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.
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.
THE PONT DE BERCY is the fourth of the thirty-five named bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits if you start counting from where la Seine enters Paris at its upstream end in the south east of the city.
The other day I went to explore the Pont de Bercy as part of the research for my Paris Bridges project, which you can find out more about here.
The Pont de Bercy is an interesting bridge that now seems to have found itself on the Parisian tourist trail. It’s quite common to see tourists exploring the bridge with cameras in hand … and with good reason.
Pont de Bercy from upstream with the floating Piscine Joséphine Baker on the left and part of the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances centre right
After six months of construction work the original Pont de Bercy, then outside the Paris city limits, was opened in 1832. It was built by the engineers Ferdinand Jean Bayard de la Vingtrie and Marie Fortuné de Verges of the Bayard de la Vingtrie & de Verges Company. It was a suspension bridge 133 metres long with a central span of 44 metres and two side spans of 45 metres each and it was also a toll bridge that could only be crossed by paying a tax – one centime per pedestrian, three centimes for two-wheeled vehicles and five centimes for four wheelers.
Pont de Bercy in 1832 – Image from Paris Illustré 1863 page 82
The amount of traffic this suspension bridge could carry was limited by its structure, which soon proved to be inadequate.
In 1861 the bridge and the area around it were incorporated into the city of Paris and it was decided to demolish the original bridge and replace it with a stronger structure. Responsibility for this new bridge fell to Edmond Jules Feline-Romany, ingénieur municipal et chef de service de la Seine dans Paris (municipal engineer and head of department of the Seine in Paris) and his deputy Paul-Emile Vaudrey. Construction began in 1863 and the bridge was completed in 1864. This new bridge was made of stone, it was 175 meters long and 20 meters wide and it comprised five elliptical arches each 29 metres wide.
But Paris wasn’t finished with this new bridge. In 1904 the French engineer Jean Résal was engaged to widen it by 5.5 metres to accommodate Métro Line 6, the semi-circular Métro route around the southern half of the city, which was to be extended to its present day terminus at Nation. Because this part of the Métro line was (and still is) an elevated section the work involved building a viaduct with forty-one semi-circular arches to accommodate the track.
The work was completed in 1909 and Métro Line 6 began to use the viaduct the same year.
Pont de Bercy and its new viaduct soon after it opened in 1909
It wasn’t until 1986 that further structural work was carried out on the Pont de Bercy. By then the flow of traffic had increased to the point where the bridge couldn’t cope and so, on the 20th January 1986, the Paris City Council agreed to double the width of the bridge. Work began in 1989 under the direction of the engineer Jacques Monthioux. His task was to increase the width of the bridge to forty metres while at the same time making the extension structurally identical in appearance to the existing bridge with the new piers exactly aligned with the old ones and the underside and tympana of the extension mirroring those on the existing bridge.
The new, widened, Pont de Bercy was finally opened in 1992 and it’s the bridge that we see today.
Looking at the bridge today from both the upstream and downstream sides we can see that Jacques Monthioux almost met his brief. To those not in the know it’s impossible to tell that the downstream side is the original …
Pont de Bercy from downstream
And the upstream side is the extension, which despite its appearance, is not made of stone but of reinforced concrete. It does though have a genuine stone facing.
Pont de Bercy from upstream
It’s only when you venture underneath the bridge that you can actually see the join …
Pont de Bercy – with the 1864 stone bridge on the left and the modern reinforced concrete extension on the right
The work that I’m doing with my Paris Bridges project involves not only exploring the history of each of the bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits but also trying to identify and capture the characteristic sounds of each bridge.
Pont de Bercy from downstream
For anyone visiting the Pont de Bercy for the first time it’s the magnificent viaduct with its forty-one arches carrying Métro Line 6 across la Seine that is the dominating feature. My research has shown that bridges like this can have several characteristic sounds depending upon where you are listening from but if the viaduct is the dominating visual feature of the Pont de Bercy, then the sounds of the Métro passing across it must be at least one of the characteristic sounds of the bridge. So listening to and then recording the sounds of the Métro seemed like a good place to start.
I arrived at the Pont de Bercy at the nearest Métro station, Quai de la Gare, which is one of Fulgence Bienvenüe’s stations aériennes and from the platform I had an excellent view of the route of Métro Line 6 over the bridge.
Métro Line 6 crossing the Pont de Bercy viaduct
To set the scene, I recorded the sounds of trains coming in and out of the station having just passed, or about to pass over the viaduct.
Pont de Bercy – Métro station Quai de la Gare:
Although these sounds are themselves interesting they only reflect the sounds of the approach to the bridge rather than the sounds of the Métro actually on the bridge.
I thought that one way to capture the sounds of the Métro on the bridge would be to take a ride across the viaduct and listen to the sounds from inside a Métro train. So, when the next train arrived, I hopped on and made the short journey from Quai de la Gare to the next station, Bercy.
Pont de Bercy – Crossing the viaduct from Quai de la Gare to Bercy:
Descending from the Pont de Bercy to the underground Bercy Métro station
Of course, I could also record, and in fact did record, the sounds of the Métro crossing the bridge from street level but I wanted to capture something a bit extra, something that better reflected the sounds that are there but the sounds that are usually hidden from all but the most attentive listener.
It’s clear from the pictures above that any attempt to get onto the line to record the sound of the Métro as it crossed the bridge would at best result in my immediate arrest or, at worst, something far more unpleasant. An alternative plan of action was called for.
Ever mindful of the great photographer, Robert Capa’s dictum: “If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough”, I began to investigate how, if I couldn’t actually get onto the line, I might at least get as close as possible. And, as always, if there’s a will, there’s a way!
Métro Line 6 leaves the Quai de la Gare station, crosses the viaduct and then descends underground before curving to the right and entering the next station, Bercy.
Pont de Bercy viaduct sloping down to Bercy Métro station
By climbing onto a narrow ledge of the wall that separates the viaduct from the street as the Métro line begins its descent underground towards Bercy station, I was able to clamber up the ledge and by pushing my microphone through a convenient hole in the fence (I didn’t make the hole, it was already there!) I was able to capture the sounds of the trains on the slope of the viaduct. The trains passing from the left were going up the slope and those from the right were coming down.
Pont de Bercy viaduct – An MS (mid-side) stereo microphone at work
Pont de Bercy – Métro trains passing on the slope of the viaduct:
I think this recording is probably unique. I can’t think of any other place on the Paris Métro system where it’s possible to get so close to the Métro trains other than inside a station. Had I been able to put my hand through the fence I would have been able to touch the trains closest to me coming from the left.
I recorded these sounds on a Saturday afternoon while the bean counters at the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances across the street were away from their offices enjoying their weekend. Had it been a normal working day I’m sure that one of them at least would have seen me and become very suspicious about a man climbing up a wall aiming a pointy thing at a Métro train!
So, having established that the sounds of the Métro crossing the viaduct are one of the characteristic sounds of the Pont de Bercy, does the bridge have any other characteristic sounds?
I went under the viaduct to explore.
The Pont de Bercy viaduct sits on top of the bridge. On either side three lanes of traffic pass in both directions and beyond the traffic each side of the bridge carries a footpath. Beyond the bridge, the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances sits on one side and the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, a giant indoor sports arena and concert hall, sits on the other.
With its forty-one stone arches along each side and the Métro track above forming a roof the view under the Pont de Bercy viaduct at street level is quite impressive.
I walked under the viaduct listening carefully to the sounds – the sounds of passing traffic of course as well as the rather muffled sounds of the Métro passing overhead contrasting nicely with the expansive sounds of the trains I’d recorded a few minutes before. And then I came upon this …
A large puddle stretching across the two cycle lanes that run the full length of the viaduct. Right in the centre of the puddle water was dripping down from the Métro line above. This seemed to be the perfect place from which to record the sounds on the bridge.
Pont de Bercy – Sounds on the bridge:
I rather like the sound of the dripping water set as it is against the general hubbub of everything else that’s going on especially since tomorrow it most probably will have disappeared forever.
Towards the end of this sound piece you will have heard the sound of car horns and I will return to that in a moment but first, let’s explore the sounds under the bridge.
Pont de Bercy – Under the bridge
A set of stone steps leads down from the footpath on the Pont de Bercy to the Quai de la Gare and the first stone arch of the bridge at its south-westerly end. I went down to see what sounds I could find.
Pont de Bercy – Sounds under the bridge
At first the sounds were pretty much as I’d expected, the sound of water lapping against the arch, the hum of a police boat disappearing into the distance, the sound of a jogger passing by and the buzz of the traffic on the bridge overhead. But then my ear was drawn to another sound.
Moving to the edge of the arch on the upstream side I heard the sonorous tone of a boat straining at its moorings. I love sounds like this, it almost seemed as though boat was speaking directly to me.
And then a bonus, the sound of a Métro train passing over the Pont de Bercy viaduct way above me. Since I’d begun my exploration of the Pont de Bercy by recording the sounds of the Métro it seemed fitting to end with the same sounds but from yet another perspective.
Pont de Bercy – A boat straining at its moorings
And finally, back to those car horns. What were they all about?
Well, one of the things that I enjoy most about the work I do recording the urban soundscape of Paris is the process of observing. It’s true that on my perambulations around the city I spend much more time observing by listening than I do by looking and the delight of finding a completely unexpected sound is hard to describe. But occasionally, seeing something completely unexpected can fill me with delight too. Something like this …
I was just finishing recording the sounds on the Pont de Bercy under the viaduct when I heard the sound of the car horns. It’s common practice in France, as in many other countries, for motorists to sound their car horns at the sight of a newly married couple and, when I turned round, there they were straight from the church having their photograph taken under the viaduct.
A rather nice way to my end my exploration of the Pont de Bercy and its sounds I thought.
LET’S BEGIN WITH some geography! If you look at a map of Paris you will see that the city is more or less in the shape of a circle with the circumference circumscribed by the wall of traffic that is the Boulevard Périphérique. The Périphérique in effect delineates the Paris city limits, the area within the Périphérique is considered to be Paris and the immediate area beyond, the suburbs.
As you can see from this map, the River Seine crosses Paris in a semi-circle across the south of the city. The river flows from right to left as you look at the map so it enters the city upstream from the south-east and it leaves downstream from the south-west after passing through the centre of the city. The area within the semi-circle to the south is known as the Left Bank and everything to the north, the Right Bank.
Paris is well known for its bridges and there are thirty-seven of them crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits. However, if you look at a Paris city map and count the named bridges you will come to a total of thirty-five rather than thirty-seven. The discrepancy is accounted for by the two bridges that that carry the Boulevard Périphérique over la Seine, neither of which has an official name. Unofficially though, they do have names: the one that crosses in the south-east is known as Pont Amont, amont being French for ‘upstream’ and the one that crosses in the south-west is known as Pont Aval – and yes, you’ve guessed it, aval is French for ‘downstream’.
I’ve set myself the task of exploring all thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. As well as exploring the history of each bridge I’m also attempting to identify the characteristic sounds of each bridge. I’ve already discovered that some of the bridges do have characteristic sounds, the sounds on, under or around the bridges and in a few cases, and more excitingly, the sounds of the actual bridges themselves.
The work I’m doing on this Paris Bridges project (that’s the working title at the moment) is not specifically designed for this blog but rather for an audio documentary that I plan to produce. I will however publish cameo blog pieces like this one from time to time to illustrate the work I’m doing.
The other day, I went to explore the first of the named upstream bridges, the Pont National.
Pont National looking from upstream
The Pont National was built between 1852 and 1853 during the Second Empire and was originally named the Pont Napoleon III. It became the Pont National in 1870.
The bridge is 188.5 metres long, it’s made up of five stone arches and it was originally built as a railway bridge to carry the Petite Ceinture across the Seine and to link the fortifications on either side.
Built between 1852 and 1869, the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture, or “little belt railway”, was the first public urban transportation service in Paris and was the forerunner of today’s Paris Métro. It comprised a thirty-five kilometre line that encircled Paris and it was built mainly for transporting goods between the five main railway stations in Paris but it also offered a public transport service up until 1934.
The first Paris Métro line opened in 1900 with more modern and more rapid rolling stock together with more comfortable stations and more competitive prices than the Petite Ceinture. Consequently, the urban passenger service of the Petite Ceinture gradually began to decline. In addition, the local goods traffic grew. The Petite Ceinture operators used the loss of passenger traffic to decrease the number of passenger train movements and increase the number of goods train movements since the transportation of goods was much more lucrative than transporting urban passengers. Eventually, the urban passenger service ceased on 22 July 1934 and was replaced by a bus service. Today, twenty-three kilometres of the railway tracks of the Petite Ceinture remain including the original tracks across the Pont National.
Picture taken from the centre of the Pont National looking downstream with the surviving Petite Ceinture tracks in the foreground
With the demise of the Petite Ceinture the Pont National lost its original purpose and so in 1936 work began to widen the bridge to accommodate road traffic. When the work was completed in 1944 the bridge had expanded to a width of 34 metres.
Today, as well as carrying the surviving tracks of the Petite Ceinture and the roadway, the Pont National also carries two footpaths, one on the upstream side of the bridge and one on the downstream side.
It also carries a cycle lane on the downstream side …
And, as though bringing the original purpose of the bridge back to life, the Pont National now has two relatively new rail tracks spanning the length of the bridge.
These tracks don’t carry rail traffic today but they do carry the trams of Tram Line 3, the line that circles Paris following the site of the old military road that ran along the inside of the fortified Thiers Wall, the last defensive wall surrounding Paris.
And, along with the constant flow of traffic, it is these trams plying back and forth across la Seine that give the Pont National its characteristic sound from on the bridge.
Sounds on the Pont National:
While we can say that the sound of the trams are the characteristic sound of the Pont National from on the bridge these sounds represent only one sonic perspective of the bridge. What happens if we listen under the bridge?
Well, it is possible to go under one arch of the bridge and from there we can get a different sonic perspective.
Sounds under the Pont National:
We can hear the sound of the traffic and the trams passing overhead almost as a mirror image of the sounds on the bridge but with less precise definition. We can also hear the bridge groan from time to time whilst carrying its burden above. The constant sound though on this particular day is the sound of dripping water and this is a very functional sound. It’s the sound of water pouring out of the bottom of a large drainpipe, which is draining rainwater from the roadway above. As I was recording these sounds it was raining heavily and so the drainpipe was working overtime.
As I was about to stop recording under the bridge, a ready-mix concrete lorry passed by me under the arch and this brings me on to another sonic perspective of the Pont National.
Pont National from the Pont de Tolbiac
The Pont National does not of course stand in isolation, it’s very much part of its environment and since the mid nineteenth-century the area around the bridge has been the industrial heart of Paris.
At one end of the Pont National is the old and now closed Gare Frigorifique de Paris Bercy. Opened in 1906, this station with its refrigeration facility was built specifically to receive wine destined for the ‘Entrepôt des Vins’ in nearby Bercy, at the time the largest commercial wine distribution centre in the world. In the nineteenth century most wine arrived in Paris by boat and could only be sold in the city after passing through Customs but by the late twentieth century wine could be shipped directly from the French vineyards to the rest of the world without having to pass through Paris and so the need for the ‘Entrepôt des Vins’ declined and eventually it and this station were abandoned.
Today the immediate area around the Pont National has its fair share of large corporate offices but it’s more particularly associated with cement, concrete and aggregates for use in the building industry.
The French industrial company Lafarge occupies the Right Bank between the Pont National and the Pont de Tolbiac …
… and the Mexican company Cemex occupies the Left Bank.
Both of these companies rely heavily on industrial barges to bring in their raw materials.
Industrial barges like this one travel up and down la Seine all the time and so it’s not surprising that their sounds form a third sonic perspective of the Pont National – the sounds around the bridge.
Sounds around the Pont National:
One of the things I find fascinating about these barges is that they leave a long sonic footprint generated by their wake that can last sometimes long after the barge has passed. I find these sonic footprints as acoustically interesting as the sound of the barges themselves.
Pont National looking from downstream
I went to explore the Pont National as part of my research for my Paris Bridges audio documentary. So what did I learn?
I learned that bridges like this have a history and associations, which are themselves worth exploring. I learned that this bridge at least does have some characteristic sounds but what those sounds are depends upon where you’re listening from. Although I was able to capture three sonic perspectives of the bridge – on it, under it and around it, the fourth perspective eluded me. Save for hearing the occasional groan of the bridge from underneath, I was unable to capture the sound of the bridge, the sound of the bridge itself speaking. But I won’t give up, the sounds are in there somewhere and I shall return with my contact microphones and attempt to capture the sounds inside the structure of the bridge to complete the sonic tapestry of the Pont National.
What I also learned was something that I knew already. The contemporary sounds tapestry of the Pont National is not only fascinating but it’s also important.
For the average person crossing or passing by the Pont National, these sounds, if heard at all, will simply be part of the everyday sound tapestry that accompanies their lives, at best taken for granted and at worst, ignored. But these sounds are important because they are not only part of our contemporary urban soundscape but also part of our sonic heritage.
It’s a sad fact, but most of our sonic heritage has passed by completely unrecorded. For example, we can find pictures and written descriptions of the Pont National at the end of the nineteenth-century but we have no record of its sounds, even though the sounds are part of the very fabric of the bridge. What would the Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture have sounded like to us if we had stood on or under the bridge as it passed? Would the barges have sounded the same as they do today? What sounds would we have heard then that we don’t hear now?
It is questions like these that compel me to record and preserve the sounds that make up our contemporary urban soundscape. In time these sounds will become history but, unlike in the nineteenth-century and before, we are now able to record and preserve that history for future generations to explore, to study and to enjoy. I think that’s worth doing.
WHAT DO YOU DO in Paris on a rainy Saturday afternoon in early January?
Well, while the post-Christmas tourists were busy doing their thing, and there seemed to be very many of them this year, I spent the afternoon standing under a Parisian bridge doing what I enjoy doing most – listening. And my bridge of choice for this particular Saturday afternoon was the Pont Saint Michel.
The Pont Saint Michel is certainly not the most elegant of the many bridges that traverse la Seine, it took only seven months to build, but it does have a particularly rich sound environment which is why I’m attracted to it.
The present day Pont Saint Michel was built in 1857. It’s 62 metres long, it has three arches each 17.2 metres wide and it links the Left Bank of the Seine to the oldest part of Paris, the Île de la Cité. It’s not though the first bridge to cross la Seine at this point. The first bridge to do so was opened in 1387.
The original bridge was built of stone and like all the medieval bridges in Paris it wasn’t long before houses appeared on it. This proved to be catastrophic when in the terrible winter of 1407 – 1408, one of the longest and most severe recorded in medieval times, ice carried by the frozen river hit the bridge and caused it and all the houses on it to collapse. A wooden replacement bridge was built soon after again with houses on it.
Pont Saint Michel in 1577 – Image via Wikipedia
This wooden bridge was replaced in 1623 with a bridge comprising both wood and stone designed to hold two rows of houses. It wasn’t until 1786 that an order was issued to remove all the houses from Paris bridges but even so, the houses remained on the Pont Saint Michel until 1808.
And then in 1857 the present day bridge, designed by the French engineer Paul-Martin Gallocher de Lagalisserie, was built.
So much for the history – so what about to the sounds around the Pont Saint Michel?
Pont Saint Michel and its sounds:
On this rainy, rather dreary, Saturday afternoon I approached Pont Saint Michel along the Quai de Conti from the Pont Neuf recording as I went but as the rain got worse I took shelter under the bridge.
Because of the wind, la Seine was a little rougher than usual and as I walked along the Quai de Conti I was able to capture the delicious sound of a boat creaking at its mooring as it gently rode the waves. I also captured the sounds of a couple of fairly sparsely populated tourist boats as they passed by.
Standing under the Pont Saint Michel I could see in one direction the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris and in the other direction part of the Pont Neuf, which when seen in all its glory is one of the most elegant bridges in Paris.
Standing under the Pont Saint Michel I recorded the sounds of the river sloshing its way through the arch of the bridge in front of me. And then, as two more tourist boats approached, I decided to see what they sounded like from underneath the water as they passed. So engrossed was I with getting my microphone into the water in just the right place that I was completely unaware that the wash from the wake of a boat that had just passed was spilling over my vantage point and was about to engulf my feet. So captivated was I listening to the underwater sounds that it was only when I retrieved my microphone from under the water that I realised that my feet were equally as wet as the microphone.
Undaunted, I continued to record as two more boats passed, a Bateaux Mouches, the largest of the tourist boats to ply la Seine and the one with the loudest commentary which sounds out in several languages. Following the Bateaux Mouches came one of the smaller boats, the Batobus, the hop-on hop-off water bus that stops at eight of the key tourist spots in the city.
Listening to the sounds around Parisian bridges might not be everyone’s idea of an afternoon’s entertainment but for me it was very enjoyable and time well spent. And my Paris Soundscapes Archive is richer for it.