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.