The longest art gallery in the world - Stockholm subway system
Stockholm’s subway system has earned itself the title of world’s longest art exhibition. That’s because each stop along its 110 km route has been decorated with sculptures, mosaics, paintings and installations.
Since 1957 artists have played a key role when new stations have been built. And over time the metro’s older stations – planned and built without any art – have been spruced up with beautiful statues, murals, and installations.
T-Centralen, the main hub of Stockholm’s subway, opened up for traffic in 1957 and was the first station to feature artwork. The blue line-platform, quite literally “the blue platform” is hands down one of the public transport system’s most recognisable places. But it didn’t open until 1975 when the blue line to Hjulsta was completed.
Painting a platform on the subway’s blue line almost entirely in, well… blue might seem a little on the nose. Art guide Marie Andersson theorises that the artist Per Olof Ultvedt not only chose the blue shades based on their aesthetic values but also their relaxing effect.
“I think Per Olof Ultvedt wanted to create a calming atmosphere because this is a station where people are in a hurry. They are changing trains to another metro line or another commuter train. So I think that his idea was that the blue colour together with the simple motifs – stylised flowers and leaf creepers – gives passengers pause and a chance to clear their mind.”
Thorildsplan is one of only three street-level surface stations in downtown Stockholm. The station was built in 1952, but the pixelated artwork by Lars Arrhenius is a more recent addition. Arrhenius was commissioned to create new art in 2008, the caveat being that it had to be tile work. Otherwise, he had total creative freedom, but considering his background the material was a perfect fit.
While planning his work, he drew inspiration from Thorildplan’s surroundings. The street crossings, rondos, elevated sidewalks, elevators, and stairs reminded him of intricate video game levels. Clearly, this also resulted in a work that visually is rooted in 8-bit aesthetics - a source of inspiration that runs through his whole body of work - with pixelated clouds, mushroom power-ups, and projectiles.
SL and Konstrådet [Stockholm Public Transport and the Stockholm Art Council; the two governing bodies over the subway and public art of Stockholm respectively] only chose art based on the artist’s submissions, says Andersson. They never bring suggestions to the table beforehand. And besides, there’s no rule that says that subway art must have a literal connection to a station. Sure, Kungsträdgården’s station art is a kind of mirror of the station’s name. But the Archipelago-themed Fridhemsplan on the other hand obviously doesn’t depict what’s above ground.
One of Stockholm’s most stunning stations is unsurprisingly also one of its most photographed: Kungsträdgården. Located in the middle of downtown Stockholm, it’s the terminus of the blue line, or at least until its southward extension opens in 2025.
Kungsträdgården is one of Stockholm’s oldest public parks. The name, roughly meaning “The King’s Garden”, is derived from the area’s royal history. Between 1643 and 1825 it was the site of the majestic Makalös Palace, and a beautiful French garden was built. After Makalös burned down, the site was used for military exercises. Finally, in 1875, the park landed in the care of the Stockholm City Council, which in turn opened it for the public.
Almost everything on the station tells the story of the site above ground, says Andersson. About its history, former and current buildings. The colour scheme – red, white and green – is a reference to the old French formal garden and statues around the station are actually replicas of Makalös Palace’s exterior art.
Another unique feature of Kungsträdgården is its fauna. The station is the only place in Northern Europe where the cave-dwelling Lessertia dentichelis-spider can be found. Presumably, the species hitched a ride on equipment and machines traveling from Southern Europe when the station was being built.
The contrast between the heavenly cubes – jutting out from the ceiling and platform at Solna Strand – and the dark cave, is characteristic of Takashi Naraha’s art. The Japanese artist often uses a ying and yang-theme in his work, explains Andersson.
“It’s the foundation of his pieces, there’s often a balance between light and darkness, Andersson says. “And in the way that the platform’s cubes mirror the open sky above ground, the black cube just outside the station entrance relates to the dark cave below ground.”
The station of Solna Centrum opened with the first arm of the blue line in 1975. The bright green and red landscape - the green being the forest and the red an evening sun setting behind the treetops - is both timeless in its beauty, but also something that few other stations artwork is; political.
After completing the walls artists Karl-Olov Björk and Anders Åberg felt they were lacking. So they continued adding various details and scenes to the forest.
Originally the walls were supposed to be only green and red, explains Andersson. So the rest of the paintings were pretty much improvised. This resulted in pictures that illustrated some of the most debated societal issues in 70’s era Sweden; the environment, over logging of the forest and the depopulation of rural areas.
Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) was founded in 1827 and has since then had famous alumni like Christer Fuglesang, Dolph Lundgren, and Anette Scheibe pass its exams. In 1973 Tekniska Högskolan finally got its own subway station, to help students and professors get to their classes.
Unsurprisingly, the award-winning station (with art by Lennart Mörk) is a celebration of the scientific advances and discoveries. The most eye-catching are probably the five regular polyhedra located on the platform, each one representing one of Plato’s five elements: fire, water, air, earth, and ether.
You’ll also find representations of Copernican heliocentrism, Polhem’s mechanical alphabet, Newton’s three laws of motion and da Vinci’s attempts at creating a flying machine, says Andersson.