Not to be outdone by the recent opening of four mosaic-stuffed New York City subway stations, the Swedish arm of travel booking website Expedia is shining a spotlight on the Stockholm Metro. You see, the Swedish capital city is a bit of an old hand when it comes to pairing electric underground railroads with commute- and community-enriching public art (with 90 percent fewer rats).
If anything, Expedia's new interactive art guide to the Stockholm Metro serves as a predicable reminder that Sweden, always the trendsetter in pretty much everything, was also ahead of the curve on this one. The visual arts have been an integral part of the Stockholm Metro since the system’s inaugural underground station, T-Centralen, opened in 1957. ( T-Centralen's signature Delftware-esque blue floral motif came later, in 1975, courtesy artist Per Olof Ulvedt.) With the aim of introducing the work of emerging and established Swedish artists to the masses, the Swedish Social Democratic Party along with two hard-campaigning female artists, Siri Derkert and Vera Nilsson, are credited for bringing art to Stockholm's underground.
"The Social Democrats felt that art should not be isolated, but it should be part of Stockholm,” sculptor Birgitta Muhr explained to The Guardian in 2015. “Stockholm was expanding at the time, with many people moving to the suburbs for work. A subway system needed to be created to connect the city, and they wanted art to come to every man and woman."
In fact, over 90 of the 100 stations that comprise Stockholm’s subway network — the 68 mile-long system carries nearly 900,000 daily riders on its three lines and is one of Scandinavia's largest, second only to Oslo Metro — feature a work of public art of some sort: mosaics, sculpture, installations, paintings, reliefs, engravings, decorated rock formations. Each work serves a different purpose: some sooth and comfort; some dazzle and distract; some enlighten and educate.
While a majority of the 150-some artists who have contributed to the Stockholm Metro over the years are native Swedes, artists hailing from beyond the land of ABBA and IKEA have also contributed.
The Stockholm Metro’s reputation as the “world’s largest art gallery” isn't undeserving, although there’s also a dreamy, theme park-like quality to the whole affair. Some stations, particularly latter-period ones in which commissioned artists worked alongside project architects and engineers from the get-go to create holistic art "environments" in lieu of standalone art pieces, are so atmospheric you’d think you're entering the queue for the newest Disney ride, not waiting for the train.
For starters, there's Rådhuset station where exposed bedrock and dramatic mood lighting give the space the appearance of an enchanted, escalator-heavy underground grotto. Located on Kungsholmen island in central Stockholm, the station's free-flowing organic architecture both departs from and connects with the buildings standing directly above on street level including the Rådhuset (Court House), City Hall and other buttoned-up governmental edifices built in the early 20th century in National Romantic style.
A couple of stations away from Rådhuset at the show-stopping Kungsträdgården station, the vibe is more that of a natural history museum — or maybe an archeological dig on acid — thanks to the immersive, nature-themed artwork of Ulrik Samuelson along with presence of historic artifacts and statuary unearthed during '70s-era urban redevelopment projects that took place in the vicinity of the station's namesake royal garden-turned-urban park. Some relics come from Makalös, a grand 17th century palace that was demolished following an 1825 fire.
Other stations are so sleek, so futuristic, that they seem to be begging for some sort of en masse “Logan’s Run” reenactment. Skarpnäck station, the Green Line’s southern terminus and the Stockholm’s newest station having been completed in 1994, seems an ideal candidate. Located near the Royal Institute of Technology on the Red Line, Tekniska Högskolan (1973) has a scientific research station on a far-flung ice planet thing going for it. As Expedia explains, artist Lennart Mörk’s paintings, technical drawings and sculptures — dangling dodecahedrons included — represent the four elements along with advances in technology.
And there’s a lot more than atmosphere-generating large-scale installations to be found underground. Conceived by Karl-Olov Björk and Anders Åberg, Solna Centrum station, with its blood red-painted cave-sky looming above a station-wide swath of murals depicting dense spruce forests and pastoral scenes, was completed in the 1970s but serves as evergreen commentary on socio-ecologic issues in Sweden such as deforestation and rural depopulation. Also developed in the mid 1970s but relevant today is Helga Henschen’s diversity-celebrating work at Tensa station, which serves a namesake suburban district that’s traditionally been home to a considerable immigrant population. At Tensa, the tracks are lined with colorful panels that read “brotherhood” in 18 different languages.
Although super-busy and otherwise not very flashy, the walls of Östermalmstorg station are sand-blasted with politically charged charcoal drawings by 20th century Swedish artist and activist Siri Derkert, who helped bring Stockholm's (literal) underground art scene to life. Like most of Derkert's work, the drawings at Östermalmstorg are themed around women's rights, world peace and environmental causes. A sign of the times both thematically and in function, the station, opened in 1965, doubles as a nuclear fallout shelter.
With it’s super-photogenic rainbow cave-mural, Stadion station pays tribute to the nearby site of the 1912 Summer Olympics but also offering a message of acceptance and inclusion.
“Art was very political in Sweden in the 1970s,” Fredrik Landegren, a contemporary artist whose nameless mosaics have been gracing Fruängen station for a little over a decade, explains to the Guardian. “If there was not a strong message behind your work, there was little chance you’d be offered a job on the subway."
While a decent amount of politically-tinged subway art generated during the 1960s and 1970s for the Stockholm Metro remains on display, some older installations have been phased out for newer ones, just as a proper gallery or museum might undergo a revamp. And just like a proper museum, many Metro stations are home to both permanent and temporary exhibitions.
Thorildsplan station, for example, was first adorned with art in 1975 with Lars Arrhenius's 8-bit-inspired tilework — a tribute to Ms. Pac-Man and other arcade staples of yore that turns the entire station into a giant, not-too-hellish video game — taking over in 2008. Nostalgia runs even deeper at Hötorget station where, save for the neon art on the passageway ceilings, it would seem that the interior has been preserved as a '50s-era time capsule complete with vintage signage and achingly retro teal tilework. There's a good reason — a reason that has nothing to do with common subway smells — why some locals call it "the bathroom station."
At Hallonbergen station, a collaboration between Elis Eriksson and Gösta Wallmark resulted in a whimsical transit hub that's covered from top to bottom with sloppy-joyous-weird (faux) children’s drawings. Elsewhere on the Blue Line at Rissne station, commuters won’t find kindergarten-inspired sketches but a university-level world history lesson stretching nearly 600 feet along the tracks. The vision of artists Rolf H Reimers and Madeleine Dranger, the impressive color-coded timeline (red: everyday events; yellow: religious texts; green: political texts; blue: scientific texts; pink: cultural events) of significant historic texts spanning from 3000 BC through 1985 has an almost Trivial Pursuit-like quality that can keep platform-bound commuters preoccupied during even the longest delays.
Created in 1997 by Belgian artist Françoise Schein, the eye-catching tilework at Universitetet station replaces a heavily damaged 1970s installation and celebrates one of Sweden’s most ubiquitous historical figures — the trailblazing, taxonomy-creating botanist Carl von Linné — while also providing modern-day social commentary on the state of the planet and the perils it faces.
Speaking of plants, there's also Näckrosen, another mid-1970s sprayed concrete cave station. It's name translates to “water lily.” In addition to paying homage to Filmstaden, a historic Swedish film production studio once located above the station, artist Lizzie Olsson Arle has festooned an archway with what can only be described as an upside-down explosion of lily pads. In addition to lily pads on the ceiling and massive faux pebbles on the walls, a rousing poem about aquatic plants can be found on the station floor. (A nearby attraction is Näckrosparken, a park named after its namesake water feature, a Nymphaeaceae-filled pond.)
The Stockholm Metro’s wealth of public art isn’t entirely hidden away underground. Various aboveground metro stations (these actually outnumber subterranean stations, particularly on the Green Line) in the system are home to notable works of art as well. This includes Högdalen station, which gained a trio of colossal bronze tulips in 2002 with the assistance of Birgitta Muhr.
"Högdalen is an outdoor station with a big park on one side and a main road on the other,” Muhr tells The Guardian. “It’s quite windy and lonely there, apart from at rush hour. Subway stations can be rough areas at night so I wanted to put some company on the platform. I decided to make these tulips in bronze. They’re designed so it appears they’re also waiting for the next train. I hoped that would plant a little smile in the minds of the people waiting alongside them, even if just for a fleeting moment.”
While the Stockholm Metro is peerless when it comes to showcasing art and design, seven decidedly artsy and architecturally significant 1980s-era stations belonging to another major European subway system, Berlin’s U-Bahn, were recently listed as historic monuments.
Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL), which oversees the Metro and other means of public land transport in Stockholm, hosts free guided art walks throughout the year although English-language tours are only available during the summer months. In addition to providing each station with a unique visual identity to help passengers (one can imagine tourists and recent transplants, in particular) navigate their way around town, SL believes that the art has helped reduce lower rates of crime and vandalism. (The Metro struggled in the 1980s with rampant graffiti.)
Each year, SL publishes a comprehensive alphabetical list detailing the art on display in each and every Metro station from Alby ("decorations, signs and secrets in various colors against a green background" by Olle Ängkvist) all the way to Zinkensdamm ("tiled walls outside the station and at platform level, cement mosaic pattern in the flooring of the ticket hall and tiled benches outside the station" by John Stenborg).