Underground brilliance

A train pulls into the Westfriedhof subway station in Munich, southern Germany, on November 14, 2012. Eleven large lamps were installed in 2001 and bathe the station in blue, red and yellow light.
AFP PHOTO/Christof Stache

By Sylvain Estibal

I returned to Paris a few months ago after several years posted in South America. My daily commute is now on the city metro and after all that time in sun-drenched and vibrant Latin America, I find it boring, dirty and depressing. The lighting is especially harsh and the only colours seem to come from advertisements. 

While travelling, I think to myself: people in other countries must be having more fun on their subway systems. 

Take Moscow, for instance. The Russian capital’s underground is a true museum of culture. Even the trains sometimes serve as the venue for art exhibitions. I decided to go online to look for the most beautiful underground systems in Europe, then asked AFP photographers in several European cities to head underground with their camera gear. The assignment was simple: Only interior shots and only in especially beautiful stations. 

That was it really. Judge for yourself as to whether it was worth the effort.

Komsomolskaya metro station on the Moscow subway's Koltsevaya, November 2, 2012. The station was opened in 1952.
AFP PHOTO/Kirill Kudryavtsev

The most famous of all subway systems is arguably Moscow’s. The stations were initially conceived as solemn and formal “underground palaces”, an artistic and technological marvel. The complex, initiated in the 1930s under Stalin, was designed with the idea of reinforcing Muscovites’ patriotic feelings and aesthetic values, architectural propaganda to strengthen communist utopian ideals for the city and its people.

Above all, Soviet leaders did not want the Moscow metro to look like anything that might be found in Europe -- especially the subway of Paris, with its grimy walls, shoddy lighting and screeching trains.

Instead, the Soviets wanted their metro to embody socialist ideals and promote its simplistic vision of endless celebration. The stations were supposed illustrate the country’s heroic past, it’s splendid present and the magnificent future to come.

Subway passengers walk at the Slavyansky Bulvar metro station in Moscow, on November 14, 2012.
AFP PHOTO/Kirill Kudryavtsev

Of course, the future didn’t turn out quite as the Soviet leaders had imagined. Today the metro is perhaps more widely appreciated by foreigners than by harried locals, who complain of rush-hour overcrowding. And many in Moscow deride their underground system, saying it’s only for poor people. Those of means prefer to get around by car.

It’s not just Moscow. In Kiev, the famous metro station at Zoloti Vorota, which opened in 1989, takes for its inspiration latter-day Soviet aesthetics and the mediaeval architecture of Ukraine.

A mosaic in the Kiev's "Gold Gate
AFP PHOTO/Sergei Supinsky

The Stockholm metro is also worth the detour. It is not only clean, safe and reliable but -- for the price of a ticket -- you can visit a real museum filled with mosaics, paintings and art installations. More than 150 artists helped with its decoration.

The Stadion subway station in Stockholm on November 6, 2012. Over 90 of the 100 subway stations in Stockholm have been decorated with sculptures, mosaics, paintings, installations, engravings and reliefs by over 150 artists.
AFP PHOTO/Jonathan Nackstrand

Subway systems can become a tourist attraction in their own right. The Stockholm metro’s website even takes a swipe at the Moscow underground, saying its art is “pompous, not very modern and made up mainly of architectural adornments.”

People wait for their train to stop at the Solna subway station on November 6, 2012 in Stockholm.
AFP PHOTO/Jonathan Nackstrand

But in my view, the most spectacular metro venue of all is the Toledo station in Naples, rendered by Spanish architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca. On visiting the station, it feels almost as though you are floating in outer space.

Toledo subway station in Naples, designed by artist Oscar Tusquet Blanca.
AFP PHOTO/Mario Laporta

AFP photo clients have a huge appetite for photos capturing different slices of society. Hard news remains at the heart of what we do, but we’ve expanded our output of this type of work. Each month, we send our team of photographers around the world to shoot a theme: housing, police, the elderly, religion etc.

It’s a great way to document our changing world.