Guest Blogger: Amanda
Each city has its own distinctive sign or symbol for its public transportation system, but often its people don’t question the origin of such a familiar landmark. Having been to Paris, I always felt a superseding appreciation for the famous Métropolitain archway in comparison to the ones I see around the D.C. area. After realizing that a copy of this particular sculpture is in Washington’s National Gallery Sculpture Garden, I became curious about the well-known Parisian symbol and wanted to learn about how this beautiful, mass-produced entryway came to be in the city of lights.
Hector Guimard, a French architect, is well-known for being part of the French Art Nouveau movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1896, he entered a competition to win the best design for the Paris Metro stations. While he did not win, he did end up getting a job due to the railway company’s president taking an interest in the Art Nouveau Style. He was eventually commissioned to create the entranceways to the Metro stations in a manner that would be appealing to Parisians and also to ignite interest in the new transportation system. This modernization was a direct result of Baron Haussmann’s plans to create architecture and infrastructure changes in the 1860s, known as Haussmannization. Guimard sought a way to appeal to all passengers by embracing the old and new parts of the city in his architecture.
The appeal of the entrance is in the organic plant form contrasted against the inorganic cast iron of the structure. The cast iron makes us feel the rough exterior of an urban environment, but the ornate and intricate forms of the plants soften the harshness of a modernized city. The station entrances were produced from 1900 to 1913, and ultimately 141 were placed throughout Paris. The three main variations include a basic, open, entrance with railings and a sign flanked by the stalks, or lamps; an enclosed entrance with covered steps, an iron frame, and a butterfly glass roof with decorated enameled lava panels and translucent wired glass; and an entrance with complete pavilions, waiting rooms, arches, and roofs with tiered pyramids. The first type seen in the photo from the National Gallery of Art is the most simple and common with about 90 surviving entrances in Paris today. The Gallery’s Parisian Metro entrance needed to be restored and repainted several times as the layers of paint lifted from the cast iron. So, in order to preserve the layers, the gallery applied corrosion inhibitors and more durable paints that would maintain the aged bronze appearance Guimard intended to create in the early 1900’s.
Hector Guimard’s vision for Paris’ public transportation system included an appreciation for the Art Nouveau movement will live on as city dwellers enter and exit the metro every day. While it takes a second glance to stop and appreciate the considerable sentiment Guimard imbued in the famous entranceway, it does not take more than a passing through the train station to realize that there is a timeless element to the structures that are dispersed throughout the city. The older and historical side of Paris lives on with the new, modernized Paris, and for that we have Guimard’s thoughtful and unique perspective and artistry to thank.