The Gare du Nord and a Parisian view of Europe
The Gare de Paris-Nord (aka Gare du Nord) is where trains from Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and the UK arrive in Paris, and it is the last main Parisian RER station before the Aéroport Charles-de-Gaulle, the biggest airport in France. In brief the Gare du Nord is one of the main entries into the city and of the busiest transport nodes in Europe.
The first “gare du nord” (“north station”) was opened in 1846 for the trains between Paris and Lille and the Flanders. The project of a bigger station started with the Haussmannian changes in Paris in the 1850s. And the new actual Gare du Nord was inaugurated in 1864 as the main entry to Paris from all cities and countries to its north.
The main façade of the Gare du Nord, a parade of cities presided by Paris (See figure 1)
The southern façade of the Gare du Nord, its main interface with the city, interestingly embeds a Parisian weltanschauung: the statues represent the main cities served by the SNCF via the Gare du Nord. Eight out of the nine upper beautiful statues represent cities in other countries, usually capitals or important ones: London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Frankfurt, Warsaw etc. In the very centre of all these “sovereign” cities Paris appears as the highest, the most beautiful and the most majestic of all.
Smaller and less important statues are lower on the façade and represent French cities mainly connected to Paris by the Gare du Nord. Arras, Lille, Cambrai and Valenciennces are there amongst others.
An urban-political hierarchy
The façade of the Gare du Nord does represent an order prevailing at the time of its construction: the XIXth century was one of nationalism, nationalistic myths and nation building, with every nation trying to be “centre of the world” and every nation trying to find a national “centre” (capital) to polarise her forces and to concentrate her power. Sovereignty was to be concentrated in capital cities: and here the Gare du Nord’s façade presents a curious depiction: Paris, along with other cities of sovereignty, is “above” the rest: they are the cities in charge, the cities to control the others and to represent their respective territories abroad. So, for example, all the French cities, once abroad, are represented no more by themselves but by Paris, which is supposedly “equal” to London or to berlin, but superior to Arras or to Lille in this urban-political hierarchy.
(We can remark that Frankfurt is among the sovereign cities, maybe because during the time of the Gare du Nord’s inauguration Frankfurt was the capital city of the Deutscher Bund and the seat of its Bundestag.)
It would be useful to study architectural representations of sovereignty and of “national centres”: they can tell what books and decrees are silent about. They can show what cities think and thought of themselves compared to others. They can tell that Paris did and does see herself as a representative of all France, and a “densification” of all the country, but also as a leader in a European hierarchy.
Some argue that beauty and hierarchy are of the same nature: if it is true Paris will certainly be on the top of all city hierarchies in the world!
Some links about history of the Gare du Nord: