The elegant Art Nouveau metro entrances are an integral part of the cityscape of Paris, representing a collective image of the Belle Epoque of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Thanks to intricately woven ironwork in the shape of plants and flowers, the entrances to the metro became a symbol of the city, but it didn't happen right away. Townspeople were highly distrustful of industrialisation trends and the decision of architect Hector Guimard to resort to unconventional architectural aesthetics of the time was only appreciated decades later.
The radical transformation of Paris from a medieval labyrinth into a metropolis of the Second Empire in 1850-1870 coincided with the construction of the first underground railway in London. While a wave of demolitions and redevelopments in the French capital (Haussmann's renovation of Paris) might have been a good excuse to build an underground, the prefect of the Seine department, Georges Eugène Haussmann, showed little interest in the scheme.
Only The Exposition Universelle of 1900 could convince inhabitants of the need for a modern underground transport network. Architect Charles Garnier, famous for the Paris Opera House, which now bears his name, in a conversation with the Minister of Public Works, expressed the idea that people would accept the metro if they saw it as a work of art and not just as industrial innovation.
A graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris, Guimard admired Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's theories on structural rationalism, without sharing the latter's love of Gothic architecture. Influenced by the ideas of Viollet-le-Duc, the British Arts and Crafts movement and the Art Nouveau works of Victor Horta, Guimard developed his own form of Art Nouveau rationalism, which contrasted strongly with the eclectic, classicist proposals of his competitors.
Guimard created five types of entrances, ranging from simple railings to spacious covered pavilions. A common element in the design of all the stations was the distinctive green paint (to mimic the patina on the bronze) and the signpost "Métropolitain" (Guimard created the font by himself). The simplest and most common was the steel handrail with pairs of amber-yellow flower-bud-shaped lights that illuminated the "Métropolitain" signpost placed between them. The fan-shaped glass canopies over the staircases drew the public's attention to the elegant new entrance structures.
By 1904, 141 stations have been built, using five modular variations of Guimard. However, the latest version for the station of the Opéra Garnier was rejected by the Municipal Council, which considered its style incompatible with the city's existing architectural traditions and unsuitable for the Opéra area.
Today, only 86 of the original 141 entrances to the metro have survived. The rest were dismantled before the Art Nouveau buildings were included in the lists of protected cultural sites. The remaining stations today inspire followers of the eponymous metro style, with its greenish metal and elegant signpost letters that have become the trademark of the Paris metro.