In the monochrome city streets, we scuttle about, pulling our grey coat collars up to protect ourselves from the chill and trying to avoid placing our black shoes into puddles. Traffic rumbles down the street in front of us, a procession of identikit cars in a narrow range of metallic blues, greys and silvers. When did they stop making them in yellows, oranges or greens? Take the steps down, underground to the bright lights of the Paris Metro though and we discover a land where colours still exist and resist.
Visiting the different stations in the system is like taking a voyage back in time through the history of 20th century design. Helpfully, the RATP celebrated its centenary in the year 2000 by pointing out the architectural heritage of its equipment, with signs explaining the history and origins of a very wide range of objects from logos to plastic seats. Metro stations are usually places where we try to spend as little time as possible, but the RATP have shown us that we are actually travelling through a living museum.
On stations along the Line 12 for example, attention is drawn to some early decorative touches along the passageways. This line was originally operated by the Nord/Sud company, one of the two original underground transport operators in the city, and they seemingly paid more attention to design than their competitor, the CMP. At Madeleine you can observe an attractive wave frieze which runs along the corridors and around the advertising poster frames in a very pretty, delicate jade green. At the top of many of the frames, the original N/S logo can still be seen.
Move forward in time to the Line 9. A child of the 1920s, many of the stations along this line nevertheless sport the bold oranges and primary reds of the 1970s. The Havre-Caumartin station displays the classic designs of Jean-Andre Motte, which represented a desire to incorporate modern materials into the system. The individual, extremely functional plastic seat is the most famous remnant of this era, and it can still be found in a range of colours across the city. The sunshine orange and yellow tiling though is in greater danger of extinction.
Finally, to the end of the century, and the Line 14. 10 years old this year, but already looking curiously dated, like a 1950s vision of what the year 2000 would look like. It is a dimly lit world devoid of any noticeable features. The tiles have become heavy, grey granite slabs, barriers are in transparent plexiglas and the seating just simple wooden slats on thin strips of metal.
The RATP is fully aware of its design heritage, but who chooses what survives and what is discarded? The Metro system is currently undergoing massive refurbishment, with the intention of renovating every station over a 5-10 year period, but the goal of this operation is seemingly to introduce a white, hospital sterility to the tunnels and platforms. Will there always be a place for the 1970s oranges, or will they follow lime-green Ford Cortinas to the design scrapheap?