Design

Stockholm’s underground art movement

The underground metro system in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, is more than just a means of transport – its spectacular art installations turn it into the longest art gallery in the world.

WORDS ANTHONY TEASDALE

The Volvo XC60: a work of art

Subway systems – and their associated designs – have always acted as brand ambassadors for cities: think of the iconic map of London Underground, the beautiful art deco entrances to the Paris Metro or Moscow’s network of vast, ornate stations. But Stockholm takes the artistic side of transport even further.

Dubbed ‘the longest art gallery in the world’, the Tunnelbana – or T-bana – hosts art in 94 of its 100 stations, an initiative that began back in 1957. Which is why today, early on a Sunday morning, we’re going to explore it.

The Tunnelbana currently has three lines in operation – the Red, Green and Blue – ferrying 900,000 people around the city every day. The Blue line, though, is where the most spectacular sights can be found. Built 20-30m underground during the 1970s, every station bar one features exposed sections of the rock the line has been dug from. It provides an incredible canvas for artists to work on. As our base is 50km north of Stockholm, the first part of the journey comes courtesy of the Volvo XC60, which we drive to the first stop on the Blue line, Hjulsta. Relaxed after our smooth trip, we park up and head into the station.

Our first underground destination is actually the furthest away, Kungsträdgården, in the shopping district of Norrmalm. Opened in 1977, Kungsträdgården station (literally ‘King’s Garden’) was transformed by artist Ulrik Samuelson into an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, murals and sculptures. Containing fragments of the many buildings that were knocked down during the controversial modernisation of Stockholm in the 1960s and ’70s, there are incredible sights everywhere, from the ‘ruined’ doric columns (which belong to the Sweden’s National Art Museum) to the multicoloured floor tiling that reflects the Makalös Palace that once stood above.

Station art on the Stockholm underground
Station art on the Stockholm underground
Station art on the Stockholm underground
Station art on the Stockholm underground
Station art on the Stockholm underground

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The exposed rock walls are painted vivid green in some areas and covered in black-and-white harlequin checks in others. It’s like living back to the 1970s, but without the sideburns and fondue sets.

Marie Andersson, who has been an art guide on the T-bana for 20 years, has a particular fondness for the place. “In my opinion Kungsträdgården is the most spectacular station,” she says. “Here, you find art, architecture, humour and history all weaving stories about the past and present of the park above.”

One stop from Kungsträdgården is T-Centralen, the network’s main hub, through which all lines run. Here, the look is very different. The work of artist Per Olov Ultvedt, all is blue and white, with silhouettes of both trees and T-bana construction workers painted onto the walls. It gives the space a feeling of calm, especially on a quiet Sunday morning. For Marie Andersson, that’s the whole point.

“The metro is a place where most people are present physically but mentally somewhere else,” she says. “With my guides I want to give people a chance to really be present in this very normal environment and discover what they might have missed while they were planning what exit to take.”

The New Volvo XC60 drives alongside a section of overground rail.

Marie has a point. Travelling around the system without the goal of going anywhere specific lets us appreciate our surroundings more, taking in not just the art, but the metro itself. When we get to Stadion station on the Red line we’re immediately exploring, looking from every angle at its bright blue walls and the rainbow – commemorating the 1912 Olympics that was held in Stockholm – painted onto its ceiling.

With two million people now living in the Stockholm area, the metro will continue to expand over the next few years. The Blue line will be extended at both ends, while two brand new lines will be constructed. And art will continue to brighten the lives of commuters and visitors alike, an ever-growing installation, accessible to everyone.

This thought stays with us as we finish our trip, heading back to our starting point at Hjulsta. Back in the comfort of the XC60 as we head north, away from Stockholm, we have a new-found appreciation for both the car and the act of driving itself. Of course, we have a destination but for now we’re just moving, taking in the ever-changing nature of the Swedish countryside. That’s the power of art.