FOR OVER ONE HUNDRED years, the Viaduc d’Austerlitz has swept majestically over la Seine. Its sole purpose is to carry the trains of Métro Line 5 over the river from the Quai de la Rapée to the Gare d’Austerlitz and back again.
The task facing Fulgence Bienvenüe, the architect of the Paris Métro network, was how to get Line 5 across the la Seine without interfering with the river traffic. The answer came from the engineer, Louis Biette, who proposed a single-span bridge with the deck suspended from two elegant metal arches so that no pillars or supports descended into the river.
The single-span stretches for 140 metres, which even today makes it the second longest bridge in Paris. The 8.5 metre wide deck is suspended 11 metres above the river. Two stone abutments support the ends of the metal arches, one on each bank of the river, with each measuring 22 metres x 18 metres. Each abutment also extends some 10 metres below the river.
The viaduct itself was built between 1903 and 1904 by the Société de Construction de Levallois-Perret which, under a different name, was the same company that built the Eiffel Tower.
Building the viaduct itself was relatively straightforward. Large wooden scaffolding was erected with wooden pillars sunk deep into the river bed to enable the prefabricated metal sections to be put into place. Building the approaches to the viaduct, or at least one of them, was much more complex though.
While the approach from the Gare d’Austerlitz on the Left Bank posed no particular problems, it was a completely different story on the other side. It was decided that it was impracticable to demolish the necessary buildings on the Right Bank to facilitate a straight entry to the viaduct so instead the design called for a sharp 90° turn within a restricted space. But not only that, the line was required to make a sharp climb from under the Place Mazas to the level of the viaduct. The problem was given to the firm Daydé and Pillé who built the Grand Palais in 1900 but were really specialists in metal construction and particularly bridges.
Their solution involved the application of mathematics and the construction of a helicoidal extension to the viaduct. A helicoid I am told is a curve shaped like Archimedes’ screw, but extending infinitely in all directions. This particular helicoid has a radius of 75 metres and a slope of 4% which not only provides a neat solution to the problem but it also makes the ageing MF 67 Métro trains groan with exasperation.
MF 67 trains climbing the slope and negotiating the curve:
Jean Camille Formigé was responsible for the decorations on the pillars, the arches and the abutments of the viaduct which consist of dolphins, shells, seaweed and animal faces as well as the cast iron designs featuring the coat of arms of Paris attached to anchors.
Formigé though was not responsible for this more recent decoration on the abutment on the Left Bank side.
Adam from Invisible Paris usually knows about things like this so I asked him if he could tell me anything about this lady and why she was there. He told me that she, “ is a creation by artists Leo & Pipo (a selection of other creations can be found here http://www.facebook.com/LEOetPIPO), but it seems that both the photos and the places in which they are positioned are pretty random. I think only they know therefore who she is and why they put her there!”
Thanks to the foresight of Fulgence Bienvenüe and Louis Biette together with the ingenuity of Daydé and Pillé, Métro Line 5 was successfully navigated across la Seine from Quai de la Rapée to the Gare d’Austerlitz via the Viaduc d’Austerlitz.
I find the Viaduc d’Austerlitz not only visually attractive but sonically priceless. Every time I go there I am acutely aware that the screeching of each MF 67 train is a sound that is fast disappearing. The old trains are gradually being replaced by the swanky new, more efficient, cleaner and quieter MF 2000 trains. That’s clearly the right thing to do … but I can’t help feeling sorry that we will lose one of the sounds that defines Paris in the process.
It seems appropriate therefore to leave you with the sounds of the short ride from Quai de la Rapée station, under Place Mazas, up the slope and round the helicoidal curve, across the Viaduc d’Austerlitz over la Seine to Gare d’Austerlitz station. It’s a journey of one minute and thirty seconds but it spans over one hundred years of history.
Quai de la Rapée to Gare d’Austerlitz: