Tunnel visions: art in the subway
London — `IF you want the baroque, you go to Moscow. For the architectonic, you go to Montreal. For the `grotesque' - Stockholm.'' The subject is metro-art, the art and architecture of the subterranean world through which more than 16 billion people travel each year. The speaker is Marianne Str"om, a Swedish art historian based in Paris, who has assembled an exhibition and book called ``Metro-Art in the Metro-polises.''
The fruit of three years' research, the book and the exhibition (first seen in Brussels and expected to travel to other cities) take a detailed look at the role of art and architecture in the metro - subway, underground, tube, Untergrundbahn, tunnelbana, call it what you will - in 25 cities, including Moscow, London, Toronto, Peking, Atlanta, Stockholm, Boston, Prague, and San Francisco.
In various ways city authorities recognize that artists and architects - the line between the two is not always clearly drawn - have at least a useful, and at best an inspired, role to play in the design or rejuvenation of metros.
``Generally the importance of the art,'' says Ms. Str"om, ``is to render the underground space more human.''
Architects and artists are faced with the need to find ways to use art to ameliorate the conscious and unconscious symbolism of the raw and rugged subterranean world. In urban terms, ``down below'' is the place of hidden services like water, gas, electricity, and sewage, not to mention shelter in wartime and transport itself; it also carries age-old, primitive connotations of anxiety and repulsion. It's the place, Str"om says in her book, ``of the dead, of the underworld, of sanctuary, ... the place of magic.''
The ``grotto'' stations in Stockholm are clearly among the most fascinating Str"om has studied. She characterizes them - excusing the pun - as ``grotesque.''
Sixty to 100 feet down, these grotto stations (started in the early 1970s) are carved out of 2 billion-year-old granite. This is only thinly surfaced with concrete. It seemed unnecessary, after excavation, to supplement the natural material with an extra vault of concrete. ``But,'' says Str"om, ``at the same time, they said, `We can't allow the public down into the subway like this.' After all, they are really just caves.''
What resulted were ``experiments'' that come closer to the prehistoric art of the caves of Lascaux and Altamira than most of the metro designs Str"om has studied (though to some people, the unofficial subway art of New York - graffiti - suggests parallels with ancient cave art).
The documentary photographs in Str"om's exhibition show several of the Stockholm grotto stations, including the vault at T-Centralen Station, ``painted in the spirit of a country church''; N"ackrosen Station, decorated as if it is a waterlily pond; some sculptured boots that seem to walk rather humorously across the vault at Radhuset Station. And at Vreten Station a Japanese artist has painted light blue cubes emerging from the rock-surface rock surface and covered with little white clouds. (Str"om notes the resemblance to the surrealist painter Magritte.)
Art and architecture are often used to make clear differences between one station and the next. London (which, incidentally, has the oldest system and celebrates its 125th anniversary next year) has long had color-coded stations which show you immediately where you are. Recent renovation includes mosaics and other images: Marble Arch has arches; Victoria Station has Queen Victoria's profile; and Baker Street has endless silhouettes of Sherlock Holmes.
``It's kind of nice. It's not really artistic expression, but ... c'est gentil,'' says Str"om.
Moscow's stations, opened in 1935, are ``underground palaces where there are no fewer than 23 types of marble used,'' she explains. ``When Stalin opened his subway ... he was convinced it was the most beautiful in the world - and probably it was. ... To some extent it still is today, if you judge by noble materials.
``Moscow's is probably the most beautiful public space in the city - all the chandeliers and the brass and the marble that covers floors, ceilings, walls. It's proper, it's warm in wintertime, and it is excellent room for people to have t^etes-`a-t^etes. Architecturally, though, it's rather monotonous.''
Montreal, by comparison, is totally concrete - ``a banal material'' - but architecturally far more interesting than Moscow, Str"om feels, because each station is designed by a different architect.
Lack of monotony rates highly when it comes to art and architecture on the subways. Proceeding thematically, Str"om looked, for example, at the most interesting subway entrances.
They do not have to be unappetizing holes in the sidewalk, as Hector Guimard triumphantly proved at the turn of the century with his cast-iron, art-nouveau fantasies in Paris. And as did Otto Wagner in Vienna, in a more geometric fashion. The elaborate forum-like entrance to the R'epublique Station in one of the world's newest subway systems, in Lille, France, offers an original solution to this break between street and underground.
Str"om looked at visual aspects of the whole subway experience: from tickets and maps to furniture and archaeological finds (sometimes actually incorporated into stations); from vaulting, columns, and pillars to lighting, signs, waste-bins, clocks, and fire extinguishers.
Among the strangest and most original architecture she records is that of the Farmers' Line, in West Berlin. ``The architecture of the Farmers' Line is solid, down-to-earth, feet-on-the-ground!'' she laughs. It was designed by private architects commissioned literally by the farmers whose district it serves, and not, as in other West Berlin lines, by the city's architects. One station entrance, at Dahlem-Dorf, is particularly appealing: a folkloric thatched cottage in neo-Tudor style. ``It is so elegant inside that you feel you should have taken your shoes off to enter.''
Clearly, individualism counts. But sometimes, as one of her stories tells, ideas that are very individual can be misunderstood. In Hallonbergen Station in Stockholm, ``the artist decided to dedicate his grotto to the children in the district. So he used his own drawings from when he was a kid, he used his children's drawings, he used drawings by handicapped children, and he made blowups of them all over the walls....
``The day before the inauguration of this station, some cleaning men came to give the final touches.''
The men were appalled. The station had been vandalized - some hoodlum children had put graffiti all over it!
The next day, at the opening, says Str"om, ``a sizable part of the artistic contribution of children's drawings was covered with white paint, all nice and clean.''
Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder, even in the metro.