Paris feels strange, even frightening at the moment – the city on high alert, military everywhere. Perhaps this was why recently I was struck by the eerie beauty of the Métro entrances. They make you feel more like you are descending into some dark and dreamy Hades rather than a well-lit system of modern transport.
Over a hundred years have passed since Hector Guimard’s designs first graced the cityscape, to some acclaim, and a great deal of controversy. Conservative figures of the time heaped scorn upon the avant-garde artistic and architectural style we class as art nouveau. Its sinuous shapes evoked organic plant forms and the curves of the female body. Some thought it was just bizarre – the press dubbed it as the style “nouille” (the “noodle” style). The use of iron, coloured enamel and glass made it expensive to construct and gave the movement a very short life – in 1914, it seemed more in tune with the flamboyant excesses of early modernity than the present world at war.
Guimard’s use of corrugated iron in long, spiralling, stem-like forms blends the vegetal with the technological, the old with the new. The entrances were called édicules (aedicules), a term which referred both to the little houses above Christian tombs and the less than appealing public toilets dotted around the city. The red lanterns that loom above the entrances seem at once monstrous and machine-like, lighting the way into a spooky underworld, labelled by the equally gothic METROPOLITAIN, in striking capital letters on a yellow enamel plaque.
According to Walter Benjamin, Art Nouveau was a ‘fantastic montage’, where ‘nerve and electric wire not infrequently meet’. It formed part of a dream-city, a space of phantasmagoria perpetuated by the forces of early capitalism, where organic and inorganic mixed in an unsettling marriage. For him, the style gave the delusion of progress. It was a threshold space that perpetuated the waking dream that was enchanting everybody, luring people into this new, exciting underground space, in order to ferry them around the capitalist world of production and consumption more easily and efficiently.
‘Jugendstil represents an advance, insofar as the bourgeoisie gains access to the technological bases of its control over nature; a regression, insofar as it loses the power of looking the everyday in the face.’
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (1927-40)
Voices on either side of the political divide lambasted the style, either for its silly irreverence, or for its false promises of an ever-receding utopia. N0wadays, the style is resurging among modern artists and architects, as well as in the world of mass-produced merchandise, even including the new craze for colouring books. Are we still living in Benjamin’s dream world, bewitched by magical shapes and structures into our enduring role of passive consumer? …