Hector Guimard (1867-1944) looked to the forms of nature in hopes of reforming society. His architecture tells a political story, but this has been virtually absent from all previous discussions of his work. Guimard was passionately active in Paris as a social reformer, laboring alongside legislative leaders and progressive journalists. The same nexus of beliefs shaped his ideals of both government and design. In this respect he followed his English inspirations, William Morris and John Ruskin, more than his French contemporaries such as Emile Gallé and Auguste Rodin. Guimard's political vision carried his work beyond the psychological interiority of the fin de siècle and into the arenas of urban class relations and pan-European peace.
Guimard sought to find a universal means of connecting people. His architecture used biological metaphors because humans react viscerally to forms that seem to undergo physical tensions and strivings. A human body undergoes such forces, and so too does a community or society.
Guimard's designs strove to make possible a sympathetic understanding , a concept that had some of its roots in Ruskin's writings and differed subtly from the Einfühlung of German writers of this period. (Both the English and the German strains of thought were known in France, for example through the teaching of Guimard's co-reformer in Paris, Professor Victor Basch of the Sorbonne.) Guimard's un-anthropomorphic approach to form-creation differed from the anthropocentrism of Geoffrey Scott and reflected Guimard's desire that people sympathize with, rather than project themselves upon, other people and things. His philosophy resisted ego mirroring, instead maintaining respect for the essential difference of other things – their mystery. They would not be obscured behind a projection of the subject's own self.
A sympathetic understanding was central to Guimard's thinking about government. More than 120 million individuals of every ethnic, economic, and religious background used his structures for the Paris Métropolitain each year. Mingled with laborers commuting to their jobs – who were the intended beneficiaries of the subway – were visitors from many nations and believers in many creeds. The transit infrastructure united them in a continuously metamorphosing population. Guimard's other projects in these years crossed similar cultural barriers.
In the years when Guimard and Victor Horta were creating their most inventive buildings, the tenets of Symbolist artists and writers in Paris and Brussels encouraged experimentation with multivalence and abstraction. At the same time, Guimard carried forward the rationalism of his teacher, Émile Vaudremer, and of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc along with their interest in Gothic interpreted in a broad sense. Guimard went beyond them in embracing mass production, which made his projects large enough to touch people of all economic strata.
Architecture, Guimard believed, ought to address each individual's needs within society in a moral and spiritual sense as well as a practical sense. This required not just logic but also harmony and feeling, which spurs the imagination to understanding. These values played a role in the reception and appropriation of Guimard's work at a time of of ever-increasing mixing and transformation on a municipal, national, and international level. His architecture sought to connect across political lines that were moving rapidly in the buildup to two world wars.