of Paris is the process of observing. It’s true that on my perambulations around the city I spend much more time observing by listening than I do by looking and the delight of finding a completely unexpected sound is hard to describe. But occasionally, seeing something completely unexpected can fill me with delight too. Something like this …

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I was just finishing recording the sounds on the Pont de Bercy under the viaduct when I heard the sound of the car horns. It’s common practice in France, as in many other countries, for motorists to sound their car horns at the sight of a newly married couple and, when I turned round, there they were straight from the church having their photograph taken under the viaduct.

A rather nice way to my end my exploration of the Pont de Bercy and its sounds I thought.

27
Feb

Jean Jaurès and the Café du Croissant

IN A RECENT ARTICLE on this blog I explored the Métro station Jaurès in the 19th arrondissement. This Métro station fascinates me partly because it is one of Fulgence Bienvenüe’s Métro stations aériennes, (all his stations aériennes fascinate me), and partly because it is named after a man who particularly interests me, Jean Jaurès.

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Jean Jaurès in 1904 – Image via Wikipedia

In the blog piece, I refer to the fact that Jean Jaurès was assassinated in the Café du Croissant in rue Montmartre just days before the outbreak of the First World War.

The other day I found myself in rue Montmartre and, in need of shelter from the rain, I ducked into the nearest café which just happened to be the very same Café du Croissant, or La Taverne du Croissant as it’s now called, in which Jaurès died.  Since I had recently published my blog piece about the Métro station Jaurès, and since this year is the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, Jaurès has been much on my mind so coming upon the Café du Croissant like this seemed a curious coincidence.

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Café du Croissant – rue Montmartre

La Taverne du Croissant with its dark wooden furniture and its wooden floors has a comfortable feel to it but, save for the plaque on the wall outside, there is little to remind one of the event that took place here a hundred years ago.

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Auguste Marie Joseph Jean Léon Jaurès was born on 3rd September 1859 in Castres in the south west of France. He was educated in Paris and admitted to the prestigious École normale supérieure in 1878 to study philosophy.  He graduated in 1881 and then spent two years teaching philosophy in southern France before taking up a lecturing post at the University of Toulouse.

Jean Jaurès’ political career began in 1885 when he was elected deputy (member of the legislative assembly of the French Parliament) for the Tarn département. He was initially a moderate republican but by the late 1880’s he had fully embraced socialism.

Over the next few years, Jaurès won and lost seats to the National Assembly several times but in 1902 he was returned as the deputy for Albi, a seat he retained until his death.

As well a being a politician, Jaurès was also a journalist. He edited La Petite République, and was, along with Émile Zola, one of the most energetic defenders of Alfred Dreyfus during the notorious Dreyfus Affair. In 1904, he founded the socialist paper L’Humanité, a newspaper that still exists.

At the end of the 19th century, with its leaders either dead or exiled after the failure of the Paris commune in 1871, French socialism was in disarray. It wasn’t until 1905, with the establishment of SFIO, the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (French Section of the Workers’ International) that the Left gained some coherence. SFIO was led by Jules Guesde and Jean Jaurès, but it was Jaurès who quickly became its most influential figure.

Jean Jaurès was also a pacifist, something that was to cost him his life.

As the dark clouds descended over Europe in 1914, Jean Jaurès passionately believed that it was worth trying to use diplomatic means to prevent war. He tried to promote understanding between France and Germany and then, as conflict became imminent, he tried to organise general strikes in France and in Germany in order to force the governments to back down and negotiate. Jaurès though was swimming against the tide. Defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine still loomed large in the minds of the French establishment; revenge for the former and the return of the latter seemed to overshadow Jaurès’ efforts.

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Café du Croissant – Inside

On the afternoon of 30th July 1914, Jean Jaurès returned to Paris from an emergency meeting of the International Socialist Bureau of the Second International in Brussels. Austria had already mobilised and upon his arrival in Paris Jaurès learned that Russia had now mobilised as well.

The following morning, the 31st July, Jaurès had a succession of meetings and then, during the afternoon, he went to his newspaper, L’Humanité, to write a piece about ‘antiwar mobilisation’ for publication the following day.

In the evening he went to the Café du Croissant for dinner with four colleagues. Jaurès  sat at a table with his back to an open window shielded from the street by a drawn curtain. In the street outside, a 29 year old archaeology student, a member the League of Young Friends of Alsace-Lorraine and a French nationalist, Raoul Villain, stood poised ready to assassinate a man he had never met. He fired two shots from a Smith & Wesson revolver. One shot missed and lodged into some woodwork, the other pierced Jaurès’ skull and he fell dead.

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Reaction to Jaurès’ death was mixed, the Left were understandably angry while some on the Right rejoiced but across Europe the reaction was a wave of shock. This seemed to be yet another link in the chain of uncertainty that was engulfing Europe.

Le Temps, one of Paris’ most influential newspapers at the time, lamented that he was extinguished ‘just at the moment when … his oratory was about to become a weapon of national defence‘.¹

Café du Croissant in 2014:


Sitting in the Café du Croissant in 2014 over a cup of coffee with the rain pattering on the windows close to the spot where Jaurès was shot, I couldn’t help thinking about how normal everything seemed, people engaged in conversation, the sound of crockery clinking, the lady behind the bar going about her work.

I also couldn’t help thinking about Jean Jaurès and his ideals and wondering what might have been if his vision that ordinary people acting in sufficient numbers and with sufficient strength could have prevented the terrible slaughter that subsequently unfolded.

Professor Colin Jones sums it up: “The assassination of the eminent socialist Jean Jaurès … removed a leading figure on the Left who might have prevailed against what became an almost Gaderene rush into war”

06

In death, Jean Jaurès received the ultimate accolade the French can bestow. Ten years after his death, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon.

Astonishingly, in 1919, Raoul Villain was acquitted of the murder of Jean Jaurès. On the 17th September 1936 he was shot and killed during the Spanish Civil War. He is buried in the cemetery of Sant Vicent de sa Cala on the island of Ibiza.

Here is an extract from the article Jean Jaurès wrote for his newspaper, l’Humanité, a few hours before his death on 31st July 1914, just three days before war was declared …

“Le plus grand danger à l’heure actuelle n’est pas, si je puis dire, dans les événements eux-mêmes. […] Il est dans l’énervement qui gagne, dans l’inquiétude qui se propage, dans les impulsions subites qui naissent de la peur, de l’incertitude aiguë, de l’anxiété prolongée. […] Ce qui importe avant tout, c’est la continuité de l’action, c’est le perpétuel éveil de la pensée et de la conscience ouvrière. Là est la vraie sauvegarde. Là est la garantie de l’avenir.”

My translation …

“The greatest danger today is not, so to speak, in the events themselves. [...] It is in the nervousness that grows, in the concern that is propagated, in the sudden impulses that arise from fear, of acute uncertainty, prolonged anxiety. [...] What matters above all is the continuity of action, it is the perpetual awakening of thought and of working-class consciousness. That is the real safeguard. That is the guarantee of the future.”

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¹‘Catastrophe’ by Max Hastings (page 83)

²‘Paris – The Biography of a City’ by Colin Jones (page 377)

La Taverne du Croissant, 146 rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris

 

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