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Paris Metro signs saved for art's sake

John Lichfield
Tuesday 06 July 1999 23:02 BST

THE BEAUTY of Paris often resides in the most everyday objects, such as the swirlingly ornate entrances to Metro stations. Foreigners have sometimes grasped this truth more readily than Parisians. The New York Modern Art Museum bought the disused wrought-iron railings from a Metro entrance 40 years ago and displays them as a pioneering and beautiful example of art nouveau.

The Paris transport authority, the RATP, has finally recognised it has an extraordinary artistic heritage in its care. The remaining art nouveau entrances to Paris Metro stations are to be dismantled and lovingly restored, at a cost of pounds 1.4m, over two years and rebuilt on their original sites.

Much has already been lost. An estimated 180 station entrances were constructed of wrought iron to the designs of the architect, Hector Guimard, starting with the first Metro line in 1899. Of these, only 86 remain. His most ambitious design - a fan-shaped arch of wrought iron and glass, described as "like a dragonfly opening its wings" - was used at 20 different sites. Most fell victim to the modernising ravages of the 1960s and 1970s, and the destruction was halted only in 1978, when all Guimard entrances were declared historic monuments. Just two of the arches, or pagodas, survive, at Porte Dauphine in the 16th arrondissement and at Abbesses, near Montmartre.

These and the less grand, but equally beautiful railings and signs at other sites, full of ironwork scrolls and squiggles and fronds, will be taken to the RATP workshops, scoured and sand-blasted and re-soldered where necessary. Worn sections will be replaced, copying the original manufacture.

"They were made from interchangeable sections, capable of being adapted to every kind of Metro entrance," said Francis Guittonneau, director of infrastructure at the RATP. "Putting them back together will be a real jigsaw puzzle."

Mr Guitonneau's researchers have even scraped off successive layers of paint, to discover the original colour of the ironwork.The entrances had often been painted in an unflattering, dog-sick yellowy-green. They will be repainted in their original hues, dark green for leafy locations and bluey-green for street sites.

Guimard entrances have not always been prized. Even their name - edicule - is not flattering. It can also mean "public convenience". Guimard's fanciful ironwork scrolls upset conservative Parisians early in the century. One entrance, due to be placed opposite the Paris Opera, was never constructed, such was the outcry from the opera-goers of the day. Guimard resigned soon afterwards as chief architect of the then Compagnie du Metropolitain Parisien.

His work is now regarded as having been an important influence on the art nouveau movement. Two new Metro systems - one in Lisbon, and last year, the one in Mexico City - have each built a replica station entrance in the Guimard "dragonfly" style.

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