Paris's mayor wants to go down under to give the city a new lease of life

WATO, a clandestine party agency that has been secretly colonising Paris's underground spaces for years. Image: Agence WATO

Paris’s history has always been as much underground as above ground. 

The city’s catacombs, an underground labyrinth stacked floor to ceiling with the bones of six million Parisians, is a key attraction. Half a million tourists visit every year. The Paris metro has one of the densest networks of underground stations of any city in the world.

And excavation of limestone, chalk, and gypsum in what were then the mostly rural areas of Montmartre and Montparnasse gave the city’s aesthetic its soft cream colour – the texture of the buildings of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s era, from the Opéra Garnier to the Arc de Triomphe, as well as the Louvre. The excavation also left behind a vast network of underground tunnels and former quarries, stretching for nearly 200 miles.

But for decades, even centuries, much of this underground space has gone unused, unloved, and neglected – until now.

Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, has launched the second phase of her ‘Reinvent Paris’ initiative. Where the first round from 2014 onwards invited architects to tackle derelict 16th century mansions, vacant plots of land, and electrical sub-stations – in what Hidalgo modestly called an “urban experiment of unprecedented magnitude” – the second round turns its gaze downward, to the city’s underbelly.

Croix-Rouge abandoned metro station. Image: RATP.

‘Reinvent Paris 2’ covers 34 sites, with a total area of almost 150,000 sq metres, and is now open to proposals from architects and developers.

Three of the city’s 16 abandoned Paris Métro stations – known as the ‘ghost stations’, since they closed around 70 years ago – are up for offer as part of the plan.

Croix-Rouge, on the city’s more bohemian Left Bank, still has the Paris Metro’s distinctive tiles covering the wide barrel of the station’s ceiling. And while much of the surface area of the walls is plastered in boisterous Parisian graffiti, the space still has a certain magic to it:

Saint-Martin abandoned metro station. Image: RATP.

Saint-Martin, by contrast, near the Bastille, is a more boxy, urban affair. Strong perpendicular lines of concrete cut across the ceiling of the surprisingly wide platform, as the tunnel snakes off under Paris.

The third station, Champ de Mars, is just a few steps from the Eiffel Tower, but has urbane grit that is world’s away from the sleek silhouette of Gustave Eiffel’s creation.

Also up for grabs are five tunnels, a former Renault garage, and three underground car parks, all of which have a potential charm somewhere in the midst of their current gloomy, abandoned aesthetic.

The former Renault garage, which is part of the programme. Image: ©Mairie de Paris.

These lost underground spaces have always had an attraction, and campaigners have long sought to transform them into a bizarre assortment of swimming pools, nightclubs, or bars.

In more recent years, a trend has emerged for secret elite parties at clandestine underground locations. A group called We Are the Oracle (known as WATO) has colonised catacombs, derelict chateaus, and empty railway tracks for candlelit dinner soirées and masquerade balls.

Though half the mystique of such events is inevitably the secrecy – and the salacious possibility of the police invading what is, often, an illegal gathering – the appeal of such alternative venues is beyond doubt.

An underground inner party, hosted by WATO. Image: Agence WATO.

“It’s a smart way to party,” a 40-year-old Parisian lawyer told the New York Times in 2016. “A pub or a disco is very boring, and so is going to a show where you stay in your seat.” The appeal of WATO parties, he says, is that “you are the show”.

In spite of a flirtatious relationship with the other side of legality, WATO has enjoyed some public support. Frédéric Hocquart, a counsellor for the Paris Town Hall believes Paris needs “an interesting offer in night life, not just restaurants and clubs, but atypical night life. It will make Paris more attractive to Parisians, but also abroad.”

And, befitting of Anne Hidalgo’s image as the ‘to boldy go’ reforming force in Parisian politics, she’s open to the options as to how these underground spaces can give Paris a boost.

“These unused and untypical spaces are incredibly rich, and we cannot neglect them,” she said. “Paris will never be a finished city. I no longer hear doom-mongers who write off Paris as a museum city that is falling asleep. Paris is a city that is able to imagine its future without denying its history.”

A space beneath a viaduct in the 6e, part of the programme. Image: © Mairie de Paris. 

That being said, there are understandable limitations on the possibilities of these spaces. “Not everything is possible,” admits deputy mayor Jean-Louis Missika, in charge of economic and aesthetic development, architecture, and projects in the Greater Paris region. “There are underground spaces necessary for the functioning of Paris via the transport, drainage and heating systems as well as car parks and cellars, but they are often hidden and underused.

“We want to bring some verticality and depth to the city.”

Gare des Gobelins, a strange car park with train tracks, it seems. Image: © Mairie de Paris. 

RATP, the Parisian transport authority that is responsible for many of the spaces, will be closely involved, and is supportive of the project. “How could we refuse city hall’s initiative, especially as these places cause such a lot of excitement,” the company’s director Frank Avice said.


“We’re putting the stations and their platforms at the disposal of people’s imaginations to see what new uses they can be put to.”

Once architects and developers have submitted plans by November, a shortlist will be drawn up before a final selection to be unveiled in November next year.

And then we can all go down under for a good glass of French wine. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.