Unlike many other great world capitals whose rivers flow apart from the modern centre, the River Seine has always had pride of place in Paris. Indeed, the Seine’s Île de la Cité is still today one of the city’s geographical and institutional hubs. It’s no wonder, then, that Paris has so many bridges - 37 as of 2006 - to attest to the great river’s determining role in its history.
Fragile early bridges
They say that Paris was born from the river, but it’s really the presence of its islands that sets it apart: the Île de la Cité made it easier to cross the river, as it served as a stable midpoint between relatively short bridges. The island’s Petit Pont (over the lesser branch of the Seine) and Grand Pont (over the main branch) may have retained their original names and locations for many years, but they had to be rebuilt a number of times, as did many of the later bridges. Despite repeated prayers to St. Geneviève, flooding swept them away and fires burnt them down, since most of the early bridges were built of wood. And there were accidents due to busy river traffic; before railroads were built, river trade was far more widespread than it is today, and Parisian shipping merchants comprised one of the most prosperous guilds of Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
A structural and aesthetic evolution
All of Paris’s medieval bridges led to and from the Île de la Cité and supported houses and shops. Some had fortified endpoints (the châtelet – bridgehead – of the Pont au Change was destroyed but its eponymous square has survived) and required a fee (you had to pay double denier – two bits – to cross the Pont au Double). They also held mills and, later, water works, such as the Pompe de la Samaritaine at the Pont Neuf.
This last bridge marked a turning point. As the first bridge without houses, it offered an open view of the Seine and heralded the new wave of city planning as imagined by Henri IV: more structured, more open and more majestic. Not only was it one of the first bridges built of stone, Pont Neuf stood out because it was designed to be attractive, as shown by its ornamental mascarons.
While stone would remain the noblest of materials until the Revolution (the Pont de la Concorde was actually built of stone that came from La Bastille), it was replaced by metal at the beginning of the 19th century.
Regarding decorative flourishes, the golden age of Parisian bridges was the Belle Époque, when Paris was given to organising world fairs which presented and established new technologies and arts. No wonder, then, that the most beautiful Parisian bridges, from the Pont Alexandre III to the Pont Mirabeau, are found near the Champ de Mars, which was the central point of these large-scale international exhibitions.
New 20th century challenges
The expansion of Paris in 1860 and the city rail system required new bridges, some of which would only carry trains. Reinforced concrete, the new, ubiquitous material of 20th century architecture, was not considered very aesthetic and was therefore rarely used for bridges, which were meant to be attractive. When concrete was used to rebuild the Pont de la Tournelle in 1927, the structure was surfaced in cut stone so as to preserve the visual harmony of Notre-Dame.
A new generation of bridges appeared after WWII, such as the functional ones that are part of the Ring Road, and modern reconstructions of old bridges so they too could be used by motorcars. Several footbridges have been built since the Seine Riverbanks were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991, including the Passerelle des Arts, rebuilt in 1984; the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor (ex-Solférino) which links the Tuileries to the Musée d’Orsay in 1999; and, most recently, the daring Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir which connects Bercy and the French National Library, flagship neighbourhoods of contemporary urban planning in the east of Paris.