A guest post this week. Benjamin Chadwick, author of newly-launched Parisian transport infrastructure and urban design website Fabric of Paris, extols the virtues of the stations on the underground central section of Paris’s RER line E.
As Londoners continue to wait for Crossrail, some commentators have drawn comparisons with Paris’s RER, which similarly consists of preexisting suburban routes connected by purpose-built tunnels running across the city centre, running faster and with fewer stops than the respective metro networks. In many ways, the RER had an even more transformative impact than Crossrail hopes to. The London Underground already serves the suburbs, whereas the Paris Métro peters out at the old city walls. The social impact of opening the city centre to the poorer banlieues can’t be underestimated. But in engineering and planning terms, the challenges were similar – to build wide tunnels through already crowded areas, with connections to existing metro stations.
The first line, the RER A, opened in stages between 1969 and 1977 and was immediately wildly popular, reaching 300 million journeys per year by 2011. Several of the stations on this line have been called “cathedral stations”: cavernous underground halls on a scale Paris had never seen (and few places have still). The largest of these is Auber, whose huge underground space, 30m below the surface, comprises three levels: the train lines and platforms, a spacious concourse, and a mezzanine with ticket offices.
While these early RER stations were certainly impressive, it’s to the newest line that we can look for what I consider real beauty. Line E was first announced in 1989, as “Eole”, for “Est-Ouest Liaison Express” (“East-West Express Link”). At the same time, what would become Métro line 14 was announced, labelled “Meteor” for “Métro Est-Ouest Rapide”. The east-west axis in Paris was (and remains) one of the busiest corridors in the world, and the RER A was already operating at capacity as early as the 1980s, despite numerous innovations to increase the frequency of trains.
Line E opened in 1999 and links Paris’s central business district around Opéra and the Gare Saint-Lazare with suburbs to the east, easing crowding on lines A and B and cutting journey times for people travelling via the Gare du Nord. Line E has two underground stations in central Paris: Haussmann – Saint-Lazare and Magenta. Magenta is conveniently located between the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est. Haussmann – Saint-Lazare connects to the mainline Gare Saint-Lazare, Auber on line A, and no fewer than four different Métro stations serving 7 lines. This is one of the largest underground station complexes in the world and serves an area home to department stores such as Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, tourist attractions such as the Opéra Garnier, and hundreds of thousands of square metres of office space.
These stations, like those of the RER A, are impressive in scale. Each has four tracks: two in a vast central hall, and one either side. But for a number of reasons they feel even more spacious that that first generation of “cathedrals”. Firstly, high ceilings abound, even in connecting tunnels. But what I think really makes them feel cathedralesque is the use of light and colour.
These stations’ design eschews the bright white fluorescent tubes common in Paris’s Métro stations for a more “domestic” approach, with as much natural light as possible closer to the ground and warmer-coloured lights deeper down. Lights are positioned strategically to highlight certain architectural elements and to make the halls feel larger.
Colour is also a careful consideration in the materials used. Many of the ceilings and walls are made of concrete; but not all concrete is equal. These stations use no fewer than eleven different types, with different colours, textures and finishes chosen according to the specifics of the location. For instance, for narrower walkways, where passengers see the walls up close, a glazed, light-grey concrete was chosen; for the arched ceilings over the platforms, a reflective satin finish reflects light from all directions.
Indeed, the design doesn’t shy away from concrete. More broadly speaking, the architects’ aim was not to hide the structural elements, but draw attention to them, as can be seen in the supporting columns and brackets. Architect Jean-Marie Duthilleul, founder of SNCF’s architecture and engineering consultancy AREP, referred to AREP’s design as a vérité constructive – a “constructional truth” where the engineering techniques and materials are revealed, rather than concealed.
Marble floors complement the concrete walls and ceilings, while light, airy wood and metal staircases contrast nicely with the heavy concrete and overbearing scale. Bridges use an acoustically treated wooden floor resembling the staircases. Unique translucent light shades in red and orange bring warmth to the platforms, while a similar design in green adorns some of the connecting walkways. Glass lifts add to the feeling of spaciousness while respecting the principle of vérité constructive.
Acoustic panels in the platform ceilings work in harmony with the surrounding colourscape and could be mistaken for decorative elements. Metallic serif lettering informs passengers of where they are. This is also chosen to blend in; perhaps a more contrasting colour would be more helpful from a utilitarian standpoint, but it does suit the environment.
These two stations are quite unlike other transport architecture in Paris: worlds away from the white tiling and low ceilings of the Métro; unapologetically modern unlike the great classic terminal stations of the mainline; and distinguished from the rest of the RER network by their innovative use of materials and lighting. They’ll be entering a new chapter of their history soon with the opening of the western extension to the RER E early in the 2020s, making these stations all the more important to the Parisian transport landscape.
Cover photo: Haussmann – Saint-Lazare. Photo © Benjamin Chadwick [used with permission]
About the Author
Born and raised in a small town in southern England, Benjamin Chadwick developed an interest in transport and urban design while living and studying in London. In 2014 he moved to Paris, a city he fell in love with instantly. He recently launched Fabric of Paris, which features articles about streets, buildings and transport in his adopted home.
Bibliography and Further Reading
French Urban Art Association prize citation on the RER E underground stations, here
EOLE Ligne de RER. technique en sous-sol. Cinquième des lignes de RER, la toute nouvelle ligne E matérialise un véritable prodige, here