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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
Pont de Bercy from upstream
It’s only when you venture underneath the bridge that you can actually see the join …
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.²
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.”
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
THE CITY OF PARIS has never been shy about celebrating the work of the great twentieth-century photographers who have lived and worked here.
In 2012, the Hôtel de Ville hosted an exhibition of the work of Robert Doisneau entitled “Doisneau: Paris les Halles”. This exhibition included some two hundred photographs taken by Robert Doisneau over forty years of the quartier les Halles, the enormous food market once known as the ‘Belly of Paris’ and its subsequent transformation into the Forum des Halles. Had Robert Doisneau been alive today he would no doubt have continued to photograph the quartier les Halles as the Forum des Halles is being transformed once again.
Currently, the Hôtel de Ville is staging another exhibition this time celebrating the work of the renowned photographer, Brassaï. Although Gyula Halász (Brassaï was a pseudonym) was Hungarian, he lived in Paris from 1920 until his death in 1984.
This exhibition, “Brassaï, Pour l’amour de Paris” or “Brassaï – For the Love of Paris”, recounts the extraordinary story of one man’s passion: that which united Brassaï with the nooks and crannies of the French capital but also with intellectuals, artists, large families and prostitutes – all those who have made Paris the mythical place it is.
The Brassaï exhibition runs until 29th March.
I went to the Doisneau exhibition in 2012 and to the Brassaï one earlier this year and I was captivated by them both.
I make no secret of the fact that in the work I do recording the urban soundscapes of Paris I take enormous inspiration from the great twentieth-century Parisian street photographers. There are many similarities, both technically and artistically, between street photography and urban soundscape recording and I’ve learnt a lot from reading about these artists and studying their work. It’s not by accident that the strapline to this blog is a quote from Robert Doisneau – “Exploring that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed”, which was how he summed up his work.
And now we are blessed with yet another photographic exhibition in Paris, this time just a stone’s throw from the Hôtel de Ville at the post-modern Centre Pompidou.
Through more than five hundred photographs, drawings, paintings, films and documents, the exhibition is a completely new retrospective look at the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the first in Europe since his death ten years ago.
Simply called, “Henri Cartier-Bresson”, the exhibition, organised with the support of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, opened on 12th February and it runs until 9th June although, judging by the number of people who were there when I went earlier this week, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it isn’t extended.
Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Centre Pompidou– Listening to the Pictures:
This retrospective illustrates the depth and variety of Cartier-Bresson’s work and his wide-ranging career as a photographer – one that covered Surrealism, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, decolonisation and the Cold War. The exhibition features his iconic pictures but also puts a spotlight on lesser-known images. It reassesses a number of little-known photo reportage works, brings to light collections of paintings and drawings and focuses on Cartier-Bresson’s forays into the world of film.
Both chronological and thematic, the exhibition is structured around three main viewpoints: the period between 1926 and 1935, marked by Cartier-Bresson’s contact with the Surrealists, his early work as a photographer and his travels all over the world; a second section devoted to his political commitment when he returned from the US in 1936 until he set off for New York again in 1946, and a third sequence opening with the creation of Magnum Photos in 1947 and finishing with the early 1970s when he stopped doing photo reportage.
Despite moving away from photography Cartier-Bresson’s international renown continued to grow and in France, he embodied, almost alone, the institutional recognition of photography. He spent a great deal of time supervising the organisation of his archives, sales of his prints and the production of books and exhibitions. Even though he had officially stopped being a photographer, he still kept his Leica within reach and occasionally produced more contemplative images. But above all, he frequently visited museums and exhibitions and spent most of his time drawing.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004)
I’ve never considered myself to be a photographer but, as well as recording the sounds of people inside the gallery looking at the exhibits, I did take some pictures at the exhibition and they include some of my Cartier-Bresson favourites. Unfortunately, my absolute favourite and perhaps Cartier-Bresson’s best known image, “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” was, rather like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, submerged in a constant sea of people so although I saw it and pondered it for some time, I wasn’t able to quite capture it for this blog piece.
Here though, are some of the other images I captured.
Three Cartier-Bresson self-portrait drawings
This retrospective illustrates just why Henri Cartier-Bresson became known as “the eye of the century”, one of the great witnesses of our history and why he became, and remains, such a dominating figure in the world of photography.
Galerie 2 – Centre Pompidou, Paris
12th February 2014 – 9th June 2014
Open from 11.00 to 23.00 every day except Tuesday.
LET’S BEGIN WITH some geography! If you look at a map of Paris you will see that the city is more or less in the shape of a circle with the circumference circumscribed by the wall of traffic that is the Boulevard Périphérique. The Périphérique in effect delineates the Paris city limits, the area within the Périphérique is considered to be Paris and the immediate area beyond, the suburbs.
As you can see from this map, the River Seine crosses Paris in a semi-circle across the south of the city. The river flows from right to left as you look at the map so it enters the city upstream from the south-east and it leaves downstream from the south-west after passing through the centre of the city. The area within the semi-circle to the south is known as the Left Bank and everything to the north, the Right Bank.
Paris is well known for its bridges and there are thirty-seven of them crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits. However, if you look at a Paris city map and count the named bridges you will come to a total of thirty-five rather than thirty-seven. The discrepancy is accounted for by the two bridges that that carry the Boulevard Périphérique over la Seine, neither of which has an official name. Unofficially though, they do have names: the one that crosses in the south-east is known as Pont Amont, amont being French for ‘upstream’ and the one that crosses in the south-west is known as Pont Aval – and yes, you’ve guessed it, aval is French for ‘downstream’.
I’ve set myself the task of exploring all thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. As well as exploring the history of each bridge I’m also attempting to identify the characteristic sounds of each bridge. I’ve already discovered that some of the bridges do have characteristic sounds, the sounds on, under or around the bridges and in a few cases, and more excitingly, the sounds of the actual bridges themselves.
The work I’m doing on this Paris Bridges project (that’s the working title at the moment) is not specifically designed for this blog but rather for an audio documentary that I plan to produce. I will however publish cameo blog pieces like this one from time to time to illustrate the work I’m doing.
The other day, I went to explore the first of the named upstream bridges, the Pont National.
Pont National looking from upstream
The Pont National was built between 1852 and 1853 during the Second Empire and was originally named the Pont Napoleon III. It became the Pont National in 1870.
The bridge is 188.5 metres long, it’s made up of five stone arches and it was originally built as a railway bridge to carry the Petite Ceinture across the Seine and to link the fortifications on either side.
Built between 1852 and 1869, the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture, or “little belt railway”, was the first public urban transportation service in Paris and was the forerunner of today’s Paris Métro. It comprised a thirty-five kilometre line that encircled Paris and it was built mainly for transporting goods between the five main railway stations in Paris but it also offered a public transport service up until 1934.
The first Paris Métro line opened in 1900 with more modern and more rapid rolling stock together with more comfortable stations and more competitive prices than the Petite Ceinture. Consequently, the urban passenger service of the Petite Ceinture gradually began to decline. In addition, the local goods traffic grew. The Petite Ceinture operators used the loss of passenger traffic to decrease the number of passenger train movements and increase the number of goods train movements since the transportation of goods was much more lucrative than transporting urban passengers. Eventually, the urban passenger service ceased on 22 July 1934 and was replaced by a bus service. Today, twenty-three kilometres of the railway tracks of the Petite Ceinture remain including the original tracks across the Pont National.
Picture taken from the centre of the Pont National looking downstream with the surviving Petite Ceinture tracks in the foreground
With the demise of the Petite Ceinture the Pont National lost its original purpose and so in 1936 work began to widen the bridge to accommodate road traffic. When the work was completed in 1944 the bridge had expanded to a width of 34 metres.
Today, as well as carrying the surviving tracks of the Petite Ceinture and the roadway, the Pont National also carries two footpaths, one on the upstream side of the bridge and one on the downstream side.
It also carries a cycle lane on the downstream side …
And, as though bringing the original purpose of the bridge back to life, the Pont National now has two relatively new rail tracks spanning the length of the bridge.
These tracks don’t carry rail traffic today but they do carry the trams of Tram Line 3, the line that circles Paris following the site of the old military road that ran along the inside of the fortified Thiers Wall, the last defensive wall surrounding Paris.
And, along with the constant flow of traffic, it is these trams plying back and forth across la Seine that give the Pont National its characteristic sound from on the bridge.
Sounds on the Pont National:
While we can say that the sound of the trams are the characteristic sound of the Pont National from on the bridge these sounds represent only one sonic perspective of the bridge. What happens if we listen under the bridge?
Well, it is possible to go under one arch of the bridge and from there we can get a different sonic perspective.
Sounds under the Pont National:
We can hear the sound of the traffic and the trams passing overhead almost as a mirror image of the sounds on the bridge but with less precise definition. We can also hear the bridge groan from time to time whilst carrying its burden above. The constant sound though on this particular day is the sound of dripping water and this is a very functional sound. It’s the sound of water pouring out of the bottom of a large drainpipe, which is draining rainwater from the roadway above. As I was recording these sounds it was raining heavily and so the drainpipe was working overtime.
As I was about to stop recording under the bridge, a ready-mix concrete lorry passed by me under the arch and this brings me on to another sonic perspective of the Pont National.
Pont National from the Pont de Tolbiac
The Pont National does not of course stand in isolation, it’s very much part of its environment and since the mid nineteenth-century the area around the bridge has been the industrial heart of Paris.
At one end of the Pont National is the old and now closed Gare Frigorifique de Paris Bercy. Opened in 1906, this station with its refrigeration facility was built specifically to receive wine destined for the ‘Entrepôt des Vins’ in nearby Bercy, at the time the largest commercial wine distribution centre in the world. In the nineteenth century most wine arrived in Paris by boat and could only be sold in the city after passing through Customs but by the late twentieth century wine could be shipped directly from the French vineyards to the rest of the world without having to pass through Paris and so the need for the ‘Entrepôt des Vins’ declined and eventually it and this station were abandoned.
Today the immediate area around the Pont National has its fair share of large corporate offices but it’s more particularly associated with cement, concrete and aggregates for use in the building industry.
The French industrial company Lafarge occupies the Right Bank between the Pont National and the Pont de Tolbiac …
… and the Mexican company Cemex occupies the Left Bank.
Both of these companies rely heavily on industrial barges to bring in their raw materials.
Industrial barges like this one travel up and down la Seine all the time and so it’s not surprising that their sounds form a third sonic perspective of the Pont National – the sounds around the bridge.
Sounds around the Pont National:
One of the things I find fascinating about these barges is that they leave a long sonic footprint generated by their wake that can last sometimes long after the barge has passed. I find these sonic footprints as acoustically interesting as the sound of the barges themselves.
Pont National looking from downstream
I went to explore the Pont National as part of my research for my Paris Bridges audio documentary. So what did I learn?
I learned that bridges like this have a history and associations, which are themselves worth exploring. I learned that this bridge at least does have some characteristic sounds but what those sounds are depends upon where you’re listening from. Although I was able to capture three sonic perspectives of the bridge – on it, under it and around it, the fourth perspective eluded me. Save for hearing the occasional groan of the bridge from underneath, I was unable to capture the sound of the bridge, the sound of the bridge itself speaking. But I won’t give up, the sounds are in there somewhere and I shall return with my contact microphones and attempt to capture the sounds inside the structure of the bridge to complete the sonic tapestry of the Pont National.
What I also learned was something that I knew already. The contemporary sounds tapestry of the Pont National is not only fascinating but it’s also important.
For the average person crossing or passing by the Pont National, these sounds, if heard at all, will simply be part of the everyday sound tapestry that accompanies their lives, at best taken for granted and at worst, ignored. But these sounds are important because they are not only part of our contemporary urban soundscape but also part of our sonic heritage.
It’s a sad fact, but most of our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded. For example, we can find pictures and written descriptions of the Pont National at the end of the nineteenth-century but we have no record of its sounds, even though the sounds are part of the very fabric of the bridge. What would the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture have sounded like to us if we had stood on or under the bridge as it passed? Would the barges have sounded the same as they do today? What sounds would we have heard then that we don’t hear now?
It is questions like these that compel me to record and preserve the sounds that make up our contemporary urban soundscape. In time these sounds will become history but, unlike in the nineteenth-century and before, we are now able to record and preserve that history for future generations to explore, to study and to enjoy. I think that’s worth doing.
IT’S THAT TIME OF the year again, Chinese New Year. Last year was the year of the water snake and this year it’s the year of the wooden horse.
On Sunday, the 13th arrondissement was awash with people participating in and watching the glittering annual parade to celebrate Chinese New Year. The parade began in the Avenue d’Ivry and wound its way along Avenue de Choisy, Place d’Italie, Avenue d’Italie, Rue de Tolbiac, Boulevard Massena and back to Avenue d’Ivry in south-central Paris. I along with thousands of others lined the streets to listen to and watch the spectacle. As always, it was a magnificent cavalcade of sound and colour.
Sounds of the year of the wooden horse:
THE OTHER DAY I was walking along the Quai Branly from the Tour Eiffel towards the Pont Bir-Hakeim, the magnificent double-decked bridge that carries traffic, pedestrians and Métro Line 6 across la Seine.
Pont Bir-Hakeim from Quai Branly
Unusually for early February it was a beautiful day. It was warm, the sun was shining and all was well with the world save of course for the constant stream of traffic hurtling along the Quai Branly. I decided to escape at least some of the traffic noise by negotiating some steps down to the towpath beside the river and continuing my journey from there. This towpath is part of the Promenade du quai Branly that stretches from the Pont de l’Alma to Pont Bir-Hakeim and it follows the old railway track from Invalides to Versailles, which is now RER Line C, on one side and the river Seine on the other. The Seine of course is a working river and so there are many boats berthed here along what is known as the Port de Suffren.
As I walked along the towpath my attention was drawn to these two boats. The larger of the two, the white one, is Le Maxim’s, one of three Bateaux Maxim’s owned by the legendary Maxim’s de Paris. The other boat is a working barge.
It wasn’t the sight of these boats that attracted my attention but rather their sounds. The two boats carried by the waves were rocking gently back and forth with each straining at its moorings.
Boats in conversation at Port de Suffren:
It seemed to me as though the two boats were having a conversation; the flighty, high-pitched, sounds from Le Maxim’s being tempered by the more sonorous interjections of the barge straining against the wire hawser stretched over its bow. Even the ever-present traffic noise from the quai Branly above and behind seemed to be partially mitigated by their conversation.
There were many people walking along the towpath on this sunny afternoon but none of them, save for me, stopped to listen to or even seemed to be aware of this nautical chorus.
IT’S PERHAPS BEST SEEN from outside the McDonald’s restaurant at the corner of the Boulevard de la Villette and the Avenue Secrétan in the 19th arrondissement. From here you can see the elegant, sweeping curve of the Paris Métro as it approaches the Métro station Jaurès, one of the four stations aériennes on Métro Line 2.
The elevated viaduct approaching Jaurès station
Although Métro Line 2 arrives at Jaurès station well above ground, the station also hosts two other lines, Line 5 and Line 7bis both of which are below ground.
The original station, called Rue d’Allemagne after a street close by, opened on 23rd February 1903 as part of the newly completed Métro Line 2 running between Porte Dauphine and Nation.
On 31 July 1914 the socialist and pacifist politician Jean Jaurès was assassinated in a Parisian café, Le Croissant, in rue Montmartre, by Raoul Villain, a 29-year-old French nationalist. Just three days later, war with Germany was declared and suddenly German names became unpopular. The street name rue d’Allemagne was expunged and replaced by the avenue Jean-Jaurès. With the change of the street name came the change of the name of the station, rue d’Allemagne became simply Jaurès.
Paris Métro Station Jaurès – A Sound Portrait:
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 2 – Direction Nation
Métro station Jaurès is one of the four stations aériennes on the 2 km elevated section of Métro Line 2 and so the Line 2 platform is well above ground.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 2 – Direction Porte Dauphine
As well as the magnificent glass roof the platform also boasts a rather unusual stained glass window.
Designed by the artist Jacques-Antoine Ducatez, this window was installed in 1989 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. It depicts the people carrying flags marching towards the Bastille prison, the taking of which launched the Revolution.
Line 2 was the first Métro line to open at Jaures station but a further line, or at least part of a line, was added soon after. In January 1911, a branch line of Métro Line 7 to Pré Saint-Gervais was incorporated. This branch line remained until 1967 when it was formerly separated from Line 7 to become Line 7bis, or Line 7a.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 7bis – Direction Louis Blanc
Line 7bis is the deepest of the lines that pass through Jaurès station and, at the moment, it looks by far the most desolate. All the tiles together with most of the fixtures and fittings have been removed in preparation for renovation work which is due to be completed by the end of June this year.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 7bis – Direction Pré Saint-Gervais
Sandwiched between Line 7bis and the aerial Line 2 is Line 5, which crosses the east of Paris from Bobigny to Place d’Italie.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 5 – Direction Place d’Italie
Line 5 arrived at Jaurès station in 1942 as part of the extension of that line from the Gare du Nord to Eglise de Pantin.
Métro Station Jaurès – Line 5 – Direction Bobigny
In my sound portrait you can hear the sounds from all three of the Métro lines that pass through Jaurès station, Line 2, Line 5 and Line 7bis.
WHATEVER THE TIME of year, street musicians can be found all over Paris plying their trade and bringing sunshine to the passers by.
Last Saturday afternoon I came across this gentleman occupying his usual pitch at the corner of the Quai de l’Archevêché and the Pont Saint-Louis. He is a big man who makes a big sound from a very small piano.
A Small Piano – A Big Sound:
A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago, just before the turn of the year, I spent an afternoon walking along the banks of la Seine from Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Sursenes. Here, the communes of Puteaux and Sursenes sit on one side of the river and on the other side is the western edge of the Bois de Boulogne on the very edge of Paris.
I like this walk, I do it three or four times a year, but I’ve never featured it on this blog and it wasn’t my intention to do so on this particular winter’s day. The narration accompanying this walk was intended originally for my personal audio diary but it did occur to me afterwards that it might be of passing interest to those not familiar with this fairly well hidden pathway along the banks of la Seine. So here is the record of my walk on a perfect winter’s day.
Pont de Puteaux to Pont de Sursenes – A Soundwalk:
The Water Tower
Ouvrages de Suresnes – The Weir
Pont de Suresnes
Péniche ‘Pourquoi Pas’
A Passing Barge – A ‘Pusher’
La Seine from Pont de Suresnes
WHAT DO YOU DO in Paris on a rainy Saturday afternoon in early January?
Well, while the post-Christmas tourists were busy doing their thing, and there seemed to be very many of them this year, I spent the afternoon standing under a Parisian bridge doing what I enjoy doing most – listening. And my bridge of choice for this particular Saturday afternoon was the Pont Saint Michel.
The Pont Saint Michel is certainly not the most elegant of the many bridges that traverse la Seine, it took only seven months to build, but it does have a particularly rich sound environment which is why I’m attracted to it.
The present day Pont Saint Michel was built in 1857. It’s 62 metres long, it has three arches each 17.2 metres wide and it links the Left Bank of the Seine to the oldest part of Paris, the Île de la Cité. It’s not though the first bridge to cross la Seine at this point. The first bridge to do so was opened in 1387.
The original bridge was built of stone and like all the medieval bridges in Paris it wasn’t long before houses appeared on it. This proved to be catastrophic when in the terrible winter of 1407 – 1408, one of the longest and most severe recorded in medieval times, ice carried by the frozen river hit the bridge and caused it and all the houses on it to collapse. A wooden replacement bridge was built soon after again with houses on it.
Pont Saint Michel in 1577 - Image via Wikipedia
This wooden bridge was replaced in 1623 with a bridge comprising both wood and stone designed to hold two rows of houses. It wasn’t until 1786 that an order was issued to remove all the houses from Paris bridges but even so, the houses remained on the Pont Saint Michel until 1808.
And then in 1857 the present day bridge, designed by the French engineer Paul-Martin Gallocher de Lagalisserie, was built.
So much for the history – so what about to the sounds around the Pont Saint Michel?
Pont Saint Michel and its sounds:
On this rainy, rather dreary, Saturday afternoon I approached Pont Saint Michel along the Quai de Conti from the Pont Neuf recording as I went but as the rain got worse I took shelter under the bridge.
Because of the wind, la Seine was a little rougher than usual and as I walked along the Quai de Conti I was able to capture the delicious sound of a boat creaking at its mooring as it gently rode the waves. I also captured the sounds of a couple of fairly sparsely populated tourist boats as they passed by.
Standing under the Pont Saint Michel I could see in one direction the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris and in the other direction part of the Pont Neuf, which when seen in all its glory is one of the most elegant bridges in Paris.
Standing under the Pont Saint Michel I recorded the sounds of the river sloshing its way through the arch of the bridge in front of me. And then, as two more tourist boats approached, I decided to see what they sounded like from underneath the water as they passed. So engrossed was I with getting my microphone into the water in just the right place that I was completely unaware that the wash from the wake of a boat that had just passed was spilling over my vantage point and was about to engulf my feet. So captivated was I listening to the underwater sounds that it was only when I retrieved my microphone from under the water that I realised that my feet were equally as wet as the microphone.
Undaunted, I continued to record as two more boats passed, a Bateaux Mouches, the largest of the tourist boats to ply la Seine and the one with the loudest commentary which sounds out in several languages. Following the Bateaux Mouches came one of the smaller boats, the Batobus, the hop-on hop-off water bus that stops at eight of the key tourist spots in the city.
Listening to the sounds around Parisian bridges might not be everyone’s idea of an afternoon’s entertainment but for me it was very enjoyable and time well spent. And my Paris Soundscapes Archive is richer for it.