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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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.