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Posts tagged ‘Voie Georges Pompidou’

16
Mar

Parisian Politics and a Changing Soundscape

AFTER A VISIT TO PARIS in the early 1950s to record everyday sounds of the city, the pioneering sound recordist Ludwig Koch said, “There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris”. For the last ten years or so I’ve been working to record and archive the Parisian atmosphere in sound that Ludwig Koch found so entrancing.

The Parisian urban soundscape is a complex mixture of intricately woven sounds ranging from the spectacular, to the ordinary, everyday sounds around us – the sounds we all hear but seldom stop to listen to, and although I find the Parisian soundscape endlessly fascinating there are two aspects of it that particularly interest me. The first is how the soundscape changes as one moves from the centre of the city to the periphery and the second is how the soundscape changes over time.

Walking from the city centre to the periphery while listening attentively to the surrounding soundscape one can trace not only the city’s physical history but also its social, cultural and political history. For example, the sounds one hears in the centre of the city, in the Champs Elysées, Place Vêndome or Avenue Montaigne lets say, are very different to those one will hear in the rue de Belleville in the east of the city. The sounds of conspicuous consumption emanating from high-end luxury goods emporia and exclusive haute-couture fashion houses in the former stand in stark contrast to a sub-Saharan street market, a Moroccan café or a Chinese supermarket in the latter.

Observing how the city’s soundscape changes over time is important because it gives an insight into the contemporary changes in the social, cultural and political landscape. For example, over the last ten years I’ve recorded many Parisian street demonstrations covering a wide range of issues representing a range of social concerns and political sentiments. Those concerns and sentiments often change over time so by listening to the recordings it’s possible to follow changes in the contemporary social, cultural and political history of the city.

There are many examples of how changing sounds reflect a changing social, cultural and political landscape so I will use one current example to illustrate the point. This I think is a really good example because it’s a hot topic in Paris at the moment.

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The story begins 1966 with the then French President, Georges Pompidou.

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.

In 2014, as part of my Paris Bridges Project, I went to the Pont Marie, one of the thirty-seven bridges crossing la Seine within the Paris city limits, to record the sounds on, under and around the bridge for my Paris Soundscapes Archive. I discovered that Georges Pompidou’s Expressway ran underneath the arch of the Pont Marie on the right bank of la Seine. 

One didn’t have to be an expert in urban soundscapes to realise that the incessant stream of traffic passing under the bridge would impact the soundscape both under and around the bridge.

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The Georges Pompidou Expressway from on top of the Pont Marie on the right bank of la Seine in 2014

Let’s scroll forward now to September 2016 when the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, signed a decree on behalf of the Paris City Council banning motor vehicles from a 3.3 km section of the berges de la rive droite, the right bank of the Seine, stretching from the tunnel at the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre to the Henri IV tunnel near the Bastille, transforming it into a park for pedestrians and cyclists. The Paris City Council debate on the matter was quite contentious but Anne Hidalgo won the day declaring the “end of the urban motorway in Paris and the reconquest of the Seine”.

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In 2002, Paris began closing a section of the right bank of the Seine to create a temporary summer beach complete with real sand and sun loungers and in 2013, Anne Hidalgo pedestrianised a 2.5 km section of the left bank.

By comparing the soundscape around the Pont Marie both before and after the 2016 decree we can assess the impact that politics has had on this part of the Parisian environment.

This was the scene from under the right bank arch of the bridge in 2014:

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And this was the scene from the same place earlier this week:

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And now let’s listen to the sounds of the Pont Marie from the berges de la rive droite in 2014.

Pont Marie from the right bank in 2014:

And from the same place in March 2018.

Pont Marie from the right bank in 2018:

I think the sounds from 2014 speak for themselves: incessant passing traffic creating excessive noise pollution quite possibly having a debilitating effect on our hearing as well as our mental and physical health – not to mention the noxious emissions to the atmosphere.

A political decision in 2016 though has created a completely different sonic environment. Now, the sound of traffic can still be heard from the Quai de la Hôtel de Ville above and behind the right bank, from the roadway on the Pont Marie and from the quai on the left bank opposite, but now the sound of the traffic has become part of the sonic environment rather than dominating it. The sounds that feature now are sounds that could not be heard from the same place in 2014: children’s voices, footsteps, the swish of passing bicycles, the sonic footprint of a passing Batobus, not to mention two Gendarmes on horseback. This part of the right bank has become a completely different sonic experience.

So, was the decision led by the Mayor of Paris to pedestrianise this part of the right bank a good thing?

Anne Hidalgo sees it as part of a comprehensive policy to reduce the number of cars in Paris, one spin-off of which should be a reduction in the amount of noxious emissions added to an already over polluted Parisian atmosphere. The use of diesel engines is already restricted in central Paris and a low-emission zone bans trucks on weekdays.

Although not an expert in atmospheric pollution, I do know something about noise pollution, which is broadly described as unwanted sound that either interferes with normal activities such as sleep or conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life. Excessive traffic and construction work are the major contributors to noise pollution in central Paris, although the construction work is often at least temporary.

It can be argued of course that noise is subjective and we are conditioned by our culture as to how much noise we consider acceptable. If you want to explore more about this I recommend R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World.

For some reason, noise pollution seems to get less attention than atmospheric pollution even though we know it affects our psychological and physiological health and our behaviour.

I hope my examples show that, what ever else it’s done, the pedestrianisation of this part of the right bank has much reduced the noise pollution and generally enhanced the sonic environment.

So, the decision to pedestrianise this part of the right bank is a good thing then?

Well, not everyone agrees. Motorist groups vehemently opposed both left and right bank road closures, accusing the city’s socialist administration of a vendetta against drivers.

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Pont Marie from the right bank of the Seine

In February this year, the tribunal administratif de Paris annulled the Paris City Council’s September 2016 decree saying that the decree had been adopted “after a public inquiry drawn up on the basis of an impact study” that “contained inaccuracies, omissions and deficiencies as to the effects of the project on automobile traffic, atmospheric pollutant emissions and noise pollution, which is key data for evaluating the general interest of the project”. The Mayor of Paris immediately launched an appeal and shortly after, signed another decree re-designating this stretch of the right bank a car-free zone.

This debate is much wider than it seems. It’s really a debate that, as France 24 put it, “pits pedestrians against motorists, urbanites against suburbanites, and left-wingers against conservatives, all battling under a hail of studies advancing curiously contradictory traffic, noise and pollution data at the service of competing agendas.”

So much for politics!

I would like to leave you with one other sound from the right bank of the Pont Marie, a sound that simply could not be heard before the 2016 decree. 

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The second arch of the bridge on the right bank includes a pedestrian walkway and walking through this archway now it’s actually possible to hear the sounds of the river, sounds that were completely subsumed by traffic noise in 2014.

Pont Marie under the pedestrian arch:

Whatever the fate of the berges de la rive droite turns out to be, I hope I’ve shown that a changing soundscape can provide a commentary on the social, cultural and political events of the day.

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7
Nov

The Pont Marie and its Sounds

FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to one of the oldest surviving bridges in Paris, the Pont Marie.

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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

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

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.

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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.

Pont Marie

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.

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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.

Pont Marie

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.

Pont Marie

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.

Pont Marie

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.

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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.

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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.

Pont Marie

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.

Pont Marie

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.

Pont Marie

29
Mar

The Pont au Change and its Sounds

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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The Pont au Change and the Conciergerie

And so, back to the Pont au Change.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.