Metro museum of art: The evolution of art in Beijing’s subway stations

By Zhang Zihan Source:Global Times Published: 2012-2-20 19:53:36


Beijing Zoo Subway Station
Beijing Zoo Subway Station
National Library Subway Station
National Library Subway Station
Dongsishitiao Subway Station Photo: CFP
Dongsishitiao Subway Station Photo: CFP

In 1969 Subway Line 1 opened, Beijing's first subway line. Since then, the network has massively expanded and with it the number of people who use it. As a result, it has become an important base for public art, one which is becoming more dynamic and ambitious as time goes by. Here Metro Beijing explores the present and future of underground art.

New directions

Pillars, lanterns and the color red, all of these are classic elements of traditional Chinese architecture that have inspired the new Subway Line 15. Designed by teachers and students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the line is labeled "the line of Chinese style." For example, Shunyi Station, the largest station on Line 15, has adopted all the elements of traditional Chinese architecture. In the station hall, there are four red pillars in the center and shining brass wall paintings around, making it similar to the solemn style of a Chinese palace.

Professor Fu Yi, Associate Dean at CAFA, explained how while there is an overriding commonality, the different stations on Line 15 are still unique. "Maquanying Station is decorated with arch ceilings and hollowed out windows," said Fu. "Meanwhile all the pillars in Cuigezhuang are painted with the name of the station in calligraphy."

Modern materials have been used, like fiber reinforced plastic, which provides a bright and vivid visual experience. Fu pointed out that the classic elements have made the decorations very ornamental, while the choice of material has met the aesthetic need of modern society.

Wu Yuanqing, a 25-year-old college student, said he was "deeply impressed" by the building and decoration style of Subway Line 15. "I have used most lines in Beijing and 15 is the most distinguished," said Wu. "All those arches and pillars look so harmonious in Chinese red."

Other new subway lines are also competing in the looks department. Subway Line 4 has earned the reputation of "underground art museum," as many important stations on Line 4 have their own unique fresco inspired by their surrounds. For example, the theme of National Library Station's fresco is "a book ocean" and Beijing Zoo Station's fresco is "animal kingdom." Moreover, of all the 23 stations on Line 4, 22 of them have individual exhibition areas, which hold shows all year round.

Modest old lines 

In sharp contrast to the new lines, the old lines are not half as artistic. Bai Fan, a 24-year-old who works at a marketing company and uses the subway regularly, describes the experience of transferring from new lines to old ones as a journey from a culture jungle to the Gobi Dessert. "As far as I can see, Line 2 still has some art, while Line 1 has nothing artistic except advertising boxes," said Bai. "Clearly both lines have great room for improvement, especially big stations like Dongzhimen on Line 2. It is a long walk from Line 2 to Line 13 in Dongzhimen and I see nothing pleasing on route."

The art Bai mentioned belongs to Xizhimen, Dongsishitiao and Jianguomen stations. There are six paintings in the three stations that were created in the early 1980s.

Huo Xinghai, a 26-year-old student of CAFA, who also participated in the designing of Line 5, highlighted that the priority of Line 1 and Line 2 is transportation. Huo explains that these lines are the busiest in Beijing and providing extra artwork would only burden the pedestrian flow. "Especially in Dongzhimen, it is a transfer station as well as a bus terminal, so millions of people get on and off in a hurry. Efficiency would be sacrificed if they slow down to enjoy art," said Huo.

Huo admitted that the current situation could be improved. He also pointed out that the resting areas of both lines could be a possible area for public art. "Most benches and the likes on Line 1 and Line 2 are old and ordinary-looking. Fashionable and ergonomic design could be added to make them better in appearance and function," Huo suggested.

Looking ahead

Subway art has earned its status in city construction in many Western countries. Ancient Middle Eastern buildings and legendary four elements of fire, water, earth and air are the themes of subway art in Dubai, while in Moscow the subway stations are decorated with marble, coral and crystal, and wall paintings display historical events and notable people.

Beijing authorities have realized the importance of subway art. Hence CAFA has been entrusted to design art on all the subway lines. He Wei, a lecturer at CAFA and one of the directors of CAFA's subway design team, told Metro Beijing that they have worked out a guideline for Beijing's subway. According to He, the subway map is divided into 19 areas based on each area's character, and the art in each station will be determined by that. Taking Nanluoguxiang Station on Line 6 as an example, the station under construction is in the old hutong district, so the theme will be gray bricks and corridors of old buildings.

Color coding will also be part of this. "In contrast to the gray brick and old building style of Line 6, Line 10 lies under many modern CBD areas, thus the color is the azure of metal bricks. Different colors reflect the characteristics of different times," said He.

CAFA's guideline also includes future art planned for lines 1 and 2. The art theme of Line 1 is "New Republic," as China conquered many difficulties to build this line. The art theme of Line 2 is "Old Beijing," since it is built right under the ancient walls of Beijing's city. "The construction of Line 2 will be an interesting project, as we are going to restore old scenes from Beijing's underground," said He.

Meanwhile, CAFA student Huo described the subway art of Beijing as a mosaic. "When divided they reflect different cultural and historical elements, and when united they symbolize the development of a city and the creativity of its people," said Huo.


Posted in: Metro Beijing

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