ONE OF THE STRANDS in my Paris Soundscapes Archive focuses on the bridges of Paris and their sounds. There are thirty-seven bridges crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits and I’m recording the sounds on, under and around each of these bridges for my archive. From time to time I share the sounds and some of the history of the bridges I’ve explored on this blog.
Taking advantage of the beautiful Indian summer that Paris has enjoyed recently, I’ve been to explore another Parisian bridge, the Pont de Sully.
The Pont de Sully links the 4th arrondissement on the Right Bank of the Seine with the 5th arrondissement of the Left Bank along the line of the Boulevard Henry IV.
Although regarded as one bridge today, the Pont de Sully originally comprised two quite separate bridges, with each meeting on the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis.
Pont de Sully: Linking the Right and Left Banks by crossing the Île Saint-Louis
A royal decree in March 1836 authorised the building of the two original bridges: the Passerelle Damiette linking the Quai des Célestins on the Right Bank to the Quai d’Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis and the Passerelle de Constantine linking the quai de Bethune on the Île Saint-Louis to the quai Saint-Bernard on the Left Bank. Both bridges were suspension bridges built at a cost of 380,000 Francs. This cost was to be recouped by charging tolls. A twenty-year concession to operate both bridges was awarded to a Monsieur de Beaumont.
The Passerelle de Constantine
Neither bridge was to survive for very long.
The Passerelle Damiette was severely damaged in February 1848 during the revolution that resulted in the abdication of Louis-Philippe and the proclamation of the Second Republic and the Passerelle de Constantine collapsed in 1872 after its suspension wires were eaten away by corrosion.
The collapse of the Passerelle de Constantine
Work began on the current Pont de Sully in 1874 as part of the Haussmannian renovation of Paris. Named after the minister to Henry IV, Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully (1560-1641), the Pont de Sully was designed by the engineers Paul Vaudrey and Gustave Brosselin. The bridge was opened in March 1876.
Although it only has one name, today’s cast iron and stone Pont de Sully is in fact two bridges and, like their predecessors, each one rests on the eastern end of the Île Saint-Louis.
Pont de Sully from the Right Bank towards the Île Saint-Louis
The northern, Right Bank section of the bridge comprises a 42 metre cast iron central arch supported by two 15 metre semi-circular masonry arches.
Pont de Sully from the the Île Saint-Louis towards the Left Bank
The southern, Left bank section comprises three cast iron arches of 46 metres, 49metres and 46 metres.
Both the Right and Left Bank sections of the bridge rest on masonry foundations and abutments and the piles rest on concrete poured into bottomless caissons down through the sand and silt to the solid limestone below.
I began my sonic exploration of the Pont de Sully in a rather precarious position under the Right Bank section of the bridge.
Building a sonic portrait of a bridge takes time and usually involves several visits. Just as photographers wait for the light, so it is when hunting for sounds; one is always waiting for just the right atmosphere to capture the moment. On previous visits I had captured the sounds of boats passing under the bridge but always one at a time with long gaps in between and with a gusting wind deflecting the sounds.
On my final visit though the Gods were with me. I took up my position, the conditions were ideal and for the next twenty minutes a flotilla of boats passed me in pretty close formation. It is most unusual for this many boats to pass along la Seine more or less together but it was a case of just being in the right place at the right time I guess.
Pont de Sully – Sounds under the bridge:
Towards the end of the twenty minutes though I was treated to a cops and robbers drama with a police car with its siren wailing passing along the Quai Henry IV above and behind me and a police dinghy speeding under the bridge ahead of me, both heading in the same direction and both obviously intent on spoiling someone’s day!
Separating the two arms of the 256 metre long and 20 metre wide Pont de Sully at the eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis is the Square Barye, a 2,975 m2 espaces verts écologiques, originally opened in 1938. It’s ecological credentials date from 2007. The square is named after the French painter and sculptor, Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875).
The Square Barye
It was from this square that I was able to descend a stone staircase and then, after pausing to admire the Autumn leaves, walk to the south-eastern tip of the Île Saint-Louis, mid-way between the two sections of the bridge and as close to the water as it’s possible to get without getting one’s feet wet. It was from here that I was anxious to collect some more sounds.
While the sounds of passing boats are interesting, what I find even more interesting is the sonic footprint they leave behind. From the very tip of the Île Saint-Louis I was in a perfect place to capture that footprint.
From my vantage point I looked out over la Seine towards the Pont de Bercy and behind it, the low-slung French Finance Ministry building. It is here, between the Pont de Sully and the Pont de Bercy, that the tourist boats end their upstream voyage along the Seine. They approach through the southerly part of the Pont de Sully, turn round in mid-stream and then return through the northerly section of the bridge.
I set up my microphones on the tip of the Île Saint-Louis and began recording.
Sounds of the sonic footprints:
For the first half of this recording you can hear the boats passing upstream on my right and the sound of the gentle waves from their wake arriving at my microphones. The boats then turn ahead of me and begin to travel downstream on my left.
At 6’ 20” into the recording I began to hear a curious repetitive sound, rather like the sound of a steam engine. This was a sound I’d never heard before. I’m very used to recording the sound of the large Bateaux Mouches as they pass but this time, as the boat turned, for a brief moment it headed straight towards me and as it did so it generated this curious sound. The sound disappeared as the boat realigned and aimed for the northern arch of the Pont de Sully, but there was much more to come from the Bateaux Mouches. 8’ 00” into the recording its unmistakeable, dominating sonic footprint began to arrive at my feet and it continued to do so long after the Bateaux Mouches had passed under the bridge.
On my several visits to the Pont de Sully I recorded many more sounds on, under and around the bridge, but the sounds I’ve featured here, the sounds of a flotilla of boats passing under the northern arch and the sounds of the sonic footprints at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis, seem to me to be the best sounds to describe this Parisian bridge.
FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to a bridge in the centre of Paris adjacent to the Palais du Louvre, the Pont du Carrousel.
Connecting the Quai des Tuileries on the Right Bank to the Quai Voltaire on the Left Bank the reinforced concrete bridge we see today is the second bridge to bear the name Pont du Carrousel.
Pont du Carrousel looking upstream
Construction of the first bridge, originally called Pont des Saints-Pères, began in 1831. With the work completed the bridge was inaugurated in 1834 by King Louis-Philippe. It was renamed Pont du Carrousel because on the Right Bank it faced the Palais du Louvre near to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Place du Carrousel, a public square located at the open end of the courtyard of the Palais du Louvre.
The Place du Carrousel was the site of the Palais des Tuileries, the Parisian residence of most French monarchs from Henry IV to Napoleon III until it was burnt down during the Paris Commune in 1871.
The name, Place du Carrousel, dates back to 1662 when Louis XIV used this space for equine displays of military dressage known as a carrousel, which is why many of today’s fairground carousels still feature horses.
On a more gruesome note, during the French Revolution Place du Carrousel was one of the homes to Madame Guillotine. From 21st August 1792 until 11th May 1793, with two short interruptions, thirty-five people were guillotined in Place du Carrousel.
Pont du Carrousel looking downstream
The first Pont du Carrousel, built on an axis connecting the Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare railway stations, was the creation of the French engineer, Antoine-Rémy Polonceau. In the 1830s many Parisian bridges were suspension bridges but in such a prestigious location the use of the towers and cables associated with a suspension bridge was unacceptable and so Polonceau designed a 169 metre long and 11.5 metre wide three-arched bridge made of iron and wood.
At each corner of the bridge he erected classic style stone allegorical sculptures by Louis Petitot representing Industry, Abundance, The City of Paris and The Seine.
By the turn of the century the Pont du Carrousel was showing its age. Seven decades of continuous use meant that a major restoration was required. In 1906 the wooden elements, including the wooden deck, were replaced with beaten iron but this was not enough to secure the long-term survival of the bridge. As the twentieth century progressed it became clear that the Pont du Carrousel was too narrow to cope with the increasing flow of traffic over the bridge and too shallow for the larger river traffic to pass underneath it and so drastic action was required.
In 1930 it was decided to scrap the first Pont du Carrousel and to build a completely new bridge a little further downstream opposite the gates to the Louvre.
The task of designing the new bridge fell to the French architects Gustave Umbdenstock and Georges Tourry and the French engineers Henri Lang and Jacques Morane. A draft design was presented in 1932, the work was authorised by a decree of the State Council of 26 August 1933 and the final green light to proceed was given on May 23, 1935.
The new bridge retained the three-arch design of the first bridge but this time it was made from reinforced concrete.
Apart from the original allegorical sculptures by Louis Petitot which were retained, perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the new bridge are the réverbères télescopiques, the Raymond Subes designed telescopic lamps that adorn the bridge.
A graduate of l’École Boulle and l’École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs, Raymond Subes was one of most celebrated French artists specialising in wrought iron during the Art Deco period. His lighting for the bridge, set up in 1946, comprised an ingenious system of telescopic lamps rising from 13 metres in the daytime to 20 metres at night. Unfortunately, the telescopic mechanism broke down shortly after commissioning but it was successfully restored in 1999.
The Palais du Louvre from on the Pont du Carrousel
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.
My exploration of the sounds of the Pont du Carrousel began on the bridge.
Sounds on the Pont du Carrousel:
The view from my recording position on the Pont du Carrousel looking downstream
It is sometimes said that the sound of traffic exists only to blight the work of the urban field recordist and after years of recording urban soundscapes in Paris I have some sympathy with that view. But I also recognise that the sound of traffic is an integral part of every city soundscape so it would be disingenuous if my exploration of the Pont du Carrousel did not feature the sounds of the traffic passing over it. After all, the sounds of the traffic passing over the pavé on this bridge are as much a part of the fabric of the bridge as the reinforced concrete it’s made from.
After recording the sounds on the bridge I went to explore the sounds under it. An archway on the Right Bank led me under the bridge from where I found a position from which to record.
Sounds under the Pont du Carrousel:
My recording position under the Pont du Carrousel
From here I was not only able to capture the characteristic sounds under the bridge, the tourist boats passing along la Seine and the sounds of people passing under the bridge, but also the sounds of a creaking pontoon permanently tethered to the quai alongside the bridge – the unique sounds of the Pont du Carrousel.
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!
FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to one of the oldest surviving bridges in Paris, the Pont Marie.
The Pont Marie is one of six bridges connecting the Île Saint-Louis to the Right and Left Banks of the Seine. It stretches for 92 metres across the river from Rue des Deux Ponts at the junction of the Quai d’Anjou and the Quai de Bourbon on the Île Saint-Louis to Rue des Nonnains-d’Hyères at the junction of the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville the Quai des Célestins on the Right Bank.
Pont Marie – Looking Upstream
One might be forgiven for thinking that with a name like Pont Marie this bridge might have been named after a glamorous French Queen – but it was not. Instead, it was named after Christophe Marie, the French engineer and entrepreneur who designed it and supervised its construction.
Pont Marie and its acute-angled ‘ice aprons’
The Pont Marie we see today is the second oldest surviving bridge to cross the Seine within the Paris city limits, the oldest being the Pont Neuf which lies further downstream.
Conceived at the beginning of the seventeenth-century, the Pont Marie was part of a speculative development plan for the then vacant Île Saint-Louis. The plan called for two bridges to be built, the Pont Marie, connecting the island to the Right Bank of the Seine and the Pont de la Tournelle connecting to the Left Bank. The Pont Marie was to be built first and it would include rows of houses and shops on the top of the bridge. King Henry IV gave his consent to the plan in 1610 and the Paris City authorities also gave their approval, presumably because this was to be a privately financed venture.
Christophe Marie was granted permission to buy two parcels of land at either end of the proposed bridge at a preferential rate and the following year he was joined by two financiers, L. Pulletier and F. Le Regrattier, who sponsored the building materials and so, in 1614, work began. However, the project soon became mired in difficulties. When the legitimate owner of the Île Saint-Louis, the Chapter of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, objected because they had not been informed beforehand they were bought off with an annual revenue of 1200 Livres but even so, recurring financial difficulties plagued the project. The royal secretary, Jean de la Grange, was obliged to take over the financing from 1623 to 1627 when Christophe Marie again took over responsibility. The bridge was eventually completed in 1630 and opened to traffic in 1635.
The Pont Marie comprises five semicircular arches separated by piers each of which are protected on both the downstream and upstream sides by acute-angled ice-aprons, wedge-shaped structures which protect each pier from floating ice. The four piers are decorated with 1,10 m wide niches, the height varying with the rise of the bridge and none of which, perhaps a little surprisingly, have ever contained statues.
The plans for the Pont Marie included the building of two rows of houses and shops on top of the bridge and extending along the Quai des Ormes, now the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville. Christophe Marie and his partners left the project in 1643 by which time a large part of this work had been completed. On 10th June, 1643, the master carpenter Claude Dublet, along with Denis Hébert and Louis Le Vau, later architect to the king, took over the work and built forty-six further bridge houses at a cost of 172 000 Livres each. Most of the buildings were completed by 1647 and occupied by 1652.
But tragedy was just around the corner.
On the night of 1st March 1658, the river Seine flooded and the force of the water swept away two of the arches of the Pont Marie on the Île Saint-Louis side destroying twenty houses at a cost of sixty lives.
Two years later, a temporary wooden bridge was constructed to restore the link from the Île Saint-Louis to the Right Bank of the Seine. This was a toll bridge and the funds collected were used to reconstruct the stone bridge. The work was completed in 1670 but the lost houses were not replaced.
Pont Marie in 1760 looking downstream. The damaged part of the bridge has been reconstructed but a gap remains where the destroyed houses once stood. Image via Wikipedia
All the bridge houses on the Pont Marie, and on all the other bridges in Paris, were finally demolished following an edict of 1786, just before the French Revolution.
The bridge underwent some restoration work in 1851, including flattening the rise a little in the centre of the bridge but without changing its overall appearance, so the Pont Marie we see today is the original 1635 bridge with the 1670 rebuilt section on the Île Saint-Louis side, minus the houses of course.
My Paris Bridges Project is not only about exploring the history of all the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, it’s also about seeking out and capturing the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
Before I went to the Pont Marie to explore its characteristic sounds I happened to come across this photograph of two men fishing under the bridge on the Île Saint-Louis side in 1942.
Under the Pont Marie in 1942 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images
Since I wanted to capture today’s sounds under the bridge on both sides of the river, I thought a good place to start would be on the Île Saint-Louis side in the same place as the fishermen were in 1942. Unlike then, it’s now possible to pass under the bridge at this point with or without the aid of a boat.
And these were the sounds I found …
Sounds Under the Pont Marie on the Île Saint-Louis side:
Today, the sound of passing river traffic is present at all the bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. And so it must have been for our fishermen in 1942, although I don’t know whether or not the boats of the Compagnie des Bateaux Mouches (as shown above) that have plied la Seine since 1917, were actually doing so under the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1942. The sound of the water lapping under the bridge though would have been very familiar I’m sure.
Voie Georges Pompidou from on the Pont Marie
Having captured the sounds from under the bridge on the Île Saint-Louis side I wanted to explore what sounds I might find under the bridge on the other side of the river. I climbed up onto the bridge and crossed over towards the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville. As I looked over the bridge on the downstream side I could see what was in store.
The Voie Georges Pompidou runs under the last arch of the Pont Marie on the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville side complete with its seemingly never-ending stream of traffic.
Georges Pompidou was the French Prime Minister from 1962 to 1968 and then President of France from 1969 until his death in 1974. He was a lover of the automobile and he argued that a freeway should replace the grass-covered banks of the Seine by saying: “les Français aiment leurs bagnoles” (the French love their motors).
On March 27, 1966, the decision was made that the existing roadways along the Seine should be connected to create a continuous expressway along the banks of the river through the centre of Paris. The Voie Georges Pompidou (George Pompidou Expressway) was completed in 1967, and runs along the right bank of the Seine for 13 kilometres from the Porte du Point-du-Jour in the south-west to the Porte de Bercy in the south-east.
Fortunately, there was only room on the riverbank for a two-lane expressway. Pompidou actually wanted to cover the Seine with concrete to create room for an even wider expressway but the environmental movement and others managed to put a brake on that and any further freeway expansion in Paris.
Voie Georges Pompidou from under the Pont Marie
And so the sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou under the Pont Marie surely deserve a place in history since they are one example of several modernising legacies that Georges Pompidou left to the city.
Sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou under the Pont Marie:
Leaving the sounds of the Voie Georges Pompidou behind, I climbed back up onto the Pont Marie to see what the characteristic sounds on the bridge might be.
On the Pont Marie
Researching the archives before my visit I found another photograph of the Pont Marie, this one taken in 1900 showing the bridge from above, and so I decided to use a landmark from this photograph from which to record the contemporary sounds on the bridge.
On the Pont Marie in 1900 – Image courtesy of Paris en Images
I selected the second lamppost on the downstream side towards the centre of the bridge, the one with the man passing on a bicycle. And this is what I heard …
Sounds on the Pont Marie:
These sounds tell us that the Pont Marie has its fair share of traffic on the bridge as well as under it although it sounds much less aggressive from above. For me, the pavé on the bridge seems to add a texture to the sound of the traffic that makes it almost appealing.
On the Pont Marie looking downstream
I wonder what the people on the bridge in the 1900 photograph would have made of these sounds? Of course, there were motorcars in Paris in 1900. Maybe they would have seen and heard the occasional de Dion Bouton Voiturette or a Renault Voiturette 1CV passing and looked upon them quizzically and wondered if this was ‘progress’. I doubt though that they could have begun to imagine Georges Pompidou’s ‘racetrack’ under the far end of the bridge. I was particularly pleased to capture the sounds, if only fleetingly, of two or three bicycles passing. I suspect that the man cycling past the lamppost in the photograph would have felt at home with these sounds, if with little else.
The Pont Marie looking downstream
As I was recording the contemporary sounds of the Pont Marie, I couldn’t help contemplating the long history of this bridge and imagining what the sounds on, under and around it would have been like in 1635 when it was opened, almost four hundred years ago. Or in 1658, when a raging torrent ripped the bridge apart, or in 1900, a little over a hundred years ago, when a man on a bicycle and a family with a handcart were calmly crossing the bridge. Inevitably, my thoughts turned to wondering how much the sounds of this bridge will change in the next hundred or even four hundred years.
WHEN IT WAS BUILT in 1885, this pont levant, or lifting bridge, was at the cutting edge of technology. With its mechanism hidden in the sewers below and using pressurised water from the Paris drinking water system to power it, this was the first hydraulically operated bridge in Paris.
The Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée crosses the junction of the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement and it’s the fifth bridge to stand here.
The first bridge was built in 1808 upon the completion of the Bassin de la Villette and it was a wooden pont à double bascule, a double-leaf bridge with a deck composed of two spans joining each other in the middle of the bridge and pivoting around a vertical axle at each abutment. During the Second Empire this bridge was replaced with another wooden bridge, this time a drawbridge. The third bridge, also in wood came to an ignominious end when it, together with two of the warehouses alongside it belonging to the Entrepôts et Magasins Généraux de Paris, were burnt down during the Paris Commune of 1871. This bridge was replaced by a pont tournant, a metal swing bridge.
Some twelve years later, the creation of a new road, rue de Crimée, together with the widening of the channel connecting the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Bassin de la Villette, meant that the swing bridge had to be replaced and the option of a lifting bridge was adopted. This is the bridge we see today and it was opened on 2nd August, 1885.
This bridge worked continuously from 1885 until 2010 by which time it was beginning to show its age. Towards the end of 2010, the bridge was temporarily closed for a much-needed makeover to make it more economical to operate, more environmentally friendly and safer.
The steel deck was suffering from corrosion so it was replaced. The hydraulic system, which was buried in the sewers and had leather joints that were constantly leaking, was modernised so that it no longer depended on the Paris drinking water system for its operation. The moving parts of the bridge were completely refurbished, the sidewalks widened and a cycle lane was incorporated.
Great pains were taken though to ensure that modernising the bridge didn’t detract from its historical significance, it is after all an official monument historique.
I went to the Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée to see and listen to it in action.
Pont Levant de la Rue de Crimée in action:
The movement of this bridge is controlled remotely from the control room of L’Ecluse du Pont de Flandre, the first lock on the Canal Saint-Denis, which is a considerable distance away and completely out of sight of the bridge.
The first indication that the bridge is about to embark upon a lifting cycle is when the signs at each end of the bridge indicate ‘Pont en Manoeuvre’. A beeping sound then indicates that the two arms of each gate at either side of the bridge are about to close. The gates close one arm at a time so that those caught on the bridge have time to escape before the lifting cycle begins.
Once the bridge is clear of traffic and pedestrians and the gates are closed, a gentle thudding sound is heard as the bridge separates from the roadway and begins it journey upwards.
Since the overhaul of the hydraulic system the operation of the bridge is very smooth. Two hydraulic rams, one under each end of the bridge, push it upwards and then lower it once the lift is completed. Four metal cables gliding over the wheels mounted on iron pillars above the bridge, two at each end, help to support the bridge during the cycle.
There are no spectacular sounds from the bridge itself during the cycle, just a slight groan as it begins to lift, a gentle purring of the hydraulics during the lift, a gentle thud as it begins its descent, more purring as it comes back down and a final sigh of relief as it nestles back into position joining the roadway.
And, of course, the reason for all this is to allow the canal traffic to pass to and from the Bassin de la Villette.
The length of time the bridge stays aloft depends on how much canal traffic needs to pass. During this particular cycle a Canauxrama tourist boat passed followed by these guys …
Once the canal traffic has passed the bridge is lowered and locked into place, the gates open and the pedestrians, the cyclists and the traffic can resume their passage along Rue de Crimée.
I think there’s something really fascinating about bridges that actually move and so I stayed around to watch and listen to this one manoeuvre through several more of the 9,000 or so lifting cycles it completes every year.
FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to the Pont au Double in the heart of Paris close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
The Pont au Double is 45 metres long and 20 metres wide and it links the 4th and 5th arrondissements of Paris from the Île de la Cité to the quai de Montebello.
Work began on the first bridge to cross la Seine at this point in 1626. Designed by the French architect, Christophe Gamard, the bridge was deemed necessary as part of the development of the Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris.
The Hôtel Dieu today seen from the northern end of the Pont au Double
Originally, the Hôtel Dieu was situated on the opposite side of the parvis Notre-Dame (the square now known as Place Jean-Paul II) from where it stands today. Then it was next to la Seine but during the Middle Ages the hospital had grown in an unplanned and rather chaotic way. By the early part of the seventeenth-century the Hôtel Dieu was grossly overcrowded, often with four patients to a bed, and in order to provide more space a part of the Hôtel Dieu had spilled over la Seine to occupy a parcel of land on the Left Bank. The new bridge was seen as a way of connecting the two parts of the hospital.
The bridge was completed in 1634. It was a stone bridge on to which a two-story building was constructed which was used as extra hospital wards for the Hôtel Dieu. This building occupied almost two-thirds of the width of the bridge. It was decided that the remaining one-third should be open for public use for which a toll was levied. The proceeds from this toll were used to pay for the bridge. The toll to cross the bridge was a ‘double denier’, a denier being a medieval coin taking its name from the Frankish coin first issued (as the denarius) in the late seventh century. In English it is sometimes referred to as a silver penny. It was from this ‘double denier’ toll that the bridge took its name, the Pont au Double.
In 1709, the original bridge collapsed and it was replaced with a new bridge, which survived until 1847. The Pont au Double we see today was opened in 1883 as a one arch cast-iron bridge designed by Henri-Prosper Bernard and Jules Lax.
The other day, I went to explore the Pont au Double and I began by seeing what I could find under the bridge.
The first thing I discovered was that this is one of the embarkation points for the Bateaux Parisiens, one of the many tourist boats that ply la Seine. And it is the sounds of tourist and other boats passing that dominate the soundscape under the bridge.
Pont au Change – Under the Bridge:
I was also reminded of two pieces of history as I was exploring the underside of the bridge.
These steps leading down to the quai de Montebello reminded me that in the seventeenth century steps like these also emerged from the bridge onto the quay and la Seine. It was from here that the nuns from the Hôtel Dieu used to spend up to nine hours a day doing their washing and that of the sick and infirm from the hospital above. I was also reminded that in the seventeenth century this would have been rather an obnoxious place to be since the hospital poured its waste directly into the Seine around here.
The plaque in the wall bearing the legend ‘1910’ reminded me that this was the height to which the Seine reached in the Great Flood of Paris in January 1910. Although the water threatened to overflow the tops of the quay walls that line the river, workmen were able to keep the Seine back with hastily built levees.
Having explored underneath the bridge, I climbed up the steps from the quai de Montebello to explore the bridge from above. From here it is hard to imagine that in the seventeenth century hospital wards belonging to the Hôtel Dieu would have occupied two-thirds of this bridge, on the left-hand side.
Today, the Pont au Double is a thoroughfare for tourists heading to or from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. These days, no toll is required to cross the bridge but a pourboire, or a tip, is always appreciated by the street musicians who can often be found on the bridge.
Pont au Double – On 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.
The soundscape under the Pont au Double with the sounds of tourist and other boats passing was fairly predictable but I found the soundscape on the bridge really quite interesting.
The young lady pictured above wearing her tap shoes and playing her ukulele together with the accordionist, who was reluctant to be photographed, gave a colourful perspective to the soundscape but it was the sounds at the beginning and at the end of my exploration on top of the bridge that really fascinated me.
At the northern end of the Pont au Double is the Square Jean XXIII, a park named after Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, Papal Nuncio in France from 1945 to 1953, who subsequently became Pope Jean XXIII. I began and ended my exploration on top of the Pont au Double here and it was here that I found two very similar but contrasting sounds. The chorus of the tourist’s voices, mostly Chinese (or were they Japanese?) outside the park at the outset seemed to contrast beautifully with the chorus of the birds hidden in the foliage in the park at the end of my walk across the bridge.
The sounds of the boats passing under the bridge, the sounds of the street musicians and the sounds of the tourists on the bridge are certainly characteristic sounds of the Pont au Double but they are transient sounds, they come and go, they vary day by day and similar sounds can be heard on and around several other Parisian bridges.
For me, it is the sounds of the birds that are the unique sounds of the Pont au Double.
FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to the Passerelle Debilly, a stone’s throw from the Tour Eiffel and one of the four “passerelles piétonnières”, or footbridges, to cross la Seine within the Paris city limits.
Like some of the other bridges in this part of Paris, the Paserelle Debilly owes its existence to one of the great Expositions Universelles, or World’s Fairs, held on and around the Champs de Mars in the late nineteenth-century. Built as a footbridge for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly was originally positioned to connect the Army and the Navy exhibition halls on one side of the river with the Old Paris halls on the other.
Exposition Universelle 1900 – Passerelle Debilly and the Armées de Terre et de Mer Exhibition Hall.
The Passerelle Debilly was designed by three French engineers Jean Résal, Amédée Alby and André-Louis Lion. Jean Résal held the position of Ingénieur en chef des ponts et chausses, a prestigious civil engineering post dating back to the seventeenth-century and an especially important post during the late nineteenth-century redevelopment of Paris. Résal was a pioneer of building metallic bridges in the late nineteenth-century and his work includes as well as the Passerelle Debilly, the Pont Mirabeau, the Pont de Bercy, the Pont Notre-Dame and the magnificent Pont Alexandre III.
The construction work for the Passerelle Debilly was undertaken by the firm of Daydé et Pillé, specialists in metallic construction who also constructed several other bridges in Paris.
Passerelle Debilly From Downstream
The construction work was completed and the Passerelle Debilly was opened on 13th April 1900. To begin with the name of the footbridge was ambiguous, it was called both the Passerelle de l’Exposition Militaire and the Passerelle de Magdebourg. It was only later that it was formally designated as the Passerelle Debilly, after General Jean Louis Debilly who was killed in the Battle of Jena (La bataille d’Iéna in French) in 1806.
The bridge of course was designed as a temporary structure to serve visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universelle. But in 1903, after the Exposition had been deconstructed, the bridge was taken over by the City of Paris and it became a permanent fixture but not before it was moved some two hundred metres upstream opposite the rue de la Manutention, closer to the Pont d’Alma and further away from the Pont d’Iena, the bridge named after the battle in which Jean Louis Debilly died.
Tour Eiffel from under the Passerelle Debilly
The Passerelle Debilly we see today is the original bridge save for several new coats of paint and the addition of the tropical hardwood walkway. It’s 120 metres long and 8 metres wide and it stretches from the Quai de New York on the Right Bank to the Quai Branly on the Left Bank. The bridge comprises three spans anchored on stone piers with the central span forming an arch with an intermediate deck of 75 metres and two half-arch end spans of 22.50 metres.
Passerelle Debilly anchored into one of the stone piers
At either end of the Passerelle Debilly are columns decorated with dark green ceramic tiles giving the impression of waves made by the French ceramic company, Gentil et Bourdet.
Having successfully survived its temporary status after the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly came under threat again in 1941 when the Président of the Architectural Society no less characterised it as an “accessoire oublié d’une fête passée”, a forgotten accessory of a past event. But the Passerelle Debilly snubbed its nose at this intervention and survived to become listed in the supplementary registry of historical monuments in 1966.
Regular readers will know that I have embarked upon a Paris Bridges Project; a project to explore all the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. My exploration includes not only researching the history of each bridge but also seeking out the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
On my visit to the Passerelle Debilly I began by recording the sounds under the bridge on the Quai de New York side. I sat on a metal rail, as far under the bridge as I could get, with the metal frame of the bridge and the wooden walkway above my head and began to record.
Sounds under the Passerelle Debilly:
The sounds of boats passing each leaving their sonic footprint in the form of waves lapping on the edge of the quay, a boat moored to my left creaking as if held prisoner and crying out for some means of escape, a sonic glimpse of a tourist guide over the public address system on a passing tourist boat, the testosterone-fuelled sounds of a passing motor-cycle, half-heard conversations of teenagers, and the occasional, almost imperceptible, footsteps echoing from the tropical hardwood floor of the bridge above seemed to be the characteristic sounds from under the Passerelle Debilly.
But the characteristic sounds of any place are as varied as the places you listen from and so I decided to venture up onto the bridge to see what I could find.
Standing on the bridge, I set up my microphones on the downstream side of the bridge pointing upstream across the broad swathe of tropical hardwood lining the floor of the bridge, something those walking across the bridge in 1900 would not have found. From this position I was able to record everyday life passing by.
I found three distinctive sets of sounds on the bridge.
Sounds on the Passerelle Debilly:
Not surprisingly, the sounds of footsteps on the wooden floor on the bridge were much clearer than the muffled sounds of footsteps I’d heard earlier from under it. It was interesting to observe the variety of shoes that passed by, not something I would usually take an interest in, but I became quite expert in recognising which shoes would make an interesting sound and which would not. The repetitive sounds of tourist boats passing underneath the bridge were ever present of course but it was the snatches of half-heard conversations in a variety of languages that I found really fascinating. Who were these people, what had brought them to this place and what stories had they to tell?
One distinctive sound that I might have expected was conspicuous by its absence – the sound of vehicular traffic. Save for the inevitable screeching motorcycle in the distance, from the centre of the bridge the sound of traffic was almost imperceptible – a rare thing in Paris.
While the sounds of vehicular traffic were pretty much absent from the centre of the bridge, the sounds of the river traffic were certainly present. I’d heard the sounds of the boats passing from under the bridge and from on the bridge but, since there was so much river traffic at the time I was there and since the sounds of the boats filled the air, I thought I would try to listen to them from a different perspective. I changed my microphones for a pair of tiny lavalier microphones, the same as TV newsreaders wear, which I lowered down from the edge of the bridge so that they were hanging midway between the bridge and the water.
Sounds of the passing boats from between the bridge and the water:
From this perspective I still caught some of the sounds emanating from on the bridge (the microphones were omni-directional) but I was able to capture the sounds of the boats passing underneath with a clarity that would not have been possible from on the bridge. Listening through my headphones I heard snatches of conversation from on the boats often before the boats had actually emerged from under the bridge and most surprisingly, I heard the sound of music from a boat berthed on the Quai Branly which was quite inaudible from my previous recording position on the bridge.
One of the things I’m trying to do in my Paris Bridges Project is to not only discover the characteristic sounds of each bridge but also to try to seek out the sounds that might be unique to each bridge. Finding the unique sounds can be quite a challenge because the sounds are often not immediately obvious and sometimes they can be almost imperceptible to the casual listener.
At the Quai Branly side of the Passerelle Debilly is the Port de la Bourdonnais, a place where some of the large restaurant boats that ply la Seine are berthed. The bridge runs over the top of the port with steps leading down to the quay. Under the bridge, beyond the steps, is a wall behind which run two railway lines of RER Line ‘C’. It seemed to me that the sounds of an RER railway line running under the Passerelle Debilly could be the unique sounds of the bridge that I was looking for so I stood under the bridge, listening and waiting.
Presently, I heard the very faint sounds of a train passing behind the wall, sounds too faint to capture without the aid of contact microphones (microphones designed to pick up sounds from solid objects) but the sounds were definitely there. Since I wanted to capture these sounds but I didn’t have my contact microphones with me I resorted to ‘Plan B’.
From where I was standing, the rail lines were completely hidden from view but a few steps further along the Port de la Bourdonnais metal grills appear in the wall.
I approached one of the metal grills and discovered that it was just, but only just, high enough for me to reach and so with the dexterity of a cat burglar I managed to get my tiny lavalier microphones through the grill and lower them down the other side. I waited to see what would happen.
Sounds of RER Line ‘C’ passing under the bridge:
Standing at the end of two wires protruding from a hole in the wall attracted more attention from the passing tourists than I’d bargained for but I pressed on regardless and I was pleased with the results.
I was struck by the near silence in the tunnel between the trains despite the everyday sounds around me on the outside of the wall. The only time this silence was disturbed was when a very large tourist bus passed behind me, rather too close I thought.
For me at least, these were the unique sounds of the Passerelle Debilly.
Located as it is close to the Tour Eiffel and the site of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly is well used to hosting visitors.
In 1900 visitors came to witness the latest in architecture, machines and inventions including such things as the new Art Nouveau, the Grande Roue de Paris Ferris wheel, Russian nesting dolls, diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone, the first magnetic audio recorder. Today, visitors still come to experience what Paris has to offer and a good number of the visitors, now as then, will pass over the Passerelle Debilly.
But there was a time when the Passerelle Debilly was more than just a passing attraction for tourists.
For those of us of a certain age and for whom memories of the Cold War are still vivid, the Passerelle Debilly, when viewed from a certain angle and in a certain light, has a rather sinister look to it. It’s perhaps not surprising then to discover that the Passerelle Debilly was a meeting place for spies and particularly secret agents of the former East Germany. In 1989, a German diplomat working for the Secret Service of the Democratic Republic of Germany was found dead on this footbridge several days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Knowing that gave me a whole new perspective on the Passerelle Debilly – The Bridge of Spies!
MORE RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges project took me recently to one of the iconic bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
Linking the 15th and 16th arrondissements and crossing the artificial island, the Île aux Cygnes in the middle of la Seine, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim crosses the river just downstream from the Tour Eiffel.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim looking downstream
The Pont de Bir-Hakeim we see today is the second bridge to cross la Seine at this point. The first was a metal footbridge, the Passerelle de Passy, which was built for the 1878 Universal Exposition. When Paris hosted the Universal Exposition in 1900 it was decided to draw up plans to replace the existing footbridge with something more substantial.
In 1902, the Métropolitan railway and the Seine Navigation department organised a competition for a two-tier bridge, with a road bridge on the lower level comprising two lateral roadways separated by a central walkway and, on the upper level, a Métropolitan railway viaduct supported by metal columns resting on the central space.
A proposal by the French engineer, Louis Biette, was accepted and the firm, Daydé & Pillé, were charged with constructing the new bridge. Construction work began in 1903 and was completed in 1905. The new bridge, the bridge we see today, was called the Viaduc de Passy, reflecting the name of both the original footbridge and the commune of Passy which is located at the Right Bank end of the bridge.
The monumental stone arch across the tip of the Île aux Cygnes
The Pont de Bir-Hakeim comprises two unequal metal structures, each comprising three cantilever spans separated by a monumental stone structure on the upstream tip of the Île aux Cygnes. The larger of the two structures connects to the Right Bank and its arches measure 30 metres, 54 metres and 30 metres and for the smaller structure connecting to the Left bank, the arches measure 24 metres, 42 metres and 24 metres. The two structures are anchored by an abutment at each end and by a common abutment on the Île aux Cygnes.
The larger of the two sections of the bridge looking upstream
The smaller of the two sections of the bridge looking upstream
The lower level of the bridge comprises two roadways each 6 metres wide, two pavements each 2 metres wide and a central walkway 8.7 metres wide, which also doubles up as two cycle lanes. The total length of the bridge is 237 metres.
The upper deck carrying Métro Line 6 comprises a metal deck supported by cast-iron pillars 6 metres apart. The upper deck is 7.3 metres wide.
A Paris municipal architect, Jean Camille Formigé, was responsible for the decoration of the bridge. He engaged three sculptors, Gustave Michel, Jules-Felix Coutan, and Jean Antoine Injalbert to create sculptures to adorn the bridge.
‘Les forgerons-riveteurs’ by Gustave Michel
The bridge retained the name ‘Viaduc de Passy’ until 1948 when it was renamed to commemorate the Battle of Bir Hakeim, fought by Free French forces against the German Afrika Korps in 1942.
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 exploring the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
Since one of the characteristic features of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim is the viaduct carrying Métro Line 6 on the upper level of the bridge, the sounds of Métro trains crossing the viaduct are clearly one of the characteristic sounds of the bridge and so I went to investigate.
My exploration began at the Métro station Passy at the Right Bank end of the bridge from where I caught a Métro train and made the short journey across the bridge to the next station, Bir-Hakeim.
From Passy to Bir-Hakeim:
Another characteristic feature of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim is the spectacular view of the Tour Eiffel from the bridge and especially from a Métro train crossing the viaduct. Even on the dullest of days the view is quite special.
Tour Eiffel from a Métro train crossing the viaduct
And when standing on the bridge the view is equally impressive.
Tour Eiffel from on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim
Having crossed the viaduct I alighted at Bir-Hakeim station from where I could get an excellent view of the Métro line crossing the viaduct.
Métro Line 6 crossing the viaduct on Pont de Bir-Hakeim
Next, I wanted to explore the sounds on the lower level of the bridge. I walked across the bridge on the central walkway underneath the viaduct from the Right Bank to the Left Bank listening carefully to the sounds around me. I then walked back in the opposite direction this time not only pausing to listen but also to record.
Sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim on the bridge:
I discovered two characteristic sounds on the bridge – the sounds of the Métro passing overhead and of course, the sounds of the passing traffic.
I found the sounds of the traffic to be different here to that found on some of the other Parisian bridges. Traffic lights at both ends of the bridge regulate the flow and so the traffic passes in waves rather than in a constant stream and the bridge is also long enough to avoid endless queues of traffic backing up across the bridge, at least for most of the time. In addition, the very smooth road surface together with the large expanse of open space either side of the bridge along its length seems to help dampen the more aggressive sounds of the traffic.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim – On the bridge underneath the viaduct
The sounds of the Métro passing overhead were interesting. As the Métro line approaches the stations at either end of the bridge, Passy on one side and Bir-Hakeim on the other, the sounds of the trains passing over the viaduct are much clearer than they are around the centre of the bridge. The reason for this could be that there are buildings close to both ends of the bridge that reflect and thus amplify the sounds whereas the expanse of open space on either side of the bridge in the centre helps to dissipate the sounds.
Pont de Bir-Hakeim looking across towards Passy from the upstream tip of the Île aux Cygnes
As well as recording the sounds of the traffic and the Métro crossing the bridge, both of which are clearly characteristic sounds of the bridge, I was eager to see if I could find any sounds that might be unique to the bridge.
On the hunt for any such sounds I walked back and forth across the bridge several times and even went under the bridge but, after much very careful listening, none of the sounds I heard seemed to strike me as being unique to this bridge. After all, this is not the only Parisian bridge to carry a roadway with traffic and a viaduct for the Métro. As part of my Paris Bridges project I published a piece on this blog some time ago about the Pont de Bercy, which although made of stone, is functionally similar to the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
While the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the Métro are characteristic sounds of both these bridges I wanted to see if there was any sound on or around the Pont de Bir-Hakeim that would distinguish it from its upstream cousin.
My experience of hunting for sounds in the urban environment has taught me that patience is a virtue and that if you search hard enough and wait long enough something almost always turns up.
Seeking somewhere to sit down after all the walking I’d done, I ventured down the steps beside the bridge to the Allée des Cygnes, the pathway that runs along the length of the Île aux Cygnes. A bench hove into view and I sat down and pondered where I might go next to search out the sounds I was seeking.
I sat there for almost twenty minutes before I decided that it was time to get up and leave. And then, quite suddenly, I found that I didn’t have to go and search for more sounds after all — instead, the sounds were coming to me!
Emerging from under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim from the upstream side was a Bateaux Mouches, the largest of the tourist boats to ply la Seine. Tourist boats ply la Seine all the time and the sound of them passing under the bridges is quite normal and hardly unique – or is it?
Well, the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches passing under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim are, believe it or not, unique to this bridge. But why should that be?
The answer is that the route for most of the tourist boats, irrespective of where they start their journey, stretches from the upstream Pont de Sully to the downstream Pont de Bir-Hakeim. Both these bridges are used as turning points for the tourist boats. At the Pont de Sully, the boats travel quite a long way beyond the bridge before turning round whereas at the Pont de Bir-Hakeim they all, save for the Bateaux Mouches, turn round on the upstream side of the bridge without passing under it. The Bateaux Mouches on the other hand does pass under the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, but only just, before turning round and passing through it again in the opposite direction.
It is the sounds of this nautical ballet as the Bateaux Mouches turns round almost within its own length just beyond the bridge that I contend are the unique sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
This ballet is played out here in sound and in pictures:
Sounds of the Bateaux Mouches turning just beyond the bridge:
Some might argue that the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches turning at the Pont de Bir-Hakeim are not unique to this bridge because the sounds of it turning upstream at the Pont de Sully might be the same, or at least similar. I would counter that by saying that at the Pont de Sully the Bateaux Mouches turns so far beyond the bridge that its sounds cannot be heard or, given a favourable wind, can barely be heard from that bridge. I know that because I’ve been to find out.
In any event, if you listen to the sound piece carefully you will hear towards the end of the piece the sounds of the Bateaux Mouches completing its turn accompanied by the sounds of a Métro train passing over the viaduct on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim. That confluence of sounds doesn’t happen anywhere else in Paris!
And finally, and nothing at all to do with the sounds of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, I was captivated by the lamps suspended from the viaduct on this iconic Parisian bridge.
* Louis Biette also built the Viaduc d’Austerlitz, a metal viaduct that crosses the Seine in a single span.
* Daydé & Pillé also built other bridges in Paris including the Pont de Mirabeau (1896), the Pont Saint-Michel (1890) and the Viaduc du quai de la Rapée (1905). They also built the Grand Palais for the 1900 Universelle Exposition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The Pont au Change and the Conciergerie
And so, back to the Pont au Change.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.