Paris Moderne by Jessica Slote

Paris Moderne  by Jessica Slote

For a split second—a body somersaults above the bridge—then drops, vanishes below. Spectators gasp. A fall would be lethal. Others take turns traversing the steel struts. One guy does pull-ups on a crossbar over the river. This ain’t the F train, y’all.

Roll over Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. This is Paris moderne, the 13ieme arrondisement, the New Left Bank—and this is the Simone de Beauvoir Passerelle (pedestrian bridge) that soars over the Seine, arching from bank to bank without touching the water. (The 304m long and 12m wide lenticular truss bridge opened in 2006, Feichtinger Architects.)

The double-helix structure undulates to the eye, and the lower deck is the scene for extreme sports practitioners/urban daredevils who balance, walk, leap, and somersault above the river from one exposed steel span to another.

Not far off, below, along the river’s left bank, there’s the Piscine Josephine Baker (city swimming pool). Well, Ms. Baker, there may not be a God, but there is such a thing as naming public works after cultural figures (not corporate entities or czars), and you got the civic pool—how cool is that?

Just above this scene, rising directly from the bank of the Seine, a monumental pyramid of stairs takes the pedestrian up to a platform high above the city.

A vast platform (made of specially treated wood of uniform grey, a monumental boardwalk) stretches North, South, East, and West. At the center of this platform dwells a forest. Literally. A forest has been planted down below, at the level of subterranean lecture halls, and the pedestrian on the platform above observes the tops of the trees.

Each corner of this flying platform is anchored by a dual-lithic structure; highrise glass towers (four of them), each one an ‘open book’, reflecting in its right-angle the ‘opposite page’—glass reflecting glass.

Within these towers of glass, within the rectangular windows, panels of wood (like pages of a book) open and close from within.

This is the Bibliothèque Nationale de France or Francois Mitterand Library, built in 1997 by the architectural firm of Dominique Perrault. The four towers are named  Tours des Temps, Tour des Lois, Tour des Nombres, and Tour des Lettres, (Tower of Time, Tower of Laws, Tower of Numbers, and Tower of Letters) housing more than ten million volumes—presumably including all forms of knowledge….. Borges’ Library of Babel, Blanchot’s ‘last word’.

Adding to this impression of vastness are the skies of Paris extending above—North, South, East, and West, an exhilarating firmament of blue bearing monumental white clouds (architect unknown).

The impression changes at night, however, when, the gigantic platform is utterly deserted, lit by odd double-pronged prison lights. As for the towers, only the stairwells are lit, recalling the Brooklyn House of Detention (times four).

At this hour, the forest in the center appears dark and deep.