Metropolitain to Metro to M – signs at Paris Metro stations

Metropolitain to Metro to M – signs at Paris Metro stations. 

I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the time continuum, the Paris Métro station signs gradually evolved and changed. And not for the better, in my opinion. 

The Paris Métro railway began operations in 1900 to take people to the Paris World Expo, situated where the Eiffel Tower now stands. Originally called La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris – the Paris Metropolitan Railway Company – it is generally referred to as the Paris Métro. It now has 303 stations. 

The metro stations of old – from 1900 – are marked by ornate Art Nouveau “METROPOLITAIN” signs in green on a pale-yellow background. The signs are supported by cast iron frames that are gently arched, some with fan-style coverings and others featuring the typical florals of Art Nouveau.

French architect Hector Guimard (1867-1942), the first to use Art Nouveau techniques in a building, designed the original 167 metro station entrances from 1900 to 1913. The railway company organised a competition to design the edicules, canopies, balustrades, or railings. Twenty-one people entered the bid, but Guimard was not one of them. The president of the railway company didn’t like the winning design by Henry Duray, instead favouring the municipal architect Jean-Camille Formigé’s entry. Guimard got the job based upon the success of his Art Nouveau building, the Castel Béranger, at 14 rue Jean de la Fontaine.

At the time, Guimard was criticized for his design, as people said that the lettering, which Guimard invented himself, was difficult to read. There are still about 86 Guimard-style metro entrances around the city, with their iconic METROPOLITAIN signs.

When new metro stations were constructed from 1910 (starting with the Saint-Placide station), many signs were changed to “METRO” in gold lettering against a bright red background. In blockish letters, the letter R looks rather like an A, because it is fragmented, split in the middle. The letter O too is split in the middle, although it still looks like an O. 

The METRO signs are mounted on a lamp post, topped with a white ball of light. Some are rather more ornate than others. 

The most recent modernization of the metro station sign occurred from the 1970s until the latest station constructed in 2007 (the Olympiades metro station). The sign has been reduced to a bright yellow plastic “M” – minimalist, simple, plain, unadorned, and rather ugly. They are mounted on stainless-steel poles with a circle top, into which the yellow M appears. 

All three versions of the metro signs appear in Paris – from METROPOLITAIN to METRO to M. 

What does this say about society? Surely, it says more than the changing times – as in the passing of years. I think it says something about what designers perceive to be people’s preferred aesthetic. Or the general global trend to reduce names to initials and acronyms. Like Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, and America Online to AOL, and British Petroleum to BP, and Le Crédit Lyonnais to LCL. Hence, METROPOLITAIN to M.

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