From 1837 to 1914, railway stations covered Paris; they were a new kind of space, half-industrial and half-urban. This transplant profoundly transformed the landscape, but also the nature of the city, its functions and its place in the national and international arena. Under the Second Empire, the city was reconfigured around these new, modern “gates,” which have been the subject of several scientific studies. Before 1837, Paris was a city that had no rail infrastructure. In 1840, it could count just three small piers constructed out of wood and metal. Then, the number of rail stations went from five in 1846 to seven in 1849, and to 50 in 1900, if we account for the great commuter rail stations, merchandise stations and all the stations of the Petite Ceinture. First in the outskirts, and then incorporated in Paris at the time of the annexation of the suburban communes in 1860, they eventually found themselves at the core of the city. Different projects imagined subterranean stations or aerial ones connected to each other through tunnels or viaducts, which would criss-cross the capital, marking the city with their iron imprint. During this three-quarter century, the rail stations were transformed, enlarged, relocated, and re-assigned in order to adapt to a capital city under metamorphosis that was defining and modernizing itself and growing, seeing its population double. They also took part in the rounds of daily or long-distance trips: We imagine that their traffic reached as many as 201 million departures and arrivals across all Parisian stations in 1914. In such a way, at the beginning of the 20th century, the rail stations became heavily frequented places by Parisians, those living in the suburbs, but also rural people and foreign travelers.
A History on Imagining the Rail Stations
For all that, it would be reductive to limit the social functions of the train stations to morphological phenomena – urban and migratory – which would mean leaving aside their effects on society, its representations and practices. At a time when we strive to imagine what the train stations of a “Great Paris” could be, it may be useful to dive back into the history of the century that invented them, as well as a new Paris, a greater Paris.
The Parisian train stations should be taken as heterogeneous. We can take up their study with the perspective of cultural and social history in mind, following the British works of Jeffrey Richards and John MacKenzie, who were studying the “train station” (a kind of reduction modeled on the English train stations), according to different aspects that had been ignored until then. In fact, if everything is not cultural, as Pascal Ory very correctly wrote, nothing is entirely strange to him. By culture here, we should not understand a domain of production, disconnected from reality, floating in the abstract sky of ideas, but a means for considering the world and reality. Thinking about the creation of the train stations and railways during the 19th century is to reflect on the upsurge of innovation in the social world.
The cultural approach allows us to open up the field of curiosities, and it transforms the train stations, which today could seem like an obvious place of mysterious and enigmatic objects. Consequently, imagination becomes one of history’s motors. It’s what connects us to the world, what makes it make sense, what allows us to look at it, understand it, live in it. Imagination does not only belong to literary works. We can also find it, obviously, in the classical railway sources (the private archives of the rail companies, or those of the Public Works Ministry, the writings of engineers, architects, specialized publications), providing that we also cross-check them with the archives of the police, tourist guides, novels, different iconographic documents (postcards, photos, films) – in short, with everything that allows us to take in how the Parisian rail stations could have become matrices for the new French society that emerged in the 19th century.
Rail Stations Renewed the Representation of Parisian Space
The study of the first Parisian rail stations at the time of private companies and great Parisian transformations (before and during Haussmanization) shows first that these were successful in becoming places – that is to say progressively defined spaces, with words for describing them, an architectural typology, a stable geography, redesigned access, and an accrued visibility. The question of the identity of the train stations, however, remained problematic during the entire century because they are a double place: half-industrial, half-urban; both in the city and at its borders. To the extent that the railway stations objectively took on a more important place in the city and in the social, political and cultural life of the country, becoming industrial palaces honored at each great universal exposition, voices were raised against their proliferation, which had become perceived as a threat to the city by then. The critiques gushed out with a force that was coupled with the emergence of a mass media culture, which gave them a new blow. The attack applied to every new construction of a train station in the center of the capital and raised the spectre of Paris’s disfiguring, of its Americanization.
The question of the representation of the rail stations is therefore central: This new building gave rise to new architectural and engineering problems. Display windows for the rail companies, at the helm of the network they had to promote, they were also spaces that citizens hoped would attract wealth and prioritize commerce. But at the turn of the century, no one really knew what a train station should look like. Late and reluctantly, architects got themselves into thinking about this building that broke so much with what was the nobility of their art: In the 1840s, only Cesar Daly published a few articles by engineers on the architecture of the rail stations in the General Architecture Review, founded in 1840, and there was a lag period before the rail companies would seek out the great artists between 1850-1860, and before the debate would establish itself and the first treatises published by the masters of art. It was a commonly held opinion – as relayed by Emile Zola defending one of Manet’s canvases, which caused a scandal in 1872, “Le Chemin de Fer, Gare Saint-Lazare” – that a train station is ugly. Therefore, all the conviction of some architects, who were close to the powerful milieu of entrepreneurs, as well as a favorable context for a makeover – that of the art of perceiving and looking at the world – were necessary for the train stations to make their entrance into the Parisian landscape.
It’s only once they were appropriated, recognized, and anchored within the sensitive landscape of the city that the rail stations finally gave rise to and imposed new norms: for example, of punctuality to the nearest minute; of an architecture of glass and steel, of open but specialized spaces, neatly separated. To the extent that they anchored themselves to the city, the railway stations produced a different effect than cathedrals, to which they were likened. They concentrated activity and people; contributed (alongside other phenomena) to directing railway crossings; classifying and declassifying territories according to their accessibility; they drew figure-ground maps in one go; renewed completely the meaning of Paris’s centrality, introduced a world of many speeds, for which they became a symbol. It was their schedule that wound up imposing itself at the end of the 19th century on the whole of French society, “inventing,” in a certain way, the notion of legal time in France.
Today, still, the railway stations represent a stake of modernity, urban identity and mobility. It only takes looking at the great renovation and re-adjustment work done on the rail stations to gauge their importance, their centrality. But while in the 19th century, the rail stations had to prove their utility and their capability to become urban monuments, today, we ask them to “manufacture” urban identity at the scale of the Great Paris, while they still remain hybrid places: They should become one of the unifying markers for territories that are still very different.
What is your favourite railway station and why?
Original article, originally published in French, can be found here.
Credits: Data and images linked to sources.