Almost a century and a half after its inception, below and above-ground electrified public transport has taken the world by storm – and evolved from its pragmatic commuter system origins into a confident landmark with many standout architectural features. While some dark tunnels feature “quick, you might miss them” aesthetic embellishments, more and more stops have become veritable works of art in their own right. Photographer Micha Pawlitzki is spellbound by these underground structures. “When you enter a new or recently renovated subway station, you feel transported into a museum-like space with discernible artistic features. You might step into an elegant space and unsupported towering hall with an impressive spatial ambience; you might spot enchanting color accents, ingenious light installations, unconventional ceiling concepts – if you didn’t know that you were in a subway station, you could even picture yourself in a hip gallery or corporate bank atrium,” he explains in the preface to his recently published book Unter/Grund (under/ground). The tome presents images of empty German stations that confirm his stated impression: Some subway stops are simply wonderful and wondrous spaces and definitely worth a closer look.

Yet among the wealth of global subway stops, five examples truly stand out – for their stunning beauty, striking appeal, or idiosyncratic characteristics.

5. New York City – World Trade Center (PATH Station)

New York’s iconic subway continues to serve as the setting and backdrop for countless of movies, music videos, and photo productions. By now, the station names and signs are almost as famous as the subway itself and many tourists like to have their picture taken with them. The train system has become such an integral part of urban life that it takes a few rides to get a feel for the city. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava designed the new World Trade Center stop. Both above and below ground the entire station is very light, airy, and inviting with an almost cathedral appeal. While some parts of the station are already open to the public, the new transport center will officially open in December 2015.

WTC Transportation Hub, by ForgeMind Archimedia, CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
WTC Transportation Hub, by ForgeMind Archimedia, CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

4. Stockholm – Tunnelbana

It is impossible to pick a single station among Stockholm’s Tunnelbana network – or “the world’s longest gallery” – as 90 of the system’s 100 stops have received artistic touches from a total of 150 artists. Think elaborate ceiling murals, sculptures, light, and sound installations. So, keep a sharp look-out when changing trains or take one of the city’s guided tours!

3. Vienna – Stephansplatz

When digging up the Viennese subway system, workers came across several historic sites, including part of the old city wall at Stubentor and the Virgil Chapel at Stephansplatz. This 13th century underground church was buried in 1781 and soon forgotten by the city. Today, it has been restored to former glory, visible from the city’s most central stop, Stephansplatz.

2. Moscow – Komsomolskaya

Stalin ordered the expansion of Moscow’s subway network, turning its stops into “palaces of the laboring classes,” as they are still known today. A popular sight on the Russian capital’s tourist trail, Komsomolskaya remains the system’s best-known station – its roof supported by 72 octagonal pillars of light-colored marble. Huge chandeliers illuminate the station’s stucco embellishments, showing scenes from Russian history. A true palace, built in 1952, used by the city’s people and rush-hour crowd every day.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow, Russia, photo: yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, CC-BY-2.0. via Wikimedia Commons
Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow, Russia, photo: yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, CC-BY-2.0. via Wikimedia Commons

1. Lisbon – Oriente

Usually, the honor to design Lisbon’s subway stations falls to Portuguese artists. To mark the World Expo 1998, however, the operating company invited eleven artists from five continents to contribute works to the new Oriente stop. Look out for tile paintings by Austria’s Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Japanese queen of dots Yayoi Kusama and Irish-born American painter Sean Scully.

Text: Lia Pack
Header image: Kaiser-Wilhelm-Park, Essen, by Micha Pawlitzki