Subway Art & Architecture

One of the most popular and efficient means of transportation in large cities is the subway. With a 150-year history in the U.S. and Europe, the subway’s subterranean venue provides a welcomed showcase for art and architecture to enliven what would otherwise be a foreboding place. Prior to the 1980s, subway stations were less decorative and more economical. Since the 1980s a subway “renaissance” has been underway lending intellectual depth, charm, and a unique identity. This article explores the architecture of some of the early subways in London, Paris, and New York. Readers interested in other subway systems may want to peruse subway architecture in photography.

Early Subways

1843 marked the birth of the London tubes. In that year engineers opened the world’s first tunnel under the river Thames. The purpose of the tunnel was to allow cargo underneath the busy river. Unfortunately, Sir Marc Brunel, the engineer who constructed the tunnel ran out of money and the tunnel became an attraction for a million paying tourists who walked through it in the first three months after it opened. The first steam train traveled through the tunnel in 1869. Without ventilation, though, the Thames tunnel was a smoky and unhealthy place for the train engineers working in it. Electric trains would not operate in the tunnel until 1913.


Artists Rendition of the Thames Tunnel

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

 In another part of London, the Metropolitan Underground Railway first opened its Metropolitan Line in 1863 from Paddington to Farrington, a distance of 6 kilometers. The four main contemporary lines developed from this original line. The architect of London’s stations, Charles Holden, had an excellent knowledge of new construction methods and materials. His focus was more on function than form as seen in his simple Modernist approach and lack of superficial decoration


Baker Street Station, London

(Image via Flickr by Andrew Sykes)

While London was developing its tube system, Paris was transforming into a modern metropolis between the 1850s and 1870s. With the extensive demolition and reconstruction of the time would have been a good opportunity to construct a subway system, Prefect of the Seine Georges, Eugène Haussmann, had no apparent interest in doing so. The state and local governments argued over who would be in charge and the public horrified at the prospect of such an “industrial” addition to the city 

Ultimately, the 1900 Exposition Universelle convinced the citizenry that it needed a modern subway transportation system. Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris opera, house advised the Minister of Public Works that the Métro would have to be seen as more as a work of art than an industrial creation. Consequently, the Société Centrale des Architectes held a contest to select an architect for the Métro’s aboveground entrances. Although the firm, Duray, Lamaresquier, and Paumier, won the competition, Adrien Benard, President of the Conseil Municipal de Paris overruled the choice of contest winner and selected Hector Guimard, a noted Art Nouveau architect, who had not even submitted for the contest. Guimard developed his own form of Art Nouveau rationalism, which stood out from the eclectic, Classicist proposals made by the competitors.


Paris Metro Entrance

(Image via Wikimedia Commons  by By Scanné par Claude_Villetaneuse) 


Paris Metro Ticketing

(Image via Pixabay by FlorianJung)

While London boasts the world’s oldest underground train network and Boston built the first subway in the United States in 1897, the New York City subway soon became the largest American system. On October 27, 1904, New York City Mayor, George McClellan, operated the inaugural run of the City’s innovative new subway train along the 9.1 mile route through 28 stations from City Hall to Grand Central Station, and then west along 42nd Street to Times Square, and then north again all the way to 145th Street and Broadway in Harlem. Today the system has 26 lines and 468 stations. It carries 4.5 million people per day and is one of only three subways in the world that operate 24 hours a day and 7 days per week.

Although mostly an engineering marvel, the New York subway did incorporate important elements of architectural and interior design, including underground and elevated stations, ornamental control houses, kiosks, the main powerhouse, eight power sub-stations, and rolling stock. The style is 20th-century traditional. The term, “traditional,” refers to the ornamental motifs that were applied to the construction. Even so, the architectural elements reflect the intellectual and artistic temperament of the turn-of-the-century era and demonstrate the synchronous working relationship of the architect and the engineer.

The Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners did not endeavor to include many references to artistic design in the original plan because the technological and financial issues were still undetermined. Of the few references in the design plan, one specified white or light-colored tiles, or enameled brick for the station walls, except where color was to be introduced for architectural effect and another that every effort should be made to make the stations bright and cheerful. In 1894, the Commission and the engineers produced a small neo-classical station house near City Hall at Chambers Street that did incorporate white tiles and a pleasing palette.


Chambers Street Subway Station, New York City

(Image via Flickr by JasonParis)

Art in the Subways

 Art has played a significant role in the public’s image of railways. Art has become a valued element in railway brand design, whether it involves a redesigned logo, paintings, murals, photographs, sculpture or graffiti. Public art plays a significant role in enhancing the image of railways. Better designed stations, comfortable waiting areas, clear information signs, and artworks, can enrich the experience of travel. 

In Europe, many subway systems devote up to 1% of their annual operating budgets for art, and in some countries such as Belgium, the government finances the acquisition and installation of art for its transit systems. Perhaps one of the best examples of the commitment to subway art is the London Metro.  Riders can discover major works all over the system and an organization called Transport for London not only sponsors art, music and other live events in the subway, but publishes The Art Tube Map.


Tottenham Station, London

(Image via Wikimedia Commons by Laurent129)

 For other works of art in the London tubes, check out 10 amazing works of art you need to see on the London Underground

Equally as impressive is the subway art in Paris. Cheaper than an admission to the Louvre, the Metro provides riders with a grand exposition of art.  The transportation network is a theater for urban culture. Such cultural stages have been created at subway stations in form of “station–galleries.” Nine “thematic stations” were the result of a 1998 competition that variously incorporates a patchwork of signs, images of daily life in videos, sound, colorscapes, texts projected onto the tunnel roof and in books in display cases on the platforms.


The Louvre Metro Station

(Image via Wikimedia Commons by Osbornb)

Find additional photographs of unique stations at this Untapped Cities website.

Last, but certainly not least, is the New York Subway art scene. In Art in the subway, there is a literal phenomenon. About 200 permanent works line the walls and floors each commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts for Transit program. In this “underground gallery” riders will find a Roy Lichtenstein in the Times Square station, and more than 100 bronze critters from sculptor Tom Otterness. If anyone is afraid that s/he may miss some of the art on display on s subway ride, a new film from directors Tim Sessler and Brandon Block features some of the city’s best subway art, including murals only visible when riding a train.

The subterranean venues in London, Paris, and New York, among others, provides the adventuresome and inquisitive traveler with both a living history of subway architecture and a unique vantage point from which to experience art.

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