Métro insolite by Clive Lamming (English translation)

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Métro comme mythologie: Arthur (Claude Brasseur) et Odile (Anna Karina) dans Bande à part de Jean-Luc Godard (1964)

Métro as mythology: Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Odile (Anna Karina) in Bande à part by Jean-Luc Godard (1964)

Clive Lamming, Métro insolite, Éditions Parigramme, 2011.

La profondeur se cache à la surface des choses.


[Pour lire le texte original français, cliquez ici.]

There is a type of city, familiar but seductive, which resists writers even as its charms produce no shortage of readers. Paris, of course, is the number one suspect in the line-up. Overwhelmed by the city and its stories, writers run the perilous risk of being reduced to that style which is simultaneously vague and soppy (The American Society for the Promotion of Bad Writing About Venice was founded to celebrate such writing). Paris is too much, always too much, an excess which perhaps demands a microscope rather than an Imax camera. This was George Perec’s approach in his famous Tentative d’Epuisement d’un lieu Parisien, a book as list of all that happens in one little corner of the city. Métro insolite is much more practical, but it too is an attempt to exhaust the inexhaustible.

The Paris Métro, born along with the twentieth century, is nevertheless an idea out of the nineteenth. The idea of a métro dates from 1855 and the long list of unbuilt métros includes such bizarre and very nineteenth century ideas as a métro which slides on a wave of water, proposed by Girard, and a métro without wheels (1872). This makes it all the more surprising that the Métro finally realized for the Universal exposition  of 1900 is essentially the Métro we ride today. Built as rapidly as the Chinese high speed rail projects of our century, lines 1 and 2 opened in 1900 and 3, 3 bis, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 12 all before 1910. The Métro, widespread from birth, was not a novelty but a comprehensive system in the tradition of Haussmann’s famous sewers or the Vélibs of our time (the Métro, with an average distance of only 710m between stations is also one of the most dense networks in the world — it forms the city and is formed by the city). The beauty of the Métro is a side effect of its engineering; beauty supports function and function enriches beauty. That’s Paris in a nutshell, I’d say.

Clive Lamming, as a historian of trains, does not hide his admiration for the Métro. He is a  fan and with good reason. Although London was the first city to build an urban, underground train network, Paris resolved the intrinsic problems of the idea. While Londoners were showered by the soot of steam locomotives, Paris used electric carriages. If one can say that the fundamental design of the Métro has not changed much, it is also true that that design implies a perpetual modernity. The Métro is both robust (The famous Sprague-Thomson carriages (1908) made their last trip in 1983) and always at the cutting edge of technology (carriages with rubber tires appeared in 1956, driverless trains in 1998 with the opening of the Méteor, line 14).

Above all, Métro insolite is a book for the train enthusiast. Lamming commands the details of his subject, that is the force of his book, but it seems to me that he also understands that his extraordinary enthusiasm demonstrates the Paris Métro’s unique seductiveness among the other métros of the world (and Métro insolite includes an enormous list of all the métros in the world which, if one is keen enough, itself justifies the price of the book — for example, the Pyongyang métro (1973) comprises 23 kilometers, 15 stations with a gauge of 1435mm and 34,000,000 riders per year).

Obviously the Métro is more than just “infrastructure,” one of the key words of our time. It is also a mythology, above all in Godard’s Bande à part (1964). In a Sprague-Thompson carriage, Anna Karina becomes a philosopher:

In the Métro, people look so sad and miserable. Look at him, why does he make that face?

The Métro is practically another Paris, an underground city whose own history is only lightly connected with that of the streets above. The Métro’s form is primarily the result of technical considerations — the city’s topography, the narrowness of certain streets, the slope of a ramps on their descent to the Seine — which are ignored by most Paris books, those which studiously avoid details. Superimposed on this engineered world are the names of stations which mark places above (Concorde, Étoile, Hôtel de Ville) or, more abstractly, commemorate a place or historic personage unrelated to the surroundings (Stalingrad, Voltaire, Franklin D. Roosevelt…maybe, in the city of the future, Godard, Karina or Obama…). One can make sense of this layering only with a book, like Métro insolite, which isn’t afraid of detail, which celebrates, for example, the strange arrangement of Mirabeau, a station on the banks of the Seine. The city is made of these details, but one cannot appreciate them without a microscope.

After his history of the Métro, its lines, its carriages and its father (Fulgence Bienvenüe, the Breton now commemorated by the station Montparnasse-Bienvenüe), Lamming describes several itineraries on the Métro which will be of interest to native Parisians and obsessed tourists alike. These trajectories, and above all the tour of the ten crossings of the Seine, present an underground flânerie which is almost subversive in its dream of secret urban itineraries which are more mazes than arrows (that is to say more Métro Métro Métro than Métro boulot dodo). In Lamming’s world, it is possible to ride the Métro for fun. There is a charming innocence (not at all soppy) in this idea of finding adventure in the Métro among strangers who, tied to the trap of their iPods, nowhere, miss the depths hidden on the surface of the underground world (the elevated lines 2 and 6 excepted, of course). A city, and above all a city as familiar (or seemingly familiar) as Paris continues to live thanks to this urban microscopy, to these strange trajectories. It is a formidable city indeed which does not disappear under a microscope.

Maquette de la station Danube (ligne 7), un viaduc souterrain dans une ancienne carrière de gypse.

Model of the Métro station Danube (line 7), an underground viaduct within a former gypsum quarry.

Lamming reveals places which, though sometimes hidden, are unforgettable. There are mysterious stations like Bastille, outdoors but almost invisible under the Place de la Bastille, next to the Canal Saint Martin and between two sharp bends. Most stations in the Paris Métro are shallow, but not those under Buttes-Chaumont. Their thrilling engineering is unfortunately hidden. These stations, like Danube on line 7 bis, sit on columns of over 30 meters in height within the former gypsum quarries which riddle the bedrock of Paris.

Lamming gives two examples, one in the east, the other in the west of the city, where the subterranean energy of the Métro explodes through the surface of the city. In order to cross the viaduc d’Austerlitz, line 5 follows a steeply sloping bend of 40mm per meter. The line crosses the Seine and then, without apology, without ceremony, passes right through the Gare d’Austerlitz itself. It is an incredible moment of urban movement, one of the elegant gares of the 19th century pierced by its furtive descendant, the Métro.

The equivalent in the west is Passy, where line 6 explodes out of the right bank and crosses the Pont Bir-Hakeim. What surprises is the juxtaposition of the line and the slope of the riverbank. The Passy station — partially underground, partially elevated and entirely Piranesian — creates a remarkable iron sandwich. There are (at least) four levels: Rue d’Albioni above the station, which itself forms a roof over Square Albioni and the footbridge which crosses L’Avenue de President Kennedy. It’s a very complex section, but the charm of this sandwich is its lightness. This kind of mixture of useful infrastructure and little improvised urban spaces is almost impossible to design. One would imagine that if Passy station were to be built today, it would be handed over to one of the so-called “starchitects,” probably Calatrava, maybe Hadid. That wouldn’t necessarily be terrible, but it wouldn’t be as mysterious as the Passy we have now. Passy, like most of the Métro, was built during that brief interregnum between the eclecticism of the 19th century and the modernism of the 20th. It was a moment in which ornament was not yet a crime, in which nascent modernism had all its tools — steel, electricity — but had not yet developed the theories which would weigh so heavily in the years to come. At Passy, steel viaducts exist happily alongside Haussmannian apartments.

In short, this book is generous. It is generous not only thanks to its numbers and its precise descriptions of the strange corners of the Métro, but for the way in which these details provoke a kind of constructive nostalgia in the reader. The Métro is a kind of miracle, almost a sci-fi world with its white tiled vaults, it’s incessant circulation of carriages like blood though the body, and, more dream-like than the movies, its phantom stations. It’s easy to babble like this but what struck me as I read the book was that the era in which the Métro was born — the pre-modernism between, let’s say, Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851) and the First World War — has much to teach us. It is no accident that the architecture of this period remains so useful (and popular) today. The Métro, New York loft buildings, the great train stations, all are simultaneously durable and sensual. The modernism of our century is late, nearly rococo. One realizes the heaviness of much contemporary architecture, its process and theories no less than its forms, when one contemplates Passy or Austerlitz or all the other moments in the Paris Métro which demonstrate a joining of solidity and improvisation. It is possible to imagine a light and muscular architecture. Maybe, in the 21st century, what we need is a second 19th, an ecological 19th century.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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