The Typographic Hub

Paris underground

Paris is in the international super-league when it comes to galleries. No tour of the city is complete without a visit to the Louvre or the galleries in St-Germain des Prés. These are the recognised art spaces of the French capital. However, Paris has another gallery that is hidden and unacknowledged, which is home to a collection of art so vast it defies estimating, so various it resists categorising, whose oldest exhibit was created in the seventeenth century and whose newest work was made only yesterday. This research examines the unknown and unacknowledged gallery of graphics that lie below the streets of Paris.

This secret gallery can be found in the complex network of passages that wind their way through 170 miles of abandoned quarries that lie below the streets of the French capital. The stone needed to build the city was extracted from these quarries but in the eighteenth century, after 500 years of extensive and haphazard excavating, they were abandoned leaving Paris sitting on top of a hole so vast there was a real danger it might collapse.

In 1777 the Inspection des Carrières was established to investigate, map and make safe the city’s underground. Since then it has been forbidden to enter the quarries and any violation can result in prosecution. However, this has not stopped the tenacious and curious from descending illegally into the underground and for nearly 300 years many of these illicit visitors have marked the quarry walls with a remarkable collection of graphic material: Prussian and German soldiers, Free French, smugglers and secret societies, students and tourists have all added their marks.

The sheer volume of graphic material that exists below the streets Paris cannot fail to strike any visitor to the quarries. It is impossible to estimate how much there is. Over the course of three hundred years, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of different graphic images have been made by an inestimable number of people, for innumerable reasons, on diverse subjects using a variety of materials. The oldest dated mark is from 1609; the most recent was left yesterday. All the marks have been made in adversity for the quarries are inhospitable places.

Letterforms of the underground

The quarries under Paris are full of characters: majuscules and minuscules with or without serifs; roman letters and cursives, some made with a chisel others using a stencil; large and small characters produced with smoke, paint, pencil or incised letters that have been blackened or left with the natural stone still visible. Visitors to the underground cannot fail to be impressed by the volume, variety and ranging competence of the letterforms that have been left on the walls. Many of the inscriptions are official engineering marks that were incised by men employed by the Inspection des Carrières during the course of their work: topographic signs and consolidation marks created with the aim of dating, referencing, directing, orientating and locating the work of the reinforcements. In addition there is an abundance of street nameplates and commemorative plaques.

This research marked the first attempt to record the images, signs and artwork found in the Paris underground. The research is based on visual collection and oral history interviews conducted with ‘cataphiles’ – underground artists and explorers – and the authorities responsible for maintaining the subterranean network. The research was conducted with the full knowledge and permission of the Mairie de Paris.