Magic in the Metro

How cities all over the world make important public works of art out of their underground mass-transit systems

With 8 million people passing through each day, Moscow's metro system is the busiest in the world. It's also one of most of the beautiful.

Built during Stalin's rule, the stations are known as "the people's palaces" for their elegant design and lavish use of marble, mosaics, sculptures, and even chandeliers. The intricate mosaics lining Kievskaya station, the stained-glass panels at the Novoslobodskaya stop, and the gold-trimmed white porcelain caverns at Prospekt Mira are more museum than metro.

Most subway systems are dank and grimy—not places you'd want to linger. But a growing number of cities are taking a page from Moscow and investing in design and art for their underground transit.

Doing so not only makes an architectural and aesthetic statement but also helps attract more passengers. "Evocative metro stations are just as important to the whole experience of public transport as good-quality carriages," says John Smith, an architect and professor at London's Royal College of Art (RCA).

Designing Great Stations

That's why a number of cities, especially in Europe, are turning their once-dreary public transport systems into stunning works of art. London, home to the world's first underground, tapped the services of world-famous architect Sir Norman Foster, who designed the modern station at Canary Wharf.

With its high, vaulted ceilings and glass exterior surrounding the platform, the station feels clean, sleek, and futuristic. Foster used a similar approach when designing stations for Bilbao's metro in 1995. The stations are unique for their striking, glass-enclosed entrances, which locals have dubbed "Fosteritos" in honor of the architect.

Other metro systems house historical treasures or precious works of art. Indeed, the Athens subway is a museum in its own right. At the Syntagma station, for instance, visitors can check out ancient objects unearthed when the station was built. And passengers to Lisbon's Olaias station enjoy contemporary works of Portuguese artists, many using the country's colorful ceramic tiles.

World's Longest Art Gallery

Art also is a selling point for visitors to Stockholm's subway, or tunnelbana, whose 108 kilometers (65 miles) of tunnels have been dubbed the "world's longest art gallery." Seventy of the 101 stations are decorated with colorful and constantly changing art exhibits.

Credit Stockholm's savvy city council, which recognized way back in 1955 the potential for the subways to be about more than just transport. The city called on painters, sculptors, architects, and engineers to join forces in making metro stations attractive and stimulating environments: "underground cathedrals" with a "fanfare of color and rhythm," according to the city

Building beautiful metro stations isn't just a chance for cities to show off. It also provides valuable exposure for up-and-coming local artists and architects, giving them a chance to bring their work to the masses. "Artists have a captive audience," says Edward Barber, director of programs at the London College of Fashion, who has been involved in the city's Platform for Art initiative.

Handmade Woodcut

Launched three years ago, the London program is designed to showcase and celebrate the city's rich and vibrant art scene. One current exhibition is a collection of student work from the RCA's printmaking department; the works range from a handmade woodcut of a fossil to a digitally created image of London's contemporary cityscape.

It's not just up-and-comers toiling underground, either. A growing number of big-name architects also are helping improve the subterranean world.

Italy's Renzo Piano designed part of the new metro in Genoa, while American Peter Eisenmann has recently been commissioned to plan the refurbishment of the railway station at Pompeii. It's not hard to understand the attraction. Public transport works, says Smith of the RCA, offer "a combination of prestige and civic pride." Not to mention the chance to improve the daily lives of millions.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.