Building bridges: Icon of feminism across the Seine

Paris's latest river crossing, its 37th, blends elegance, modernity and practicality in a tribute to Simone de Beauvoir, the feminist author who immortalised Saint-Germain. By John Lichfield
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From the distance, the newest bridge to grace the river Seine looks like a brassiere which has been flung on the floor. Alternatively, it looks like the bones of a graceful forearm, reaching across the river.

The bridge is called the Pont Simone de Beauvoir, after the feminist novelist and philosopher. It is, perhaps, appropriate that it looks like a discarded bra or an outstretched woman's arm. Paris can now claim the world's first feminist bridge.

The Pont Simone de Beauvoir, which opens today, is revolutionary in other ways. It is an asymmetric, implausibly long roller-coaster of a footbridge with no immediately obvious means of support. The bridge is both chaotically modern, and graceful, preserving a long tradition of epoch-defining but beautiful Parisian bridges going back for 400 years. (Bridges existed in Paris for at least 1,700 years before that, but no trace remains.)

Paris has more river bridges than any other city. The latest, the 37th, is a worthy addition to a catalogue stretching from 17th century masonry masterpieces; to a bridge that changes colour ; to a bridge copied from a village in England.

The Pont Simone de Beauvoir spans one of the widest stretches of the Seine, without benefit of pillars. It is an arched bridge and a suspension bridge plaited together. The two strands - steel frames with oak planking - prop each other up. They provide several alternative pedestrian or cycle routes, which rise and fall gently as you cross the Seine.

The bridge brings to life a newly developed, but rather arid, stretch of the river in eastern Paris. It links the new national library, the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, and the entertainment complex at Bercy. A new, floating swimming pool has just opened close by. Paris Plage - the summertime conversion of the Right Bank of the Seine into a mock beach - will extend to the Left Bank either side of the new bridge for a month from 20 July.

The bridge's architect, Dietmar Feichtinger, 45, is a Paris-based Austrian and a rising star of European architecture. "The naming of the bridge after Simone de Beauvoir is very appropriate," he said during a tour of his structure. "She was a great writer and the bridge leads to a library. She was a very modern thinker and the bridge is very modern. She was a woman and the bridge is very feminine. It is slender and elegant and does not show off its muscles."

The Pont Simone de Beauvour, 12 metres across at its widest point, has been criticised as too broad for a footbridge. Width, however, formed part of the original concept. Paris Town Hall wanted a bridge that would become a public space, recalling the medieval bridges of London and Paris which had houses and shops built into them.

The twin decks in the centre of the Beauvoir bridge provide a sheltered area on the lower level which can be used for fairs and exhibitions and, no doubt, less officially approved activities in the hours of darkness.

"I did not want a suspension bridge, which would have been the obvious thing, because there is no tradition of suspension bridges in Paris," Feichtinger said. "I wanted to pay tribute to the arches of the classic Parisian bridge but also to do something which would break new ground. We ended up with a design which is an arch superimposed on a suspension bridge. One part supports the other and both parts offer different walks across the river. This, as far as I know, has never been done before."

The architect points out, however, that the bridge bears some resemblance - on a much smaller scale - to the Forth Railway Bridge between Edinburgh and Fife, built in the second half of the 19th century.

Other river-bisected cities, such as London, Rome and Budapest, have a dominant bank. The Right Bank and Left Bank of Paris, although different in character and preoccupations, are equal partners.

The President lives on the Right Bank; the Prime Minister's official residence is on the Left Bank. The principal business quarter is on the right, but the parliament and most academic institutions are on the left. Ministries and museums are scattered on both sides. Some urban historians say that the proliferation of bridges explains why Paris has developed so evenly on both sides of the river. Others suggest that the fact that both Rive Gauche and Rive Droite were equally important forced the Parisians to build a lot of bridges.

Either way, the history of Paris is largely the history of its river crossings. The city began with a Gaulish encampment on the Ile de la Cité, with rough wooden walkways to the bank. From 52 BC the conquering Romans built solid masonry and timber bridges to the island over the narrow and wide arms of the Seine.

For centuries, these and their successors were the only Parisian bridges. They were known as Le Grand Pont et Le Petit Pont. In the early middle ages, Paris fell into three districts, called "the island", the "area beyond the big bridge" and "the area beyond the small bridge". The names Right Bank and Left Bank came later, after early maps showed the city tipped on to an east-west axis with the river running down the middle.

A "petit pont" exists to this day on the original site, just in front of Notre Dame, connecting the island to the Left Bank. This is the latest (1853) version of dozens of bridges built on this spot over nearly two millenniums. In the Middle Ages they were swept away by river floods every few years - houses, residents and all.

The oldest surviving Paris bridge is, theoretically, Le Pont Neuf (the new bridge), completed in 1607. Its 12 low, sweeping arches and its breadth made it one of the wonders of Europe in the 17th century. It has been comprehensively rebuilt on several occasions. It retains many of its original hunks of masonry, inscribed with tiny straight and diagonal lines which make the bridge change colour in different lighting conditions.

The oldest, unreconstructed Paris bridge is the small, beautiful Pont Marie, built in 1630 to link the Right Bank to newly settled Ile Saint Louis. If you ignore the traffic zooming along the Georges Pompidou urban motorway alongside, you could be looking at a bridge over a small river in a French provincial town.

Some Parisian bridges have history literally built into them. The Pont de la Concorde (1792), in front of the National Assembly, was constructed during the Revolution with stones from the Bastille prison so that Parisians could trample for evermore on the Ancien Régime.

The Pont Alexandre III (1900), in front of the Invalides was, like the Eiffel Tower, built for a universal exhibition, to show off avant garde metal-building techniques. It is one of the gaudiest bridges in the world, decorated like an Opera balcony, or Victorian candelabra.

The Pont des Arts, the long footbridge close to the Louvre, was only the second metal bridge of its kind when built in 1804. It is a longer version of the celebrated Iron Bridge, built at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire in 1779. Where Shropshire led, Paris followed. Considering that Britain and France were at war, this was a tribute indeed.

Perhaps the most bizarre Paris bridge is the Pont Mirabeau, off the tourist track beyond the Eiffel Tower in western Paris. Soon after its construction in 1896, it was made famous by the poet Guillaume Appollinaire. Generations of French schoolchildren still intone: "Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine." The bridge is built of metal latticework, painted pea-green, with four vast, allegorical statues clinging rather desperately, King Kong-like, to the sides.

Paris bridges have rarely just been places to cross the river. Houses and shops on bridges survived until an edict banned them in the late 18th century.

The caverns between the arches of the bridges and the lower Seine quays are still doss-houses of last resort for down and outs. They also have other uses. A song made popular by Edith Piaf, "Sous Les Ponts de Paris", tells of a young couple "when the night falls" not having enough money for a hotel room, etc etc.

The Simone Beauvoir bridge continues this all-purpose tradition. If you walk along the oak planks all the way from the high sides of the Parc de Bercy to the top of the steep steps in front of the library, you cover 300 metres. You can, however, divert on to the lower deck or arrive or leave by the slopes, stairs and lifts to the lower Seine quays.

The high deck gives you a splendid view of eastern Paris, with the double-deck Bercy bridge carrying both Metro trains and cars in the foreground. There are glimpses from the northern end of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. The lower deck takes you close to the water, just above the tourist launches and the barges full of coal or gravel.

Feichtinger said: "The idea is that the bridge is not just a link, not just a way of going from one place to another. It is also a game or puzzle and a public space. A place that people will want to stop and sit and enjoy the river."

Construction has taken account of difficulties encountered with the Millenium footbridge in London. Shock absorbers, added later in London, have been incorporated from the beginning. Gaps have been cut in the decking and filled with metal grills to allow the wind to pass through and reduce swaying.

"I felt a great responsibility to build something which would mark and enrich the site," Feichtinger said, "If you think that at the other end of Paris, there is the Eiffel Tower, you can see the pressure that I was under. A bridge after all is not like a building in the street. It cannot hide. It can be seen from all sides."

There may be some irony in the fact De Beauvoir, one of the mothers of feminism, should end up being walked over by the whole of Paris. In every other way the new bridge does her - and the French capital - proud.