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July 12, 2012


Viaduc d’Austerlitz

by soundlandscapes

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, 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:

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jul 12 2012

    An excellent subject, and very well explained. This sound is a very familiar one to me, but it hadn’t crossed my mind that it would soon disappear. It reminds me of what valuable work you’re doing here, and how much more detailed our studies of history would be if we had sound recordings that went back hundreds of years in time.

    This is perhaps one of the most interesting stretches of the entire Metro network, not only for the viaduct and the lovely views, but also for the parts on either side. After leaving the Quai de la Rapée station, and as the train begins to groan, you pass in front of the city morgue. On the other side, the Metro glides through the side of the Austerlitz station. But these are perhaps other sounds and stories!

    • Jul 12 2012

      Thanks Adam. It’s a sobering thought, but almost all of our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded and consequently unpreserved. That’s why I and many others record and archive the everyday sounds around us for future generations to listen to, to study and to enjoy. In particular, I am building an archive of the street sounds of Paris which includes not only the everyday sounds that we take for granted, but also those soon to become priceless sounds that will disappear forever.

      I agree with you that this is one of the most interesting parts of the Métro system and I shall seek out more of the sounds and the stories associated with Line 5. Just as a point of interest, you mentioned the city morgue. It was from in front of this particular establishment that I recorded the exterior sounds of the train climbing up to the viaduct!

  2. Jul 14 2012

    what would our modern sonic perception be without railway lines and beautifully worked iron bridges. residents at the time of building must have found its arrival as bizarre as we find its disappearing. it’s sad seeing such iconic parts of our day-by-day surroundings fade and change but then again, isn’t that what happened all the time during the course of human kind’s history. good though that we are now able to document these changes adequately…..

    • Jul 14 2012

      Thank you for your comment. It chimes so much with my thinking. You are quite right, railway lines and iron bridges do seem to seem to define at least part of our urban sonic heritage. You are right, the sounds around us change and evolve and some of them inevitably disappear. As you say, we can document these changing sounds … but there are relatively few of us doing it and we need all the support we can get.

  3. Jul 14 2012

    Beautiful as always. Your recordings are as exquisite as the ornamentation on the bridge itself.

  4. Penny
    Sep 11 2012

    That is sheer genius. I love how the bridge is able to support itself without having to put beams into the river. It’s a true work of art, and an architectural wonder at that.


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