The metro stations of Brussels, museums beneath your feet

12.09.2014 - Dries Tack

The first public transport system to go under the ground was London’s Underground, opened in 1863. Indeed the francophone term Metro comes from London’s Metropolitan line. Paris has its much filmed Métro, New York has its iconic Subway, Berlin its once sundered and now re-united U-Bahn and Moscow is renowned world-wide for its extravagant subterranean stations, properly entitled people’s palaces. Amongst all this international competition, what does the Brussels Metro have to offer?

The Brussels Metro runs through 52 km of tunnels. Although planned since 1892, the tunnels were built between 1965 and 2009 and the architecture of the 69 metro stations reflects this period. Each Metro stop deliberately has its own distinctive style, so if you are vaguely familiar with the stations you always know exactly where you are by the type of décor and furnishings.

Many of the stations are exhibitions of different types of marble. Gare Centrale / Centraal Station is decorated in travertine to reflect the Victor Horta designed railway station it serves. Every stop seems to have a different style of ‘street’ furniture – the 1970’s plastic seats come in a then-fashionable array of colours – Orange, Yellow, White, Black. Again, regular users waking from a reverie can tell instantly by the shapes and colours where they are.

But for me perhaps the most striking and unique feature of the Brussels Metro is the fact that it is actually an art museum masquerading as a public mass transport system. The design of each station incorporates and embraces a work or works of art.

Where else in the world would you find an original fresco by one of the great surrealists in a subway halt? You can find this in Brussels at the metro stop Bourse / Beurs. Paul Delvaux often incorporated trams into his nocturnal and otherworldly paintings, so it’s very appropriate that this surrealist genius has a huge work on display in a Metro station.

Perhaps out-surreallising the surrealists, Francois Schuiten has the metro system from a parallel universe intersecting with the station of Port de Hal /Hallepoort. Mythical 81 trams and tramlines appear and disappear into walls, a reflection of his cartoon-strip world described in the sublime volumes of the Cités Obscures / Duistere Steden series (no good translation of the title in English exists.)

Montgomery station contains a 150 square metre work by Jean-Michel Folon entitled Magic City, in which a red sun sends out waves of rainbow light over a city on a hill while two tiny people look on. Albert station is set out as an archaeological site containing the lost memories of an imaginary civilization, conceived by Jephan de Villiers.

For me, the most surreal of all stations is Stuyvenbergh. This metro stop is transformed into a grotto containing painted mannequins of Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians (wife of King Albert I) in 25 different stages of her life. It is at once disturbing and entrancing, and without a doubt quintessentially Belgian.

An excellent guide “Art in Brussels begins with the Metro” is available to download from the website of the Brussels transport company STIB / MIVB, in English, French and Dutch. Search, download and discover! Benjamin Barrier for Belgian Boutique 2014


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