Hector Guimard, Cité entrance, Métropolitain, Paris

Hector Guimard, Cité entrance, Métropolitain, c.1900, painted cast iron, glazed lava, and glass, roughly 14 x 18′, Île de la Cité, Paris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re on the Île de la Cité in Paris, sandwiched in between Sainte-Chapelle and the Palace of Justice in a large open square.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] Not far from the Louvre.

Dr. Zucker: [0:16] This is the very heart of Paris.

Dr. Harris: [0:18] We’re looking at an entrance way for the Paris Metro that was designed by Hector Guimard around 1900.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] It’s one of the quintessential examples of the Art Nouveau.

Dr. Harris: [0:30] It’s not situated in any one place. About 100 of these that were manufactured out of cast iron, painted green to look like bronze that has acquired a patina.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] Copper often turns that beautiful blue or green. This is painted in order to look like that, but bronze is far too expensive, and this was meant to be done cheaply.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] It was manufactured in a modular system that allowed it to be produced in large numbers and easily assembled.

Dr. Zucker: [0:58] It was wildly modern, but of course it wasn’t only for the elite, it was for everybody.

Dr. Harris: [1:03] A shift in the Art Nouveau from a style associated with expensive items for an industrial nouveau riche to applying that style with its organic forms to something that’s mass-produced. This is a subway station for a middle class that needed to move around freely in this new capitalist culture.

[1:25] It’s a good reminder that there are idealist aspirations of creating something beautiful for the masses. Something that could be mass-produced and easy to assemble and cheap. Beauty wasn’t only for the rich, for the aristocracy.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] The Paris subways as a project was accelerated because of the coming of a large exposition in 1900 in Paris. This was meant to help move a lot of people around the city, and of course, it has been incredibly successful. Let’s take a look. There’s nothing like it in the subways that I’m used to in New York City.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] It announces itself. It doesn’t hide. It isn’t afraid of its modernity.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] You just hit on one of the main issues for the Art Nouveau. It was to counter all the historicizing that had been so much a part of the 19th century. Think about architecture, for example. You have people reviving the Gothic, the Egyptian style. You have people reviving the classical.

[2:18] Guimard is asking, what would a purely modern style look like? It’s interesting that he goes back to nature.

Dr. Harris: [2:26] A lot of architects were asking this question instead of looking back at those older styles and using that vocabulary, how could the artists of the late 19th century, of this mass industrial culture, create a style that suited that culture? In fact, Art Nouveau existed across Europe and had different regional variations in Spain, in Vienna, in Belgium. In France we see the use of organic forms, like we see here with Guimard.

Dr. Zucker: [2:52] I’m looking up at the sign itself. It’s held up, suspended between two plant-like stalks that look as if they’re budding, except that the blossom, which is yet to open, is actually a lamp.

[3:04] There’s a tree that’s right next to one of the posts. One of its branches is tucked under the lamp. You can really see the distinction between nature and this highly stylized representation of the organic, which is really the point here. This is not a representation of nature. It is a stylizing of the quality of growth.

Dr. Harris: [3:24] “Growth” is a key word. There are places where we have upward movement, those columns made to look like stalks that support the lamp. But we also see forms that seem to melt or move downward.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] There’s also a quality of unfurling, the way that a palm frond, or especially the frond of a fern, uncurls as it grows. There is this wonderful quality, not only of the organic, but of a kind of organic in motion.

[3:51] This gate is in awfully good condition, although you can see in places where the paint has chipped off that it’s been repainted many times and there’s certainly some rust. There’s one section that’s in extremely good condition. That’s the sign that says “Metropolitain.”

Dr. Harris: [4:05] That was made out of ground lava. The architect is intentionally looking for materials that are going to last.

Dr. Zucker: [4:11] It’s a kind of ceramic. The part of that sign that I find most beautiful is the typeface. The letters have a really organic, rounded quality. It feels hand-drawn in some ways. Look at the L that almost looks like a leg that’s walking forward.

Dr. Harris: [4:23] There’s a real playful quality to it.

Dr. Zucker: [4:25] Notice how it moves from a dark green-blue down to a lighter blue. The entire object, from the typeface, to the oval of the sign, to the wonderful, sinuous, unfurling stalks that surround it, everything feels as if it’s in motion, that there’s a dynamism. What a perfect visual metaphor for a subway system.

[4:45] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Hector Guimard, Cité entrance, Métropolitain, Paris," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/hector-guimard-cite-entrance-metropolitain-paris/.