Wednesday 12 November 2008

The Colour of Memory

Winter hangs over the city, and the lights have been switched off. In the natural world, a full year takes us through an entire palette of spring greens, summer yellows, autumn reds and winter whites, but Paris is anything but a natural environment. In our manufactured city terrains, devoid of life's primitive pointers, we seem to have settled on an ever-decreasing range of tones and hues. When did we decide to remove colour from our lives and who made the decision?

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?


Anonymous said...

I really like your style of writing and the topic here is a most interesting one.

I have a particular fondness for the 1970's oranges. I remember the times when my parent's kitchen came in those colours, with orange light globes over the counter and large format flowers on the wallpaper LOL!!!

On the last occasions I've been to Paris I've seen a number of these stations being renovated. Is RATP really going to go for standard white? YUK

Adam said...

Yes, I remember living in a house with a blue, plastic sofa and brown and yellow curtains! We may live in times of 'good taste' now, but it's not as much fun as before!

Anonymous said...

I have a book somewhere about the history of the Metro and, yes, it talks at length about the two distinct companies that used to run the different lines until it all merged, which I seem to recollect was pretty much when line 13 finally became a single line crossing the whole city from north to south.

One of the most significant (or at least the most visible) differences between the two is the station names as displayed on the platforms. One would go for metallic name-plates nailed to the walls while the other (probably Nord-Sud, on the basis of your photo) would go for all-ceramic, tiled names which can still be viewed in quite a few stations.

PeterParis said...

I have done quite a few posts on the metro (label "subway") and feel quite strongly and favourably about the original architecture (not only Guimard). My feeling is that it would be good to safeguard the respecitve original decorations... that the old ones stay as the are (were) and that the new ones get today's design. Of course there is not a new metro station every day, but line 14 is an example. It reflects the fashion as it was when it was created.

I must admit that I therefore appreciate the idea of going back to the original white bathroom style in the old stations. The architecture as a testimony of each period. What has been destroyed by a wish to make things up-to-date is often regretted. This goes not only for old historical sites, but also for what may have been created in the 30's or the 50's...and why not even in the 70's or the 90's.

In the meantime, your article is very interesting and extremely weel written!

Adam said...

I appreciate what you are saying Peter. I'm not sure that it's the RATP's job to provide us with colour, but I'm just a little sad that it's disappearing from everywhere else!

I just looked at your Metro posts. This one is amazing!

CoCo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CoCo said...

How you turn a phrase! You've even rendered this bit of history beautifully poetic. Charmed, we've all searched the corners of our minds for our own memories of these wonderful colors and the textures that acoompany them. Thanks for this -- and the memories.

Gina V said...

I just read a couple of aphorisms yesterday about colors and thought of this post of yours...they are from 'Sens-Plastique' by Malcolm de Chazal..."Artificial colors have to be "decoded". Natural colors declare themselves openly..." and " Color can "travel" great distances to reach the human eye. If we concede mobility and radiance to color, isn't it conceivable that the human soul shouldn't be able to travel even farther and wider?..."
[My last post on is on hot pink boxes!]

Adam said...

Very nice words Gina. I think there is a lack of natural colour in the city, and perhaps this does restrict how far our souls can travel.

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