On a recent trip to Paris I happened to become a little obsessed. It wasn’t with the expected landmarks, the chic cafes, or even with the delicate mille-feuille pastries that I enjoyed daily (well just a slight obession with those.)
No, there’s an element to the city that can possibly be overlooked unless we narrow our gaze and ask; what is it that makes Paris so striking…so beautiful.
And, it’s everywhere. Winding and curving in the decorative balconies, stairways and lamp posts. Inhabiting charming doorways, gates and the fanciful Metro signs and entrances.
Not to mention, that the iconic Eiffel Tower is also abundant with the material. It stamps its romantic signature on the city; simply, it’s iron.
For me, history and architecture are inextricably linked, especially in the case of Paris. The iron structure that is the Eiffel Tower would not loom over the city, if… The Metro signs that ‘play’ with iron and grace the streets of Paris would not stand if… if the city had not hosted the International Exposition in 1889. Up until that period, iron had been a coarse, hard material used as far back as 1500 BC for weapons and tools. After the Middle Ages, it began to appear in doors and windows for protection from raiders and marauders. Moving forward, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the ‘village smithy’ was a staple of every town. In fact ‘Smith’ is from the German meaning “skilled worker,” which concurs with the high status they enjoyed at the time, a town couldn’t ‘move’ without them. From the 1500’s onwards, iron became sophisticated and decorative which leads us to Paris in the late 19th century.
As a city hosting the International Exposition, an iconic landmark was needed for the occasion and a design competition was launched. Gustave Eiffel was awarded the commission and proceeded to design the iron lattice tower for the entrance of the Expo, all 18,000 iron bars of it! It was fiercely maligned by leading artists and intellects of the time. They loathed it and pointed out that it didn’t do anything; it wasn’t a palace, a burial chamber, or a place of worship. Eiffel himself had to admit that he mostly wanted to build it for the pleasure and notoriety, even footing 80% of the cost.* A petition submitted by three hundred leading artists and intellects of the time ensued with the plea, “We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigour and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower!” Understandably, it must have been an abomination as it towered over majestic landmarks such as the Pantheon and Notre Dame Cathedral which had dominated the skyline since the 1160’s.
But alas, despite the outcry, the massive edifice was constructed with record speed. Eiffel had already established himself as a prolific engineer and his resume included the design and construction of the Statue of Liberty (a gift from France), among countless other projects. The Parisians would eventually warm to the Eiffel Tower, as would the world, which still does to this day. More than a century later, all that iron and its millions of twinkling lights is the most visited, paid monument in the world. C’est magnifique! Monsieur Eiffel would be proud indeed.
To prepare for the record number of visitors that would soon descend upon Paris for the Exhibition, a maze of underground transportation was planned by the Paris Subway (Métropolitain) Station. We know it today as the Metro. The Parisian architect and designer Hector Guimard won the commission to not only mark the entrees and sorties to the new Metro, but to positively portray this new mode of transportation to the city folk. And once again, the Parisians were not amused.
Initially, they were opposed to the gaping holes in their boulevards that descended to the dark, maze of tracks below. And they most definitely didn’t appreciate the new Art Nouveau style of the Metro entrances and signs, iron twisting as if to impersonate vines or flowers. The style was now ‘in vogue’, drawing inspiration from nature and natural forms. Plant vitality interpreted in abrstract-linear lines. There were also complaints that the freestyle font used in ‘Metropolitian’ was difficult to read. Guimard certainly would have been offended as it was reportedly his own script that he had used for the ‘flourishing sign’. How could they have known that eventually there would be people like me who would stand before it and deem it so pleasing, so original. A pleasant contrast to the stone structures that dominate the Paris landscape.
I can happily declare that on this trip, I mostly mastered the extensive labyrinth of stations, lines and routes that is the Paris Metro. Along the way, I adored the Metro signs as I flitted from one stop to the next. From Montmarte to the Seine, from St. Germain to Le Defence, stopping to photograph them as the Parisians rushed past on their daily commutes. I had time. Time to appreciate their elaborate designs, fluid despite the iron they’re wrought with. Whimsical, yet sturdy and reassuring. They made me smile, and they just so happen to direct more than 4.2 million passengers daily to their destinations. Paris wouldn’t be the same without them.
And what of those two artisans that elevated iron to a higher level, Eiffel and Guimard. We know they left lasting legacies to the city of Paris, but what of their fate? Eiffel had an illustrious career, eventually making significant contributions in aerodynamics and meterology. He died happily, listening to Beethoven in his lovely Paris mansion.
Guimard however, did not fare as well. He and his Jewish wife fled to New York before the Second World War, perhaps never to again have the pleasure of strolling past his designs that grace many Paris boulevards. He died in obscurity in New York.
Fortunately, the work of these creative men continue to delight visitors to the ‘city of light’. Let’s also spare a thought for the unsung heroes that worked in countless foundries, transforming iron into art that adorns a city which one cannot help, but to fall in love with. C’est Paris!
* Bill Bryson sums it up in his entertaining and informative, non fiction book ‘At Home, A Short History of Private Life‘… “Never in history has a structure been more technologically advanced, materially obsolescent and gloriously pointless all at the same time.”
*The Universal Exposition of 1889 was visited by some 28 million visitors. Considering many of them would have travelled by vessels across the ocean, it’s a staggering number. Attractions included, unbelievably, a ‘Human Zoo’. I had not realized this had existed. Also, the Wild West Show was at the Expo, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley lassoing their way to notoriety.