The Munich subway isn’t just a way of getting around the Bavarian capital, its stations are works of art in their own right

Subways are a great unifier. They connect people in a way that other structures can never hope to do. People from all parts of town and all walks of life come together for the price of a standard ticket and as the hours of the day tick by, this vast subterranean network takes on different vibes, like some ever-changing art installation.

The subway has evolved considerably since we first ventured beneath ground to solve the problems of mass transportation. It was in 1863 that London led the world by building the first subway.  Major cities from New York to Budapest quickly followed but it wasn’t until 1971 that Munich opened its first subway station, called the U-Bahn. Delays caused by the second World War and endless internal disputes held up the development of the network until Munich won the contest to host the ’72 Olympic Games. The realisation that millions would soon descend on the city focused everyone’s minds and speeded up development so that by the time the Games opened, the U3/6 from Goetheplatz to Kieferngarten had begun operations three years ahead of schedule.

But though Munich may have come late to the underground club, youth brings its own advantages. For starters, the designers were able to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, creating spacious and efficient stations renowned for their cleanliness.

Founding principles

The early stations built in the 60s and 70s are mostly functional with plain and very functional designs. Over-use of the colour orange and every shade of brown imaginable appealed to the modernist, Bauhaus aesthetic of the day but those stations are considered boring by today’s standards. Marienplatz is one of the few exceptions to this rule. Decked out in bright orange, its retina-searing design marks it out as one of the most important stations, a central changing station and the most heavily used in the entire network.

The stations that followed in the 80s and even more so the 90s, began to play with the rules that characterised the Munich subway. As noted German architect, Christoph Hackelsberger, pointed out “the design of a subway station starts with the structural design of the shell and ends with the artificial light reflecting from ceilings, walls and platforms.” In his 1997 book on the subject, he quotes a member of the subway’s planning council as commenting that transit stations should “radiate a positive mood and purposefully help to make a passenger’s wait more pleasant”.

Given the restrictions that govern subway design (from the materials used to the length of the platform and even the need to illuminate every corner), architects have been quick to give an individuality to stations that defines each one and the neighbourhood it lives in. By including subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – references to the structures above ground, they are able to create individual spaces that help their subterranean users know where they are. This is particularly evident at Thalkirchen, the station nearest the zoo. Here, murals of exotic animals including elephants and rhinos line the walls and leave you in no doubt where you’re headed.

But as well as moving nearly 280 million people around the city every year, the stations have also become exhibition spaces and works of art in their own right. Königsplatz is a cultural centre, home to the Kunstareal, Munich’s gallery and museum quarter. Here, the station, which opened in 1980, employs murals and artworks from the nearby museums. One unique aspect of this station is that it’s home to the Kunstbau, a 120m-long underground tunnel above the platform which houses expressionist works of art by artists such as Kandinsky. It’s been the subject of a four-year renovation with a new entrance wing by Lord Norman Foster which opened in May of this year. As you exit Königsplatz a large glass panel offers a teasing glimpse of the current exhibition, reinforcing the special significance of your location.

Underground magic

Colour and light are key ingredients in Munich’s subway design. Bright colours help distinguish stations from each other as well as providing scope for artistic expression. The eastern section of the U2 makes use of red as a unifying colour and also makes a warm contrast to the use of hard materials employed in more recent stations.  

The kaleidoscopic Dulferstrasse is a Munich landmark designed by Peter Lanz and Jurgen Rauch. Opened in 1993 and part of the U2 line, it makes full use of every colour in the palette to create an underground rainbow that puts a spring in every travellers’ footstep. It feels particularly spacious because two massive lightwells bring daylight down to the concourse.

Candidplatz makes even greater use of the rainbow effect, looking like something from a kids’ fairground with its brightly coloured walls. The decision to use such a bright colour scheme was a response to the limitations imposed by its location. So many supporting columns had to be used in its design that it was felt the bright colours would divert attention away from the limited space.

Emboldened by the public’s appreciation for these new stations, architects have grown more adventurous. As seen along London’s Jubilee Line extension, aluminium and steel have become fashionable in recent years, particularly when teamed with rough surfaces and raw concrete. In Munich this has led to the opening in 1998 of Westfriedhof on the U1 line. Lighting plays a big part in the station’s design with installations by Ingo Maurer. Eleven lamps inside huge hemispheres nearly 4m in diameter bathe the station in mesmerising yellow, red and blue hues. Blue light strikes the walls and ceiling while the walls themselves have been left rough and mostly untreated to evoke the feeling of being in a grotto. Clever design means there are no darkened corners anywhere in the station.

At the opposite end of the scale is St.-Quirin-Platz, which couldn’t look less like a romantic grotto. Here, light has been used with great effect. A giant shell-shaped glass dome creates a luxurious feeling of space. Polished steel, glass and natural stone give the station a unique identity. The use of glass also means that from the platform it’s possible to see the small park that is home to the station.

Munich might be better known for the attractions above ground but there’s no denying that magic awaits beneath its surface. This article merely touches on some of the stations worthy of discovery – many more are waiting to be explored on your next visit.

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