I ended up enjoying last week’s example of a wildly over-decorated metro station so much that I thought I might as well follow it up with another. This will once more utterly horrify ardent Modernists, who think that decorating buildings is wrong, and that beauty in buildings should be expressed through unadorned form. That’s as maybe, and I love a nice Modernist building, but I’m certainly not averse to a bit of decoration, especially when it has such a cheering result.
We’ve been to the Paris Métro before, to look at the work of Hector Guimard (he of the Art Nouveau cast iron station entrances) and his rival Lucien Bechmann (he of the eye-boggling Rotunda ticket hall at Gare de Saint Lazare). Fast forward a few decades, and in 1968 we find Métro operator RATP redecorating Louvre-Rivoli station, which serves the Louvre art gallery, as a faux art gallery in its own right. It comes complete with (what I’m almost certain are) structurally pointless columns – though they’re great fun – and reproduction antiquities. It was the start of an occasional series of themed station redecorations which saw platform areas completely transformed.
This week’s beauty of transport is one of those redecorated stations, Arts et Métiers. It’s not so much under the ground, as under the sea. Step off a Line 11 Métro train and you will find yourself in a submarine. Not just any submarine, mind you, but a steampunk submarine of the sort that would do Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo proud. The theme for Arts et Métiers station was chosen to complement that of the Musée des Arts et Métiers, the nearby museum of scientific equipment and inventions, which is served by the Métro station.
Steampunk doesn’t feature very often as a type of architecture, at transport facilities or otherwise, not least because it doesn’t really exist. Steampunk comes from the world of science fiction, imagining an alternative reality in which there are no electronic computers or microchips. There are many advanced technologies, but they are based on machines like steam engines, and mechanical computers like English inventor Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines. We’re pretty sure that writer K W Jeter invented the term “steampunk”, but as to who invented the genre, that’s anyone’s guess. Verne himself has a good claim, with Nemo’s high-tech submarine Nautilus (from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and its sequels) as does his contemporary HG Wells, but both were imagining a high-tech world based on existing technologies. They had no knowledge of the electronics revolution which would sweep the globe during the second half of the twentieth century. Later steampunk writers who would consciously identify themselves as such, reject contemporary microchip technology, seeking the same information technology outcomes from mechanical means.
The end results are fictions of wonderful machines that undertake the jobs of modern-day technologies in a rather more splendid (and I assume hot and noisy) fashion than today’s quietly humming electronic devices do.
Arts et Métiers station was given its makeover in 1994, to celebrate 200 years of the Musée des Arts et Métiers. To step onto Arts et Métiers’ Line 11 platforms is to find yourself inside a piece of steampunk machinery. Brass fittings abound, details on a background of riveted copper sheeting. The station name is given on cast iron plates, just like on a steam locomotive.
There are portholes in the walls to look ‘out’ of, which actually contain tiny displays of scientific equipment:
Above the tracks, a giant piston and gear wheels hover, clearly the heart of the machine in which the unwitting passenger finds him- or herself. The platform lights are held by heavy, over-engineered brackets, another recurring theme of the steampunk aesthetic:
It’s utterly ridiculous, not least because the electric Métro railway never saw clanking steam technology on its rails, but I defy you not to smile. It’s the work of graphic novel artist François Schuiten (1956-). He is most famous for his series of graphic novels Les Cités obscures which combine Art Nouveau and steampunk aesthetics. Even if graphic novels aren’t really your thing, it’s worth doing a quick image search on the internet, especially if you like the retro-futuristic aesthetic inspired by the film Metropolis (1927 dir. Fritz Lang).
Arts et Métiers station is also served by Line 3 of the Paris Métro. Line 3’s platforms at the station are in the conventional white-tiled design seen across the Paris Métro. Except that if you look carefully, the lights above the platforms are held by steampunk-style over-engineered brackets. It’s a small thing, but a nice touch.
As well as his transformation of Arts et Métiers station, Schuiten has also contributed artworks to Porte de Hal station on the Brussels Metro. It’s less of a total transformation than at Arts et Métiers, but a worthy addition to the world’s collection of art at transport hubs, and the artworks feature metro trains amongst his typical imaginary cityscapes.
further reading and bibliography
Hardy, Brian, 1999. Paris Metro Handbook. Harrow Weald, Capital Transport Publishing
As usual, anything linked to above will have been read and quite likely regurgitated…