Who would have thought the Paris Metro was so fascinating? This book appears to be the first in depth study on the look and feel of the French capital's transit system from a design angle. In mind blowing detail, but with an accessible style to the lay reader, it focuses on the architecture of the iconic `Art Nouveau' Paris Metro entrances, the development of typography on station signage, the evolution of the many logos, plus the surprisingly rich cartographic diversity of Paris Metro maps.
As someone who knows Paris well, I would not normally put my hand up to say I was overly interested in any one of these subjects, but this book somehow brings them all to life in an unprecedented reflection of what amounts to industrial urban graphic design history. It seems to offer a whole new way of looking at one of the world's most photographed cities.
It's not hard to see why the publishers claim it features over a thousand images; while some pages are crammed with photos and maps I can't claim to have noticed in any museum (and I've visited a lot of them), other pages are resplendent with single large images covering an entire spread.
It feels like you are time-travelling from the 1850s - when Paris was clogged with horse-drawn carriages and proposals were rife for all kinds of fanciful concepts to alleviate the congestion. Arguments and politics meant London pulled ahead of Paris, opening its first underground in 1863. Using old maps not seen since the 19th Century, the story of failures and counter plans for a rapid transport system fill the first Chapter. The final years before the Metro's construction and its eventual opening just in time for the Great Exposition of 1900 occupy the 2nd Chapter.
The reader then moves through each period of the networks growth in a separate chapter (Paris at War, Chapter 6 is especially interesting) until the final sections which focus specifically on subjects like the RER (Chapter 11), the maps used inside the trains (Chapter 12), the debate over whether or not to employ a diagram for the map (Chapter 13) and a splendid final focus on the fonts, logos and signage (Chapter 14).
The old rare maps and vintage photographs, are a treat (though it would have been even better had there been more space for some of these) but you are left in no doubt about the Metro fever which overtook the French capital during the early years of the twentieth century.
Without spoiling it, here's some of the things I discovered:
Why Paris has more variations of its map in existence than any other urban transit system in the world.
How the networkexpanded to cover almost every corner of Paris - a density of stations still unrivalled in any other city
Why some proposed lines and stations were never built.
Why architect Hector Guimard's classic Metro entrances only came about thanks to the chairman's rebellious personal interest in `Art Nouveau'.
How the Metro coped through years of occupation and resistance and the long post-war long stagnation.
Why Paris needed a new mainline rail system beneath the Metro
When the Metro finally adopted a London Underground Harry Beck-like diagram.
Why there are still different types of map available - both diagrammatic and geographic.
Why are there so few substantial surface station buildings.
Why the Metro didn't introduce a unified font for all stations.
Where are the finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture to be found and how much has been destroyed.
Which international designers were linked with the graphic evolution.
For myself and the couple of mates I've shown it to - who have no great interest in these subjects normally - the book manages to bring a fresh and captivating angle to the much photographed city of Paris. I can see it being a mine of information for those who are fired-up by such things just as it is a thing of beauty for the casual reader.
Definitely a dream gift for design students, map-geeks and transport enthusiasts, just wish there had been more pages to see some of the smaller photos and maps enlarged a bit more.