Urban design magazine

Public spaces

The RATP and design: a lasting relationship

Image of Montparnasse metro station

The RATP and Paris transport have been at ease with design since they were established, and even before the term itself came into existence.

In 1899, the Paris Rail Company (CMP) launched several competitions to design entrances for the new and still unknown metro system. Yet, the projects presented were either too classic or too imposing.

By December 1899, time was running out with the metro scheduled to open in July 1900. The banker Adrien Bénard, president of the recently created CMP, turned to the architect and champion of the new art nouveau style, Hector Guimard. With the support of the Paris city council, he made an order based on what we would now called a “brief”. This very existence of this “brief” is significant as it prefigures the kind of design management practised today.

The ‘brief’ required the architect to design entrances that could be easily produced (there were 150 Guimard entrances of which 87 remain today, as well as a 88th created in 2000). The design should come in different sizes, be highly modular and express the ideas modernity and utopia. At a time when mass media was still limited, the aim was to convey an image to counteract negative discourse surrounding the fear of being underground. The rumours (some of which were even created by journalists themselves) suggested that metro passengers would suffer from problems chest pains.

Image of early Paris Metro - Couronnes

The Guimard entrances are the product of a very modern concept, of the desire to create a communication strategy where functional objects also play a role in conveying a message.

This was the beginning of a practice that is now widespread.

There have been numerous of these exceptional moments in the history of the Parisian transport system.

The second ‘North-South’ metro line created at the initiative of engineer Jean-Baptiste Berlier is another example. The managers were very aware of the importance of the quality of public spaces. This resulted in better decorated stations, particularly in terms of signage, large curved corridors to facilitate passenger flow and lighter more comfortable carriages. It is clear that the ‘North-South’ line has had a strong influence on the RAPT style.

Today, we are again in period of great creativity and change.

There is currently much reflection on the future of the city and the question of mobility is one of the central elements. The projects within the ‘Conception et Identité des Espaces’ (Design and Identity of Spaces) department at the RAPT aim to support this urban transformation. It is the role of designers and architecture to imagine innovative scenarios that benefit a maximum number of people.

I hope that by combining creativity and heritage in the third collection of furniture for our trams and in other ongoing projects we will make today one of those exceptional moments in the history of public transport.

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