Like churches and hospitals, places of purpose, with distinct rules and behaviours, there is a special atmosphere in a train station that I find difficult to resist. For most, the train station is a point of departure or arrival, a place to spend as little time as possible. For others it is their place of work, for others still a place to sleep or beg. Rarely is it a place to visit.
This would seem to be particularly true of the Gare Montparnasse. There is no history here (or rather the history has been pulled down and built over), no soaring iron and stone from the railway’s golden age and not even the transitory pull of a shopping centre or a decent restaurant. Spend some time walking through, around and above this concrete hulk though and you’ll find many surprises.
The curious thing about today’s Gare Montparnasse is that it is situated a few hundred metres from the station it replaced, an admittedly rather dull and austere building originally constructed in 1852. Indeed, the only thing of interest that seems to have happened in the station’s early years was to have a locomotive plough through one of its eyes and drop down onto the street below.
Much more interesting was an annexe of the station, the new Maine terminus that was added in 1929. Designed by architect Henri Pacon (who became a specialist in railway architecture - his somewhat reminiscent station building in the city of Le Havre still stands), it was an elegant, art-deco influenced structure…that lasted less than 40 years! In an era of little sentiment it was pulled down at the same time as the original station building when the new Gare Montparnasse was built at the end of the 1960s. Seemingly nothing of Pacon’s building survived, but looking more closely there is definitely an echo of his design in the wing of the newer building that stands in the same place, and the clock is very similar. Is it the same one?