World's Most Beautiful Subway Stations
t’s a gallery longer than any in the Louvre—62 miles of art. You can’t hope to see it all in a day. On the cavernous ceiling, a colossal installation by artist Gun Gordillo, consisting of a hundred neon tubes, hums with an otherworldly glow. Elsewhere more works crowd the walls: an elm trunk clad in stone, a re-created Roman ruin, a surreal giant folding ruler, a ghostly apparition of a child rendered in glass…the collection is vast. Good thing there’s a train to take you between exhibits. Welcome to the Stockholm subway.
In many cities, the underground commute involves grimy seats, low ceilings, suspicious puddles, and avoiding eye contact with that guy. The stations are certainly not a destination unto themselves. But in certain spots around the world, they’re surprisingly grand affairs—glorious caverns resplendent with art, architecture, and artifacts.
Zachary M. Schrag, associate professor at George Mason University and author of The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, explains that there are three basic styles of subway architecture. First are the utilitarian systems like New York’s (essentially, tiled mine shafts). Then there’s the commercial approach to design, like London’s Tube, which provides a distracting retail experience by filling every available space with ads and vending machines. The third approach, according to Schrag, is one that treats the space like a public park. “It’s supposed to be beautiful and uplifting,” he says.
It’s these public stations that draw the respect and admiration of commuters, tourists, even art critics. Many of the magnificent Soviet subways, for instance, were designed as “People’s Palaces” and were spared no expense to achieve a regal opulence. Architects used so much alabaster, onyx, marble, and mosaics that if it weren’t for the occasional train, you’d think you’d arrived at the Great Kremlin Palace itself.
In Vienna, architect Otto Wagner, who designed the city’s system in 1898, viewed his role as bringing art to everyday functional objects, down to the smallest detail. In his Wagner’s Court Pavilion, the plush octagonal waiting room is decorated with an exquisite mural depicting a bird’s-eye view of all Vienna (the station is now a museum). Peter Haiko, author of Architecture of the Early 20th Century and professor of art history at the University of Vienna, elaborates: “Wagner designed not only the station but he was engaged in the whole artistic vision of the subway, from the largest bridge or viaduct to the slimmest handrail. This was the first time an architect had taken such an overarching approach.”
Today, creating a subway is more complex than in Wagner’s day. Building laws are increasingly difficult to negotiate, and a rabbit warren of existing utilities now crowd the earth, which might explain why so few of our superb subways are from recent times. The chance of any grand design passing relatively unscathed is very remote.
When an elevated vision for the humble subway does manage to come together, however, the work is a boon for frequent underground travelers. “A tunnel carved by man through the earth and rock is a very special kind of place,” said starchitect Lord Norman Foster as a part of his submission to design a metro system in Bilbao, Spain. “Its shape is a response to the forces of nature and the texture of its construction bears the imprint of man. As found these qualities of shape and texture have a drama; they should be respected, not covered up to pretend that it is just another building. You should feel that you are below ground and it should be a special kind of experience.”
His bid won, and Foster + Partners created a modern masterpiece. His works and the rest of these museum-worthy subway stations are well worth the fare.
The marble pillars and mosaics in Kievskaya Station exude the opulence of a giant powder room. The station was constructed in 1954, at the height of what Dr. Peter Haiko of the University of Vienna calls the “Stalin Baroque style.”
Don’t Miss: The poignant mosaics depicting images of abundant crops and Russian-Ukrainian unity, in spite of the fact that, in 1932, the Holodomor (Stalin’s starvation policy) killed an estimated 10 million Ukrainians.
Washington, D.C.: MetroCenter Station
The Washington Metro is a rarity among America’s largely utilitarian subways, according to Zachary M. Schrag, a history professor at George Mason University (on the orange line). “Kennedy was president at the time of its planning,” says Schrag, “and he was adamant that federal architecture represent the dignity of the government, not the cheapest solution possible.” The result, designed by architects Harry Weese & Associates after Weese took a tour of the great subways of the world, was a series of vaulted cathedral ceilings with coffered blocks. The elegant up-lighting and hushed mood give it an ecclesiastical air. And just like a church, there’s no food allowed.
Don’t Miss: When a train approaches, lights on the platform throb dramatically to announce its imminent arrival. Beam me up, Scotty.
Paris: Arts et MétiersStation
Architect Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau entrances to the Paris Métro are icons of elegant public architecture. They give a sense of entering a hidden garden rather than a train station. What lies beneath is often something entirely different, with replicas of the Louvre collection in the Louvre-Rivoli station and reproduced Rodins in the Varenne Station. The most surreal interior is Arts et Métiers, designed by Belgian comic book artist François Schuiten. Commuters find themselves inside a Jules Verne–inspired submarine, complete with portholes and giant cogs.
Don’t Miss: The museum above Arts et Métiers is jammed with inventions and oddities from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the original Foucault’s pendulum, used to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Alisher Navoi Metro Station
Tashkent’s subway owes its grandeur and scale to Russia but its elegant style to the local Muslim population. Finished in 1977 while Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union, it was built amid a flurry of construction after a massive earthquake leveled the city in 1966. Alisher Navoi, one of three main hubs, is a suitably grand affair—the signature element being a tight cluster of tall cupolas inlaid with metal in an Islamic design.
Don’t Miss: Exit the turnstile and you’ll find the Corsu markets, great for oversize pomegranates, tomatoes, and traditional Chapan overcoats (think Afghan president Hamid Karzai).
Bilbao, Spain: Moyua Square Station
Foster + Partners is one of the rare contemporary architectural firms to design grand public subway spaces. The ambitious Bilbao Metro was completed in two stages, from 1988 to 1995 and 1997 to 2004. Through intelligent use of natural light and intuitive space, the metro system encourages commuters to walk in the right direction without needing to rely on the signage. “The routes flow like walking through a sculpture of caves, which guide you to the caverns of the stations themselves,” Foster said of the design.
Don’t Miss: The sheltered glass canopies that pay homage to the Paris Métro have become known as Fosteritos: by day they are light wells, and by night they become beacons guiding commuters home.
St. Petersburg, Russia: Avtovo Station
Ironically, St. Petersburg’s Avtovo Station, built in 1955, bears more than a passing resemblance to another famous landmark: the U.S. Capitol. The Neoclassic domed roof sits atop a station of marble columns and stately mosaics.
Don’t Miss: One sobering artwork acts as a memorial to more than one million people who died in the 872-day siege of the city by Nazi forces during WWII.
Dubai, U.A.E.: Mall of theEmirates Station
In a city where the average high temperature in August tops 100 degrees, a sweltering subway platform is the last place you’d want to be…that is, unless it’s in the Dubai Metro, designed by international architectural firm Aedas. Air-conditioned and spotless, the system was inaugurated in September 2009 and, once all 43 miles are finished, it will be the longest driverless system on earth. Mall of the Emirates Station resembles a vast wing or sail, reminiscent of the region’s pearl-fishing past.
Don’t Miss: Visit Ski Dubai, one of the biggest indoor ski slopes on earth (just don’t mention the carbon footprint). Located in the Mall of the Emirates, it opened in November 2005, just one year after U.A.E. recorded its first natural snowfall in history.
Kiev, Ukraine: PecherskayaStation
Kiev’s Pecherskaya station mixes Cold War spy-movie glamour with a heavy dose of futurism: the central spine of modernist chandeliers and thick shadowy archways make you feel the next stop may well be the moon.
Don’t Miss: The slightly sinister, otherworldly feeling isn’t entirely a coincidence; this is a Cold War relic. Russian architects designed their subways to be as deep as 334 feet underground so that they could double as bomb shelters.
In the 1950s, artists Vera Nilsson and Siri Derkert were the first in Sweden to suggest that art be integrated into the new subway system. Today more than 140 artists are represented in 90 stations, in both permanent and temporary exhibitions. Architecturally speaking, every station is a work of art, but the giant blue chasm of the Blue Line section of T-Centralen, created in the 1970s, is a subterranean standout.
Don’t Miss: The north ticket hall leads to Sergels Torg, a large central square that’s the site of the House of Culture, which hosts exhibitions and concerts.
In 1898, Vienna was filled with new ideas from luminaries like Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, and Otto Wagner. It was the height of the Viennese Secession, and Wagner’s Jugendstil (“young style”) stations—made from steel and marble—caused quite a stir. Wagner’s Court Pavilion in Hietzing was intended as the royal family’s personal subway station, with royal trimmings to match (today it’s a popular wedding destination). Meanwhile, regular citizens were treated to works like the Karlsplatz station, a classic example of Wagner’s vision.
Don’t Miss: The station acts as a museum for the great architect’s work, displaying original blueprints, master plans, and precious details of stations now gone.
Located at the intersection of three major rail hubs, this cathedral of trains is the gateway to Russia. If the vast dome, portico, Corinthian columns, Baroque details, and chandeliers don’t impress, then the mosaics surely will. The eight ceiling mosaics, designed by legendary artist Pavel Korin, depict Russia’s heroes and finest victories. (Korin was awarded the Order of Lenin for his work in 1967.)
Don’t Miss: Several of the mosaics have been altered to eliminate disgraced public figures. Look for the beautiful maiden on the Victory Parade panel where Lazar Kaganovich (the “wolf” of the Kremlin) once was.
New York City: CityHall
There’s only one way to see City Hall station in lower Manhattan, which is otherwise closed to the public: on a tour offered by the New York Transit Museum. It was built largely as a ceremonial terminal for local government dignitaries (two other stations close by offer better connections). It opened in 1904 and closed in 1945 due to lack of use. The station is now a time capsule of the grandest subway architecture New York has to offer: arched ceilings with Guastavino tiles are topped by ornate skylights peeking through to City Hall Park above.