Underworld connections

The staggering thing about Paris’ most recent showcase for design, contemporary art, fashion, architecture, photography and cinema is not just the whacking FF6100m (about 610m) in construction costs, nor the dozen or so cultural bodies displaying works by contemporary artists, nor even the 60 million visitors expected over the next year. All these things make it an enormous venture, but what really tops the lot is the location – Paris’ newest metro line.

M̩t̩or РMETro Est-Ouest Rapide Рlinks the stations Madeleine in the city centre and Biblioth̬que Fran̤ois Mitterrand to the south-east, and opened last October in a burst of media coverage and public anticipation.

However, the art programme, meshed with architectural and technological advances, must be the line’s most original feature (along with its driver-less trains). The Paris transport company RATP is heralding the initiative as a great step forward “in France and the metro world”.

The Météor is Paris’ first new line since 1935. Architect Bernard Kohn’s competition-winning charter for the architectural policy outlined a commitment to providing the best in service, quality, speed, efficiency, architecture and interior design. He worked with his collaborator Jean-Pierre Vaysse on six stations, designing shorter corridors, escalators grouped within large, light-filled atriums and mezzanines over the platforms to speed up connection times and help travellers anticipate their movements and make choices.

“I suggested at the beginning that the whole metro could be seen as an exploded museum – not with permanent works of art, but something to do with more ephemeral art,” says the Franco-American architect. He sought the opinion of lighting director Henri Alekan for the treatment of the enormous light-walls over the tunnel arches, where colour and intensity can vary throughout the day. “Industrial places are lit to be efficient, forgetting the people. And metros are a bit like that,” Kohn says.

A year-long catalogue of about 30 events will offer the commuter insights into the contemporary arts and other fields at, for example, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Centre National de la Photographie. A dozen cultural bodies are participating, each with light-walls (from 2.5m to 7m in length, hung 1m from the wall) or screen-walls (for video and photography) to choose from. The Paris-based Purple Institute is co-ordinating the project.

At the outset the use of daylight, inspired by London’s Baker Street station, played a key role in Kohn’s masterplan. “It [natural light] gives a whole different quality to space,” he says, “so that people feel more relaxed.” However, technical, political and budgetary constraints had the winning hand: “There’s always a conflict between function, reason and aesthetics.”

Guided by the same philosophy of designing for people, Kohn rejected the purely utilitarian (fluorescent tubes or bare bulbs) and embraced indirect lighting for a less aggressive, less stressful environment. The result is a vast improvement on the network as a whole, owing much to a new range of building materials.

At the eastern end of the line at Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, a 70m-wide amphitheatre provides a central reference point for users making connections, and a potential concert venue. For the station’s architects Antoine Grumbach and Pierre Schall the simple geometric form and surrounding honeycomb of arches are intended to reduce the need for signalling and make the metro more user-friendly. The pair also put their heads together with lighting designer Louis Clair to create a surprisingly tranquil atmosphere in such a large volume, focusing on the use of the vaulted ceiling as a reflector.

“The fundamental principles are highlighting the architecture and well-being of the users [that is] to be able to see well in the space which is lit, and also that the shadows on the faces are not too strong. That’s why we have multiple-sources lower down… then we have an equal mixture of warm and cold light [ yellow or green] which approaches natural light… [but] warmer because it’s artificial,” says Schall.

With the arrival of M̩t̩or, the dialogue between design, art, architecture and state-of-the-art transport is on the right track to putting a sparkle back into those bloodshot eyes at rush hour and alleviating the weariness of the daily routine Рor as the Parisians say, le train-train.

2000 Chats by Alain Séchas (2000 cats) (1998)

Pyramides station platform, direction Madeleine

When you are standing on the platform at Pyramides, you cannot help noticing the apparent contradiction between Alain Séchas’ chosen title and the subject – there are only two cool, hip-swinging felines strumming on guitars. This soon clears itself up when you realise that La Mission pour la Célébration de l’an 2000 put up the money.

La Mission with its FF400m (about 40m) is shouldering the responsibility for the conception, organisation and set-up of the millennium events which kick off this summer to take us through to the all-nighter on 31 December into the dawn of the next thousand years.

Plans for the festivities fall into three categories: time for celebration, time for reflection and time for creation, and 2000 Chats arrive as the offspring of a commission given to Alain Séchas to illustrate these periods.

‘It’s about a precise moment in history and no one knows why we celebrate it. It’s a sort of fetishism, the numerology which makes us pass into 2000,’ says Séchas. ‘What interests me is the number 2000… which flashes comically and a little absurdly, too.’

Séchas also creates animated films which focus on the body, movement, and dance. Cats figure prominently in his sculptures and drawings, the domesticated pet being ‘a kind of Buster Keaton, the mechanical puppet. The cat which doesn’t smile, which has a placid, unchanging face no matter what the situation.’

Séchas’ neon tubes against a black backdrop give high visibility and something which can be appreciated quickly – since most of us spend a minimum amount of time on platforms.

Photographs by Rhona Bitner (1991-98)

Pyramides station platform, direction Madeline

Rhona Bitner’s photographs were not specially commissioned for the Météor light walls, but were taken from her circus series which freezes trapeze artists, clowns, acrobats and tightrope walkers in the limelight. The images are apparent snapshots, but the rich, jewel-like quality of the light and framing speaks volumes for the care taken over every one. A sculptured aspect is given to the figures who are caught dashing, swinging or jumping across the ring. And each character’s entrance is made all the more intense by the ever present wide, black shadow surrounding them. They came out of this shadow, but they cannot return.

The Centre National de la Photographie in the 8th arrondissement is behind this current Bitner display. The director Regis Durant knows New Yorker Bitner well and believes travellers will, ‘ask themselves what they see. Are these [the performers] miniatures? Are these things real? And there’s a kind of indecision. That’s interesting because that leads to thoughts about the place of the traveller in the metro space, where he is a sort of [elementary] particle which circulates in a great flux.’

Bla-bla by Claude Closky (1998)

Pyramides station platform, direction Bibliothèque

You would have to miss an awful lot of connections to appreciate Claude Closky’s conversation of epic proportions, but ‘I think you get 90 percent of the idea in the first three minutes, which is the time you wait for a train,’ says Closky.

Bla-bla’s dialogue in yellow and green lightboard text rolls incessantly on a three-hour loop with a time lag of a few minutes every 24 hours. The 4467 sentences were lifted from letters to the editor and interviews from weekly and monthly magazines, then fashioned into a mechanical reel of nonsense, so that they become ’empty by their profusion and regularity of the flow, the quantity. And exactly like the news …if you [turn on] your TV at eight o’clock there will always be something on the news for 30 minutes, there’s always 30 minutes of news,’ says Closky.

Contrary to the TV or radio, there is no off button here (nor pause, rewind or fast forward) and the frustrating regularity makes it difficult to stay with since the onlooker is powerless to stop the unbroken staccato of trite responses – that is, except by turning away.

Météor is not being viewed as a gallery or museum and RATP restrictions on content has meant that eight of Bla-bla’s 5000 or so lines were cut. Words like cocaine, LSD and suicide were considered unsuitable and substituted for amphetamines, hallucinogens and put an end to my days. ‘We change but we don’t prohibit,’ says Jean Michel Leblanc, director of cultural engineering at the RATP, and ‘we draw the line with some subjects’ – those subjects being religion, pornography and politics.

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