If you’re writing a blog about the way in which transport has made the world more beautiful, you have to ask yourself for how long you can avoid the really famous examples, such as London Transport’s posters from the first half of the twentieth century, Grand Central Terminal in New York, Art Deco London Underground stations, or the Art Nouveau Paris Métro entrances.
The answer is precisely 50 posts, because today The Beauty of Transport is looking at the last in that list.
The Métro entrances of Hector Guimard (1867-1942) are the very definition of Parisian style, intimately bound up with the atmosphere of this most romantic of cities. They don’t just enhance the built environment and make it more attractive, they are considered genuine works of art in their own right (an example can be found in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while another was the star attraction in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s Art Nouveau 1890-1914 retrospective in 2000, before it moved to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.). Try to find a guidebook of Paris that doesn’t have a picture of one, so integral are they to our appreciation of the city.
Which makes it all the more surprising that they were utterly disregarded for decades and could well have been swept away entirely. Many were indeed lost and the 86 that remain represent only about half of the original collection.
For domestic readers more familiar with the London Underground, to really understand the Métro entrances it is important also to understand one of the distinctions between the Paris Métro and the London Underground. While the latter usually went in for surface buildings to contain ticket halls, the Métro did not, and its ticket halls are underground, accessed by staircases from street level. Without surface buildings to draw attention to the presence of a station, the Paris Métro’s only on-street presence was what surrounded the entrances to those staircases.
That happens in some London locations like Piccadilly Circus, where the inadequate surface building was demolished in favour of a subsurface ticket hall, or at locations like Oxford Street where there are multiple entrances but only one surface ticket hall building. At such locations, London Underground erected smart entrances to its stations, like this:
But to be quite honest, they have nothing on Guimard’s Métro entrances (mind you, London would never have been the right place for such Art Nouveau decadence; it was far too straight-laced for the sinuous, sexy, elegance that Guimard’s entrances embody).
With the Métropolitain railway opening in 1900, the Compagnie du Métropolitain de Paris, the originator and operator of the Métro’s first lines, decided it needed a dramatic street level presence to entice people into the Métro. It commissioned Guimard, at that time best known as an architect of Art Nouveau residential buildings such as hotels and apartment blocks, in particular the Castel Béranger apartment building.
Guimard, as well as being one of the foremost architects of the whiplash-curve school of Art Nouveau (rather than the more geometric Art Nouveau found in Vienna, for instance), was also a shocking self publicist. Long before the superstar architects of today, Guimard was determined to occupy a similarly high profile position, and to convince the world of his genius mostly through his own efforts in telling everyone about it. He used the postcard – a key form of communication at the time – as part of this effort. His postcards were illustrated with pictures of…himself and his works.
Guimard delivered on the Compagnie du Métropolitain de Paris’s desire for dramatic entrances to its underground railway lines. In spades. 167 station entrances were to gain Guimard entrances (86 survive, according to present day Paris Métro operator RATP here, although various sources disagree on both figures) of three different types. As well as the ‘simple’ cast iron ballustrades which were most numerous, there were glass canopies (of which there are two still in existence, and a third which is a replica), and finally, the pavilions.
The ballustrade entrances are the most well known today through their greater numbers. Art Nouveau of the whiplash-style drew its inspiration from nature, and its curves can be traced back to plants and flowers. In the ballustrade entrances to Paris Métro stations, the link is very clear. The ballustrades themselves are of a repeating stem or vine pattern, interspersed with floral cartouches, while the Metro maps are illuminated by floral lights:
Two tall flowers topped with moulded glass lamps of organic design (almost terrifyingly triffid-like to today’s eyes) stand either side of the top steps, and between them they support a “METROPOLITAIN” sign. With the lettering for “METROPOLITAIN” and the station name as swirly and organic as the ironwork itself, you can’t imagine it passing muster on a legibility test today:
The glass canopy entrances were larger and offered a degree of protection against bad weather. Two are still in existence, along with a third which is a replica. The actual designs varied from location to location according to site conditions but mostly followed the general pattern of taller ballustrades supporting a glass roof formed of a fan of iron spokes holding panes of frosted glass. In some locations, such as at Porte Dauphine, panels between the ballustrades were decorated with further Art Nouveau flower designs:
The pavilions were the closest the Métro came to having Art Nouveau street level buildings. With their stacked roofs, the structures quickly gained the nickname “pagodas”. Look carefully at the front of the pavilion and you can see that the structure surrounding the doors forms an Art Nouveau style ‘M’.
There’s another nice picture of Bastille’s pavilion here (I’ll be seeking a copy of the book mentioned on that webpage, by the way…).
All three types were designed by Guimard to be constructed from standard components, which could be put together in varying ways to meet site requirements and provide variety, at the same time as reducing overall costs. He was, as such, a pioneer of modular transport buildings, a tradition which is carried on today in many public transport systems where the same components are used over and over again in differing arrangements at different stations.
Guimard’s flamboyant Métro entrances took Parisians by surprise and they weren’t universally popular at first (although the Compagnie du Métropolitain de Paris must have realised that any controversy was also free publicity for their new transport system). Yet thanks also to artists such as Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) and artisans like Georges Fouquet (1862-1957), Paris was soon to give itself over to a veritable outpouring of Art Nouveau, which became the city’s signature style for a decade or so, and the Métro entrances were soon embraced.
But within a couple of decades, Paris (and indeed the world) fell out of love with Art Nouveau. It had become ever more excessive and all-pervading, until it imploded under its own ubiquity. Art Deco and Modernism supplanted it and Art Nouveau was shunned. If anything, people fell out of love with Guimard, his ego, and his apparently prickly personality, even more quickly. His reputation in decline, little value was placed on his Métro entrances. Many of them were demolished, including all the pavilions and all but two of the glass canopy entrances.
Guimard’s Métro entrance designs were superceded by a more simple marker, on which a stencil-effect “METRO” is topped by a glass globe lamp, the elements tied together by ornate metalwork (less showy but still very Parisian when encountered today, and a quite worthy successor).
Fortunately, despite the long period in which they were disregarded, Guimard’s Métro entrances eventually came to be appreciated as an integral part of the Parisian urban fabric, in time to ensure that not all were lost. After a handful of the entrances were given legal protection in the mid 1960s, the remainder were given similar legal protection by the late 1970s. In the last decades of the twentieth century, Paris rediscovered its love of its Art Nouveau heritage, and the Métro entrances became cherished objects once more. Replica entrances are occasionally gifted to other transport operators around the world (only Montreal’s is a genuine entrance, relocated there from Paris).
Surely the greatest tribute to Guimard can be found at the headquarters of RATP, the Parisian transport operator which today operates not only the Métro but many other parts of Paris’s public transport network. At the Maison de la RATP on Quai de la Rapée, everyone who enters and leaves through the main doors passes through a newly-built entrance made to Guimard’s design.
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There’s more to the story of the design of the Paris Métro than Hector Guimard. Find out about the other Métro developer, the Nord-Sud company, and the remarkable ceramic tile designs used at its stations, here.