Stockholm’s Metro, the World’s Longest Art Installation

Deep under the heart of Stockholm, spanning the length of 14 islands and stretching 110 kilometres is the Stockholm metro, the tunnelbana.

Metro-stations are usually boring, staid and functional. Not here. The Stockholm metro is not just a grey bore with metal cabins on wheels, it is also the longest art exhibition in the world.

Conceived of in 1941 (Sweden was neutral during World War 2), the first metro station was opened in 1950.

Stockholm T-Centralen 1957Construction of the T-Centralen in 1957 (Wikipedia)

The main station on the metro line (T-Centralen) was built next to the Stockholm Central Railway Station. Making this particular station, the Stockholm Central Station, the principal node in this hub and spoke system.

Stockholm Central Station, linking up the railway, with the metro

Lines and stations were subsequently added, with the latest station opened in 1994. Amazingly, and perhaps in a node to sticking with plans, the line today still follows the same masterplan that was laid in 1965.

stockholm-tunnelbana-map-2016T-Bana map today (source)

Taking a trip down the line just to explore the art is actually quite a cool if crazy, way to explore the city.


Oh come on! I can’t be the only one who find this a really cool way to explore.

Then again, its beautiful so I don’t care what looks I get.

The scheme was initiated in the 1950s. The genesis of the idea came earlier from public debate over bringing art to the masses. It was fulfilled during the 1950s when Stockholm was undergoing a cultural and economic boom. Sweden’s neutrality in the two World Wars meant that Stockholm was one of the few intact major cities in Europe with its infrastructure fully in place. A national cultural programme was launched by the government. People could win lotteries of prints of famous painters, an open competition was launched to have painters do work on the stations.

Art at train stations was however not a new idea. It was done in Moscow around the 1930/40s at the height of Soviet power. The art there was elegant and exclusive, most of it in an ostensible nod to Stalinist-Soviet culture.

moscow-park-pobedy-sationMoscow’s Park Pebody Station (source)

The difference in the art in the Stockholm metro is that it took to minimalist art works with no fixed themes. Minimalist art was growing in the artistic circles in Paris and New York at the time.

The artist were given free reign to do what they wanted at the stations, leading to themes like prehistory at the T-centralen,

to anti-Cold War/Nuclear art in the nearby Hotorget station.

A more detailed story was written by David Cox for The Guardian. Art does not just have an aesthetic use at the train station, it brightens up the station and also has the effect of softening the station and making it feel safer. Light and beautiful tends to have the effect of increasing the perception of safety and alleviating crime.

But a beautiful station is nothing if the trains don’t run on time. So when the Swedes told me that the Swedish public transport system was good my ears picked up.

To put some context to this, Singapore has a very good underground system (although breakdowns have become more frequent in the last few years) and even in Singapore its rare to hear urbanites talk about the quality of their transport system.

So when locals mention that the system is good, its worth paying attention to (you don’t hear many Londoners or New Yorkers talk about how good the Underground or Metro are). I reckon the quality has to do with the company running the metro.

It’s the same company that runs the Hong Kong MTR, MTR Corp. MTR Corp took over the running of the metro in 2009 on a 8 year contract and has just had its contract extended for 6 years.

Just how good are they?

In the first quarter of 2016 (where I have seen data), the average Hong Kong commuter experienced 5 minutes of delay every 520,000 kilometres. In Stockholm, the Tunnelbana system recorded its 25 consecutive month of improvements in punctuality with 98.5 % punctuality rate in August this year. It has been so efficient that it has also been awarded the contract for the rail service just this year.

I wonder though, with people rushing too and from work, how many slow down a little and enjoy the beauty of these unlikely art pieces?


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