Jules Verne in the Métro

As a young boy, I longed to live in the fantastic worlds of Jules Verne, to explore the depths of the ocean in the Nautilus with Captain Nemo. I had not told Philippa this, but as we set off to visit the Musée des Arts et Métiers (Museum of Arts and Trades) in the 3rd arrondissement, she suggested an intriguing possibility. “You’ll love the Jules Verne Métro station.” She was dead on – but don’t look for it by that name on a map.

As the train slowed to a stop at the Arts et Métiers station on line 11, we entered a magical world. My youthful Jules Verne world was that of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: heavy machinery and gears, smooth glistening metal and tiny round portholes looking out on new worlds. Everything was neat and orderly, unlike the messy work area where I built model planes that crashed and boats that listed.

Aside from the glistening copper and rivet heads, the first impression is simply vastness and a curious sense of disconnection from being on the Métro line.

Then more details begin to emerge. In the image above, it is easy to miss the overhead equipment but not in the image below.

The large gear and a drive wheel protruding from the ceiling are powerful images of 19th-century heavy machinery and industry. More hidden than exposed, they invite onlookers to create their own meaning and story.

On the Nautilus, portholes opened on to the mysteries of the depths. In the Jules Verne station at Arts et Métiers, portholes reveal a technological past that includes everything from steelmaking and ancient buildings to dreams of flight and astronomical instruments.

I lingered longest at this porthole because I like bridges. The fact that the designer chose to show the bridge under construction with falsework still in place was a lovely touch. Later I learned that the Pont Antoinette was built in 1883-1884 near Vielmur-sur-Agoût, Tarn (81) in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France. It was the first major project by Paul Séjourné (1851-1939) who was to become one of France’s eminent bridge engineers.

But why the name Pont Antoinette? Who was this lady? In a romantic touch that I admire the engineer Paul Séjournè dedicated his first major work to his wife Antoinette Lesueur de Pérès.

Even the seating in this wonderful Métro station is a world away from the institutional look.

We lingered in the station, then visited the Musée des Arts et Métiers and talked excitedly about the range of exhibits. (We also had a fine lunch in the Musée.)

When I left the Arts et Métiers station, it did not leave me. I kept thinking about it. How had such a wonderful station come about?

The long-wished-for Métro was part of the Paris created for visitors to the International Exposition of 1900. Not everyone liked the idea. The first line from Porte Maillot to Porte Vincennes opened officially on 19 July 1900 to monumental press indifference. Le Figaro gave it a paragraph, stuffed between an apoplectic fit of the Czar and a local charity sale.

The Métro grew and on 19 October 1904 the Arts et Métiers station opened on the third line. Ninety years later, Belgian artist François Schuiten redesigned the connecting station on the No. 11 line to evoke the Nautilus of Jules Verne. It was a perfect choice and one must commend all who had a hand in choosing this designer.

Why 1994? The redesign celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (National Conservatory of Arts and Trades) in 1794. The museum attached to the Conservatoire is a fine place to wander, contemplate, and be fascinated by the work of many centuries of inventive minds. And why Jules Verne? He was chosen to represent two centuries of French science and technology.

François Schuiten was the ideal choice to unite Jules Verne and the Arts et Métiers. If the prolific Jules Verne is best known for one work, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the still very active and equally prolific François Schuiten is perhaps best known for his Cities of the Fantastic (Les Cités Obscures) His graphic novels portray a love of cities and the potential of architecture to build a better future that combines the work of other greats such as architectural visionaries Victor Horta and Étienne-Louis Boullée, and the early science fantasies of Jules Verne.

While portraying better worlds, Schuiten and Jules Verne also portray the dark side of technology. And quite regrettably, the opening of the original Arts et Métiers Métro station came hard on the heels of a tragedy on the Métro.

On 10 August 1903, a catastrophic fire started by an electrical short circuit in the Métro left 84 people dead: seventy-five at the Couronnes station, seven at Menilmontant and two in the tunnel. As with many such disasters, a number of factors contributed: the electrical systems were ill-conceived and later changed; varnished wooden cars were tinderboxes waiting to be ignited; there were no clear procedures for communications and what to do in the event of a fire; exits were not marked and bodies were found piled at the wrong end of the platform; and for some reason, passengers who had already been evacuated earlier and put on a different car refused to leave unless their ticket price was refunded – they chanted “nos trois sous” (we want our three sous) and pounded on the rattan seats and the sides of the cars until it was too late.

Critics of the Métro had a field day. It was technology gone horribly wrong, perhaps in part because the construction of the Métro had been so rushed. But even before then, Jules Verne was already writing about the impact of too much technology in our lives. (For an excellent introduction to the ideas and writings of Jules Verne click here.)

In 1863 Jules Verne wrote a novel titled Paris in the 20th Century. His publisher rejected it as too unbelievable, too far from what the public was willing to accept. Paris in the 20th Century was set aside only to be rediscovered in 1989 by the author’s great-grandson. It was published in 1994, first in French and is now available in English. Set in the 1960s, the book has been described as “a novel about a young man living in a future world with skyscrapers of glass and steel, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, and a worldwide communications network. The hero cannot find happiness in this highly materialistic environment, however, and comes to a tragic end.”

As with all “discoveries” of lost or unknown manuscripts, there is controversy over who really wrote it. However, to date no one has attributed it to William Shakespeare or even Christopher Marlow. Oh, and the artist who did the cover for the French edition? None other than our friend François Schuiten.

In case you are wondering, I am a great fan of the Paris Métro: it works very well, is clean, I love the design of so many of the stations, even the ads. Moreover, it goes where I want to go. In terms of safety, reliability, and atmosphere it has come a long way since one critic described it in 1900 as “a badly ventilated cellar, recalling at times a sewer.” (Benson Bobrick, Labyrinths of Iron: Subways in History, Myth, Art, Technology, & War, p. 157)

Whether you see it first from a Métro car or by walking down to the platform, the Arts et Métiers (Jules Verne) station is a world you should not miss.

Text and photographs by Norman Ball.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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8 Responses to Jules Verne in the Métro

  1. Alison says:

    It’s an amazing work of art. Now compare it to the subway or Tube. On second thoughts, don’t! Comparisons are odious.

  2. Renata says:

    I encountered this station on my very first trip to Paris. Needless to say, I found it to be a marvel.

    And you know what Oscar Wilde said: Comme Parisiens sont odieux.

  3. Thank you for this post. Lovely article, plus now I have a new place to add to my “must see” list.

  4. Gail says:

    Thanks for the post!! What a great metro stop. I work in metals and make jewelry as a hobby. I love stuff like this. So inspiring.

  5. Tony says:

    This is fascinating.
    I love the Metro, Petite-Ceinture, and all things associated with Paris history.

  6. Marc Giraud says:

    I just came across your magnificent post and discovered the bridge named Pont Antoinette which can be seen through the port holes of the Nautilus shaped Arts et Metiers station. What a shock …as Paul Séjourné and Antoinette Lesueur de Pérès were my grand grand parents !
    Ignoring up to now this undergrounded homage, i did not mentioned it in the book i wrote in 2010
    entilted ”Paul Séjourné, génie des grands viaducs” (La Régordane eds., on sale through Amazon and others).There of course all his master pieces are illustrated and his amazing life recalled.
    One can also iacknowledge that Antoinette was really a pretty handsome young lady in 1884 !
    Many thanks to you for having remindered me in such pleasant way, that parisians do not know their native place, as well as foreigners do !

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