When I traveled to Paris in the 1980s as a teenager, I fell madly in love with the Métro entrances. In hindsight, that visit must have been my first encounter with Art Nouveau. The appearance of the organic shapes and ‘triffid-like’ lamp poles never left my memory. Decades later, when I started blogging about Art Nouveau, the Paris Métro became my ‘gorilla in the room’. This element of our Art Nouveau heritage was só obvious to me that it never occured to me to write about it. However, as I discovered plentiful black and white pictures of demolished Métro entrances, I figured those would be really worth sharing. So here we are, at last…
Le Métropolitain or Le Métro
The history of the Paris Métro began in the mid-nineteenth century, when the administration of the city of Paris, to decongest surface traffic, began to think of an underground métropolitan train. It took another half century for the project to commence under the pressure of the imminent 1900 Exposition Universelle. In 1896 Paris city officials selected Fulgence Bienvenüe (1852-1936) to become chief engineer for the Paris Métro and on the 9th of July 1897 his plans were approved. The project was declared of public utility with a law dated 30 March 1898 and the works began on the 4th of October that same year. The first line was inaugurated without much ceremony on 19 July 1900, during the Exposition Universelle. The subway was a hit from day one.
As with all subway systems, Métro entrances were to be designed visible as well as recognisable. Yet, to alleviate the public’s fear that they would mar the cityscape with an industrial appearance, the CMP (Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Métropolitain de Paris) launched a design competition. They were careful to avoid criticism. After all, in 1886 Charles Garnier, architect of the Opera, had declared in a letter to the minister of public works that:
The metropolitan railroad, in the eyes of most Parisians, will only be excused if it rejects absolutely all industrial character so as to be completely a work of art. Paris must not be made into a factory, it must stay a museum.
The new entrances were stipulated to be “as elegant as possible but above all very light, prioritising iron, glass and ceramic”. The winner of the competition was Henri Duray. Yet his designs were all too bulky and unoriginal and CMP’s president, Adrien Bénard, proposed the young architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942). Although Guimard did not compete, he drew two types of entrances, kiosks and more simple entourages. Composed of cast iron, the elements were modular and made it possible to build entrances of variable dimensions. Despite several disagreements (particularly financial) Hector Guimard’s cast iron Art Nouveau entrances – made by the foundry of Val d’Osne – were installed. Eighty-six are still in existence, about half of the original collection.
Guimard’s Paris Métro Entrances
Guimard used cast iron set in concrete both to reduce costs and to suit the sinuous Art Nouveau forms; the cast iron was painted in a green emulating weathered bronze. The standardized components, including railing cartouches incorporating the letter “M” and signs in Guimards distinctive lettering reading “Métropolitain” or, at narrow entrances, “Métro”, gave the system its distinctive identity.
Guimard designed 3 different types of entrances
- Pavilions, known as pagode (station, including waiting rooms)
- Glass canopies, known as édicule A and édicule B (kiosk)
- Cast iron balustrades, known as entourage (enclosure)
Most spectacular were of course the pavilions! I find it fascinating to see how much Guimard was influenced by Japanese pagodas! Unfortunately, not everybody liked them. And as soon as Art Nouveau started to lose its charm, all three pavilions (Étoile Station, its electrical substation on the other side of Avenue de Wagram, and Bastille station) were demolished. Étoile already in 1926, Bastille followed in 1962.
Almost as spectacular were his glass-covered “dragonfly” kiosks, some of which were decorated with wall panels in reconstituted lava. Guimard first designed a prototype, known as Édicule A. Two of those kiosks were installed, at Saint-Paul and Reuilly-Diderot. However, as these kiosks were judged not spectacular enough, Guimard went back to the drawing board and designed an Édicule B. That type was installed at Portes Maillot, Vincennes, Porte Dauphine, Argentina (Obligado), and Nation. (At some stations, there was a kiosk on both sides of the road)
Édicule A had two essential differences compared to édicule B: a classic roof with a left and right slope, and the square bottom. In addition, a coat of arms with the arms of the City of Paris adorned the pediment of these kiosks. Édicule B had a round floor plan, and 3 instead of 4 pillars to hold a three-sided glass-roofed structure (resembling a dragonfly) enclosing the stairway.
From the beginning, voices were raised to criticize Guimard’s kiosks. Not as much for their aesthetics as for their massiveness. Guimard therefore designed two new models of covered surrounds, directly inspired by the kiosks. Yet he removed the enamelled lava panels and the glazing, replacing the lower part with balustrades of cast iron shields.
The model installed at Hôtel de Ville, derived from the édicule A (Saint-Paul, Reuilly-Diderot) is therefore square-bottomed. A model derived from édicule B (Porte Dauphine), with a rounded bottom, was installed at Gare de Lyon. These two types of covered entrances, little appreciated by the administration, were only built once. At Gare de Lyon the glass roof would be removed in 1943, while the entrance at Hôtel de Ville would be completely dismantled in 1974, and relocated to Abbesses.
Only two of all ten édicules still exist: at Porte Dauphine and Abbesses. Porte Dauphine was inaugurated on 13 December 1900, registered as a historic monument in May 1978 and completely restored in October 1999 for the celebrations of the centenary of the Paris Métropolitain. Abbesses opened on 30 January 1913. As said earlier, the canopy was originally located at Hôtel de Ville until it was moved to the Montmartre district in 1974. A replica of the édicule at Abbesses was installed at Châtelet station in 2000.
The métro entrances consisting only of cast iron balustrades and lamp posts were by far the most numerous. And of this type we can find the most remaining entrances today. The balustrades are decorated with organic whiplash motifs and floral cartouches. The Métropolitain sign is held up by two orange moulded ‘flower buds’ atop sinuously curved cast-iron lampposts in the shape of plant stems. The name of the station, and the word METROPOLITAIN are written in a font designed by Hector Guimard himself.
In the spirit of cultural exchange several of the iconic Guimard entrances have been given to other cities. The only original one outside Paris is at Square-Victoria-OACI station in Montreal. Replicas cast from the original moulds have been given to Lisbon (Picoas station), Mexico City (Metro Bellas Artes) and Chicago (Van Buren Street). Moscow has a Guimard entrance at Kievskaya station, there is an entrance on display at the Sculpture Garden in Downtown Washington, D.C., the New York Museum of Modern Art has an original restored Guimard entrance outdoors in their Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden and there is one at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.
Guimard’s use of Enamelled Lava
Quite early in his career, Guimard became fascinated by the properties of enamelled lava stone: remarkable weather, frost and acid resistance. Guimard turned to the Gillet company, which is historically linked to its discovery and exploitation. In 1882, François Gillet innovated by creating reconstituted lava for which he applied for a patent. The process involved grinding natural lava (two parts) and adding cements (one part) and clay (one part) to obtain a plastic paste which could be pressed into a mould before firing and enameling.
The first time Guimard applied this enamelled lava seems to be in the interior design for Castel Béranger, around 1897-1898. He used it for a chimney that was installed at Castel Béranger, in Guimard’s own architectural office. Later the same chimney was installed at Castel Henriette (1899-1903). (In postcard nr. 10 below the ‘green’ plates inserted in the cast iron fire place are of enamelled lava)
Guimard seems to have liked this mouldable enamelled lava stone a lot because immediately after his experience with the fireplace, he applied the material on the façade of the Hôtel Roy in 1898. Then followed a major project: the exterior and interior decoration of the house of ceramic merchant Louis Coilliot in Lille. A second major order involving enamelled lava is that of the Paris metro (1900-1903).
Le Style Métro or Le Style Guimard
The Guimard entrances received a generally warm reception. By way of what became known as Le style Métro, they popularized Art Nouveau in France. But the style would also be called Le style Guimard and Guimard himself was promoting this by means of a series of postcards of his completed works! However, modernization after World War I led to the demolition of many, especially the more elaborate of his Métro entrances. Shortly before World War II, it was even suggested that those remaining should be scrapped for their metal. Clearly, Art Nouveau was out of fashion.
Back in 1894, Guimard had met the Belgian architect Paul Hankar, who recently completed his own townhouse. It was one of the first examples of Art Nouveau, in Brussels. The following year, Guimard had traveled to Brussels where he met Victor Horta. The gentlemen developed a close correspondence and Guimard expressed great admiration. He was highly moved when he visited Horta’s Tassel house, completed two years earlier and often considered the first Art Nouveau building. Like Guimard, Horta was looking to nature for inspiration in modern architecture, and he told Guimard that he preferred, when looking at a plant, to cut off the flower and concentrate on the stem, the essential structure. So even though Guimard liked to refer to Art Nouveau as Le Style Guimard, he certainly took some of his inspiration from elsewere!
Like Horta, Guimard mastered the sinuous line. Like no-one else he could draw a 3D shape that resembled nature as nature was supposed to be. Drawings I found in museum collections are simply stunning. And it is only just that Guimard’s work is slowly being revalued. In 1992, the 125th anniversary of his birth, the Musée d’Orsay devoted a large show solely to Guimard and some of the first monographs devoted solely to the architect appeared in that decade. The year 2000 saw a flood of publications commemorating 100 years since 1900, that year’s Exposition Universelle in Paris, and, by extension, Art Nouveau. And last but not least, a society known as Le Cercle Guimard, made up mostly of Art Nouveau enthusiasts in France, actively promotes his legacy. The Cercle aims to create a Guimard Museum in Paris, preferably at the Hôtel Mezzara – currently vacated and in the process of being sold – at 60 rue de la Fontaine. The association has begun working towards acquiring the mansion to convert it into a living testimony to the architect.
DecArts Podcast: Parsons-Cooper Hewitt Master’s candidate about Hector Guimard
La lave émaillée Gillet « façon Guimard »
Le Cercle Guimard – l’Art nouveau du métro
Listing of all remaining métro entrances by Guimard
Paris Insiders Guide
Series of old postcards of the Paris Métro in the 1900s
The Art Story – Hector Guimard Biography
The Beauty of Transport
The Epidemic of Fake Bronze Subway surrounds in the US
Why Paris’ Greatest Art Nouveau Metro Stop Is No More
Wikipedia about the Paris Métro
Wikipedia about the Paris Métro Architecture
Wikipedia about Paris Métro entrances by Hector Guimard
www.lartnouveau.com – artistes – Guimard