MORE RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges project took me to the most majestic and extravagant bridge in Paris, Pont Alexandre III.
Pont Alexandre III looking upstream
Named after the Russian Tsar, Alexandre III, one of the architects of the Franco-Russian Alliance between the French Third Republic and the Russian Empire, the bridge connects the Champs-Élysées and the Grand and Petit Palais on the right bank with the Hôtel des Invalides on the left bank of the Seine.
Pont Alexandre III was conceived to provide an additional crossing over the Seine to relieve the pressure of the increasing traffic flow across the neighbouring Pont de la Concorde.
The foundation stone of the bridge was laid on 7th October, 1896 by Tsar Nicolas II, son of Alexandre III, construction work began in May 1897 and the bridge was inaugurated on 14th April, 1900 by Emile Loubet, President de la République to coincide with the 1900 Exposition Universelle held in Paris.
Exposition universelle de 1900, Paris. La Seine et le pont Alexandre III.
Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Because of its prestigious location the architects chosen to design the bridge, Joseph Cassien-Bernard and Gaston Cousin, were faced with the challenge of coming up with a structure that prevented the bridge from obscuring the view of both the Champs-Élysées and the Hôtel des Invalides.
In order to achieve this they designed a three-hinged metal arch bridge, 160 metres long and 40 metres wide, comprising a 107 metre single metal arch spanning the river with two masonry viaducts on the banks. To avoid obscuring the view on either side of the bridge the central arch was kept low at just 6 metres above the water level but, in order to achieve this, very large abutments with deep foundations were required on either side. These abutments whose sides run parallel to the axis of the bridge are 33.5 metres long on one side and 44 metres on the other. Both abutments sink approximately 20 metres underground.
Pont Alexandre III looking towards the Left Bank and Les Invalides
They built the abutments using compressed air caissons, the same technique that was used to construct the foundations of the Tour Eiffel and much of the Paris Métro. But what was revolutionary about the construction of Pont Alexandre III was that the metalwork for the bridge was prefabricated. The metal was forged at the Creusot works in Saône-et-Loire in eastern France and then shipped by barge before being mounted into position by a huge crane that spanned the river. This was one of the first examples of prefabrication being used in the construction industry.
An interesting fact not always noticed by users of the bridge is that Pont Alexandre III does not in fact span the Seine in a direct line from the Champs Elysées to Les Invalides, it runs slightly obliquely although most people scarcely notice this.
Pont Alexandre III looking towards the Right Bank and the Grand and Petit Palais
At each corner of Pont Alexandre III are 17 metre high decorated granite columns. These columns are more than just decoration though, they are built on top of the abutments on either side of the river and provide a stabilising counterweight to the bridge’s low-slung metal arch. Each of the columns is topped with a gilt-bronze statue representing a ‘renommée, a Greek goddess personifying an allegorical character of public or social recognition.
The two columns on the Right Bank
On top of the two columns on the Right Bank, the upstream statue is La renommée des arts, by Emmanuel Frémiet, and downstream, La renommée des sciences, also by Emmanuel Frémiet. On top of the Left Bank columns, the upstream statue is La renommée au combat, by Pierre Granet, and downstream, Pégase tenu par la Renommée de la Guerre, by Léopold Steiner.
There is more decoration on the base of the columns. On the Right Bank upstream, La France du Moyen Âge by Alfred-Charles Lenoir, and downstream, La France moderne by Gustave Michel. On the Left bank upstream, La France à la Renaissance by Jules Coutan, and downstream La France sous Louis XIV by Laurent Marqueste.
La France sous Louis XIV by Laurent Marqueste.
Two decorative features in the form of Nymph reliefs in the centre of the bridge on either side signify the Franco-Russian Alliance. On the upstream side, the Nymphes de la Seine avec les armes de Paris, and on the downstream side directly opposite, the Nymphes de la Neva avec les armes de la Russie. Both were made from hammered copper and gilt-bronze by Georges Récipon.
Nymphes de la Seine avec les armes de Paris
One of the features of Pont Alexandre III much beloved by film directors (both Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and the James Bond film A View to a Kill, with Roger Moore as Bond, used the bridge as a backdrop) are the candelabra style Art Nouveau street lamps that line both sides of the bridge.
In my Paris Bridges Project I’m not only looking to explore the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, I’m also trying to seek out the characteristic sounds of each bridge and trying to identify any sounds that might be unique to each bridge.
I began my exploration of the sounds of Pont Alexandre III on top of the bridge. The bridge is 40 metres wide and carries six lanes of traffic, three in either direction. Save for a short stretch of pavé at each end, the roadway has a smooth surface so it seemed that the sounds of the traffic passing would likely be fairly uninspiring. That is until I found an expansion joint crossing the road and it was from here that I chose to record. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that this expansion joint would feature as one of the unique sounds of this bridge – but not from this recording position.
The sounds on Pont Alexandre III:
The expansion joint on the bridge
Next, I wanted to explore the sounds around the bridge and to do that I walked down from the top of the bridge to the Port des Champs-Élysées on the Right Bank where I found boats berthed along the quay.
Pont Alexandre III from Port des Champs-Élysées
I began recording on the upstream side of the bridge where I found three boats berthed together and then I walked under the bridge to the downstream side where there were some larger boats.
I recorded from here on the upstream side of the bridge
The sounds around Pont Alexandre III:
I recorded from here on the downstream side of the bridge
The sounds on the upstream side are particularly unusual because the sound of the mooring ropes straining as the boats shift with the waves sound exactly as if the boats are actually breathing.
On the downstream side it is the sounds of the wash, the sonic footprint left by the passing tourist boats and industrial barges, that feature.
Having now captured the characteristic sounds of the bridge from on it and around it I still hadn’t found any sounds that seemed to be unique to the bridge, sounds that distinguish this bridge from any other Parisian bridge. So I decided to cross the bridge to the quay on the Left Bank and explore underneath the bridge to see what I could find.
I recorded from here under the bridge
The sounds under Pont Alexandre III:
The return of the expansion joint!
From under the bridge I found that the rather mundane expansion joint in the roadway on top of the bridge had now become a significant feature of the soundscape. In the tunnel-like, reverberating, surroundings its sonic texture had changed completely from its clipped tones on the bridge. Now it seemed to be speaking with authority, demanding to be heard above the wash of the water, the river traffic and the passing school children.
I was in no doubt that the soundscape I’d discovered under the bridge was indeed the unique sound of Pont Alexandre III.
Countless people visit this bridge to look at it and to take photographs of it – and why wouldn’t they? It’s extravagant and flamboyant and it’s certainly worth seeing.
But I can’t help wondering if I am the only person who visits this bridge to listen to it!
LOCATED AT THE southern edge of the Bois de Boulogne in the 16th arrondissement, the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil is a botanical garden set within a large greenhouse complex. This garden, along with the Parc de Bagatelle, the Parc floral de Paris, and the Arboretum de l’École du Breuil, make up the Jardin botanique de la Ville de Paris, a collection of four gardens maintained by the city each with their own history and architectural and botanical heritage.
The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil
The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil was created in 1761 under Louis XV. The garden is arranged around a parterre in the traditional French style. Today’s five main greenhouses, designed and constructed between 1895-1898 by the architect Jean-Camille Formigé were constructed around this central area.
Among the botanical collection are many varieties of plants including azaleas, orchids, begonias, cactus, ferns and some carnivorous plants as well as trees of course. There is also a palm house and an aviary with tropical birds.
The Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil may be a relatively peaceful and tranquil oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy city but the impact of urbanisation has left its mark. The building of the Boulevard Periphérique, the Paris ring road, in 1968 and the subsequent development of Porte d’Auteuil reduced the size of the garden by about one-third. The environmental impact of the traffic on the northern side of the garden where the Boulevard Périphérique and the A13 autoroute pass close by is hard to ignore. On the day I went, a grey mist hung in the air from the traffic emissions and the vehicular noise pollution not only pervaded the air but penetrated deep inside the greenhouses.
The Grande Serre
A little respite from the worst of the noise pollution can be found inside the grande serre, the largest of the greenhouses. In here, the unwanted man-made sounds can still be heard but they are overtaken to some extent by the sounds of nature – the sounds of tropical birds.
Sounds inside the grande serre:
Standing under the high domed roof of this huge glass building surrounded by the sounds of tropical birdsong and with over-size fish swimming in the pool at my feet, it was hard to imagine that the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil is again under threat, this time from a neighbour who slumbers peacefully for most of the year but for two weeks at the end of May and the beginning of June each year bursts in raucous life.
The neighbour in question is the Stade Roland Garros, an international tennis complex, home to the Fédération Française de Tennis and to the French Open Tennis Championships. Along with the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, the French Open is one of the four prestigious Grand Slam tennis tournaments that take place each year.
Some time ago, it became clear that the Stade Roland Garros risked losing its place as a Grand Slam venue unless it expanded to better cater for the needs of the tournament’s corporate sponsors. Not wishing to go the same way as the now defunct French Formula 1 Grand Prix, the Fédération Française de Tennis hatched a plan.
Rejecting an option to build a completely new venue outside Paris at Marne-la-Vallee, Gonesse or Versailles, they decided instead to come up with a planned extension to the existing site taking it from the existing 8.5 hectares to 13 hectares.
As you can see from this Google Earth image, the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil and the Stade Roland Garros live cheek by jowl. And yes, you’ve guessed it, the plan calls for an extension to the east into the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil.
The plan is for the centre court, the Philippe Chatrier court, to be given a retractable roof, while another, semi-sunken, court with seating capacity for 5,000 spectators will be built in the south-east part of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil. This will replace the current No.1 Court, which will be demolished to make room for a vast green esplanade spreading over a hectare – the new Place des Mousquetaires. The western side will see the Fonds des Princes having a new lay-out featuring a competition area with seven courts, one of which will have a capacity of 2,200 seats.
To accommodate the new court in the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil the plan is to demolish the existing greenhouses and build new ones around the new tennis court in the same Formigé style.
Local residents associations and supporters of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil of course are opposed to the plan and they’ve come up with an alternative. Instead of the eastward expansion proposed by the Fédération Française de Tennis, they have proposed an expansion across the A13 motorway. Their plan calls for the motorway to be covered and the new 5,000 seat court to be built on top of it so that the motorway passes underneath.
The proposal to redevelop the Stade Roland Garros of course is not new, it was originally announced back in 2011. What is new though is that the Paris City Council, having originally supported the Fédération Française de Tennis proposal, has now put a spanner in the works.
On Wednesday, 18th March, they unanimously adopted a resolution that a further study into the alternative plan should be conducted by an independent organisation, not by the Fédération Française de Tennis, so that the Paris City Council can debate and then vote on it.
So maybe all is not yet quite lost for the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil as we know it today. A notice on the door of one of the greenhouses shows that the fight goes on.
What the future holds for the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil remains to be seen but, although I care about these gardens and think they should be preserved, I’m particularly interested in how the soundscape might change if either proposal goes ahead.
If the decision goes one way and the A13 autoroute is covered we might at least get some amelioration of the vehicular noise pollution that pervades this space throughout the year and that will certainly change the soundscape for the better.
If the decision goes the other way and a semi-sunken tennis court surrounded by 5,000 seats is built in the south-east corner of the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, not only will the landscape change but so will the soundscape. For two weeks of the year the sounds of cheering crowds, the endless grunts of tennis players, the clink of champagne glasses and the sound of cash filling the coffers of the Fédération Française de Tennis will no doubt dominate, but for the other fifty weeks of the year the reshaped landscape will inevitably create a reshaped soundscape.
The existing greenhouses, including the grande serre, will be demolished, to be replaced by copies positioned around the new tennis court, which means that the existing sounds inside today’s grande serre will disappear forever. So it could well be that the sounds I recorded on my visit to the garden the other day will find themselves added to my ever-growing list of the vanishing sounds of Paris.
Whatever the decision, and no doubt a decision will be reached eventually, I shall be there to record the effect of that decision on the soundscape.
But, just in case Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil does disappear, here are some more sights of it as it is today.
HOT ON THE HEELS of the Marche Mondiale des Femmes that took place just over a week ago to mark International Women’s Day, Paris was celebrating women again yesterday this time with Le Carnaval des Femmes.
Organised by L’association Cœurs Sœurs, the Carnaval des Femmes is a revival of the traditional Fête des Reines des Blanchisseuses de la mi-Carême dating back to the eighteenth century. The current president of L’association Cœurs Sœurs, Basile Pachkoff, the man responsible for reviving the Carnaval de Paris, is one of the driving forces behind reviving this historic festival.
An 1880 report prepared by the chambre syndicale des blanchisseurs for the Ministry of the Interior estimated that some 94,000 women and 10,000 men worked in laundries in Paris, either in brick-and-mortar laundries across the city, or in the bateaux-lavoirs – wooden constructions floating on the river. Their ages ranged from about 15 to 60 and they worked 12 to 15 hours a day for a remuneration of between 18 to 35 francs a week.
A laundry on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin
Léon et Lévy (1864-1917). Lavoir sur le canal Saint-Martin. Phototypie. Paris (Xème arr.), vers 1900. Paris, musée Carnavalet. Image courtesy of Paris en Images
It was mainly the women who did the washing and the ironing but although the work may have been long and hard and poorly paid, once a year Paris treated them like royalty.
At mi-Carême, or Mid-Lent, an air of celebration gripped Paris with a hugely popular festival often referred to as une grande fête feminine, or a great female party. And it was the blanchisseurs, the laundresses who took centre-stage.
A Queen was elected from each laundry and during the mi-Carême festival all the Queens paraded through the streets with much fanfare.
The 1874 election of a laundry Queen in a lavoir
La fête des blanchisseuses dans un lavoir du quartier de Plaisance, à Paris, le jeudi de la Mi-Carême 12 mars 1874. Image – Le Monde Illustré
In 1891, the président de la chambre syndicale des maîtres de lavoirs took the initiative to create a committee to bring together all the individual laundry processions in Paris thus giving rise to one large procession and to the Queen of Queens of Paris.
Yvonne Béclu, Queen of Queens, 3 March 1921. Image – l’Agence Rol
Like the Carnaval de Paris, the Fête des Reines des Blanchisseuses de la mi-Carême faded away in the mid-twentieth century but thanks to Basile Pachkoff and others, both have now been revived.
Now in it’s seventh year, the revived Carnaval des Femmes may be a shadow of the huge nineteenth century festival but at least it has been revived and judging by the procession yesterday it certainly contains some of the same enthusiasm and exuberance as its predecessor.
Sounds of the Carnaval des Femmes 2015:
SUNDAY, 8th MARCH was International Women’s Day and a large number of events took place in Paris to mark the day.
To mark la Journée internationale de la femme last year I went to the Marie Curie Museum in the 5th arrondissement where there was an exhibition in the garden of the museum 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. You can see my report about that exhibition here.
To mark the day this year, I thought I would do something completely different!
I arrived in Place de la République on Sunday afternoon to record the sights and sounds of my first manifestation of the year, the Paris contribution to the Marche Mondiale des Femmes 2015.
It was a very lively and good-natured manifestation and although both women and some men took part I decided to mark my contribution to International Women’s Day 2015 by only recording the sounds of the women.
No further words from me can add anything to the words of these women marching through Paris yesterday, they were quite capable of expressing themselves.
Just a word of warning:
So as not to offend anyone, I should point out that there is a rather explicit picture at the end of this blog piece so if you think you might be offended by it then I suggest you just listen to the sounds and don’t scroll down any further.
That said, I’ll simply let the women tell their own story.
The sounds of International Women’s Day 2015 in Paris:
BUILT BETWEEN 1932 AND 1936, La Cité de la Muette, the Silent City, was hailed as one of the most technically advanced social housing projects of its time.
Located in the suburb of Drancy, some 10 km from the centre of Paris, it was designed by the architects Marcel Lods and Eugène Beaudouin as a cite-jardin (a garden city) with a mix of high-rise and low-rise buildings built using a new building technology comprising a steel frame and a system of prefabricated concrete panels. The engineer Eugène Mopin designed the construction system and Jean Prouvé designed the system of metal forms used in the casting of the concrete elements.
The sixteen-story high buildings in La Cité de la Muette were the first American style ‘skyscrapers’ in France.
La Cité de la Muette in the 1930s
La Cité de la Muette in 2015
La Cité de la Muette comprised five sixteen-story towers connecting three and four-story slabs called peignes, or combs, creating long narrow courtyards extending southward from the towers.
At the western end of the complex was a large U-shaped courtyard block opening towards the south. This block was a five-story version of the peignes containing apartments, shops and community spaces along the ground floor with access points around the courtyard. The courtyard was designated for use as playing fields and two schools to the west were part of the overall plan.
Looking into the surviving courtyard block
La Cité de la Muette was designed and built as a community space with moderate income housing, or H.L.M, habitations à loyer moyen. But not long after it was opened its use changed dramatically and tragically.
Image : Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B10919 / Wisch / CC-BY-SA
In 1940, after the defeat of France, the Vichy government led by Maréchal Philippe Pétain, cooperated with Nazi Germany, hunting down foreign and French Jews and turning them over to the Gestapo for transport to the Third Reich’s extermination camps. The U-shaped courtyard block at the western end of La Cité de la Muette was requisitioned and turned into an internment camp – the Camp de Drancy.
Camp de Drancy then …
Camp de Drancy now …
The camp was under the control of the French police until 1943 when the SS took over direct responsibility for it. It was originally intended to hold 700 people, but at its peak it held more than 7,000.
Between June 22, 1942, and July 31, 1944, 67,400 French, Polish, and German Jews, including 6,000 children, were deported from the camp in rail trucks mainly to Auschwitz. Only 1,542 remained alive at the camp when Allied forces liberated it on 17 August 1944.
A rail truck used to transport internees to the extermination camps, now part of the memorial at Camp de Drancy, the ‘Gateway to Auschwitz’
In 1977, the Memorial to the Deportation at Drancy was created by the sculptor Shlomo Selinger to commemorate the French Jews imprisoned in the camp.
Memorial to the Deportation at Drancy by Shlomo Selinger
Sitting in the garden in the centre of the former Camp de Drancy on the last day of February 2015, I recorded the sounds around me; sounds that caused me to reflect upon the countless stories that must have unfolded in this place.
Today’s sounds of the former Camp de Drancy:
Just one of the stories is of seventy internees working in three teams who worked day and night for almost three months digging an escape tunnel. With escape just three metres away the tunnel was discovered and the internees were summarily shot. There is a plaque in their memory that says, “Il manquait 3 metres pour atteindre la liberté!”
The missing 3 metres are under the cobbles leading to the plaque
After the war, the buildings of La Cité de la Muette remained unoccupied for several years until l’Office H.L.M. sold them to the Army in 1973. During this time they were used as barracks and the interiors were further damaged. Shortly afterwards, in May 1976, it was decided to destroy all the buildings except the large courtyard block.
Today, this courtyard block has been renovated and returned to use as housing.
La Cité de la Muette was a brilliantly conceived project that became irrevocably scarred by a heinous occupation. Of the original dwellings, 650 were destroyed in the 1970s leaving only those in the surviving courtyard block to remind us of what La Cité de la Muette was originally intended to be.