A Gare du Nord facelift is already underway but this week saw the CNC Commission approve additional plans to extend Europe’s busiest station. Overturning a previous decision rejecting expansion, the ruling has got Parisians hot under the collar at the prospect of the Gare du Nord going under the knife.
A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of time.” One of my favourite first lines from Dickens. Also one that sums up the mixed fortunes of the Gare du Nord. The largest train station in Europe, once described by former John Lewis CEO, Andy Street as the “Squalor pit of Europe” is finally receiving a facelift. Like its English cousin, St Pancras, the Gare Du Nord has a chequered history.
The English Cousin
St Pancras was revived in 2011 ready for the Eurostar terminal’s move from Waterloo to north London. It’s nucleus, the iconic Grand Midland Hotel towers over the station with red brick turrets that wouldn’t look out of place in a Grimm’s fairy tale.
Trains returning from Paris are now greeted by Paul Day’s, The Meeting Place statue. A 9 metre tall, bronze couple embracing above arched walkways filled with stylish shops. The statue holds the dubious claim to fame of being one of Lonely Travel Guide’s most romantic meeting places in the world. Anthony Gormley, less impressed, heralds it as “a very good example of the crap out there.”
Whatever your worldview, it is still a far cry from the poverty and deprivation that used to characterise St Pancras and it’s surly neighbour, Kings Cross. Today, the semi circular vaulted concourse, reminiscent of a second rate Guggenheim, has shunted the homelessness, drug dealing and prostitution over the road into nearby Argyle Square. The revamp, including a Rowling inspired Platform 9 3/4 is not intended for those residents.
Now that the Gare du Nord is going under the knife in an attempt to keep up, not everyone is happy. With its ornate, arched facade, the Gare du Nord is a truly magnificent piece of architecture. Designed by French architect, Jacques Ignace Hittorf in 1864, the station was considered a masterpiece in its time. Built during the same period that Eugene Haussmann was changing the face of Paris, you can still see the hope and ambition in its triumphal arch.
On arrival it’s easy to forget the stations ambitious past. Pick pockets systematically work this crammed corner of the 10th arrondissement under the judgemental eye of the female statues guarding the classical facade. Faded grandeur surrounds an unprecedented volume of homelessness. Shoeless rough sleepers line the pavements. They are invisible to commuters. The Gare du Nord condenses every social problem experienced in Paris into one messy, dysfunctional, forgotten womb of despair. Most travellers cannot leave this grimy, neglected, ammonia scented hub quickly enough. The station feels like a neighbourhood that has abandoned hope. It is an arrondissement that has been willingly left behind.
A 40 Million Euro Birthday Present
On the Gare du Nord’s 150th birthday, SNCF announced a 40 million euro facelift for the station. The upgrade has been affectionately dubbed ‘Plan Botox’. The capital is sprucing itself up for the 2024 Olympics. Paris based architects Willmote et Associés are responsible for the revamp. The project is largely, welcomed by Parisians. Friday’s decision to extend the station to include a 60,000 m2 retail area has changed that.
Open Letter Against a Gare du Nord Facelift
French architect, Jean Nouvel joined others in an open letter of protest. The letter claimed that the plans are an “indecent, absurd and monstrous’ mistake. There are also concerns regarding the environmental footprint of the works. The final project will now include shops, a concert hall, gym, office space, running track and a rooftop restaurant with views across to the Sacre Coeur. Paris Mayor, Anne Hildago describes the extension as a “Needless mall.” She is demanding further negotiations with local residents about the proposed use of public space.
SNCF responded with their own open letter. It stated that the new plans are aiming for zero waste. The intention is that the regenerated station will eventually be energy self sufficient.
Renovations are already underway. This week’s approval has paved the way for a construction permit. Yet there is still a sense that the protests have just begun. The battle for the Gare du Nord is not over.