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.