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Munich's Subway System

Discover a network of artwork

Though we tend to think of Munich’s outstanding architectural achievements as spectacular, high-rise structures visible from afar—the Frauenkirche, for example, or, more recently, the BMW headquarters—some of the city’s most fascinating architecture can in fact be found underground.
Subway 276x
The Munich U-Bahn system not only transports some 280 million passengers annually—an average of 900,000 passengers a day — through town with speed and efficiency, it also reflects the changing tastes in architecture since the mid-1960s. Especially recent years have seen the addition of stations that combine functionality with stunning design. This city artery, connecting its various neighborhoods and relieving the streets above-ground of much traffic, has slowly become a museum of art.
Compared to other cities, Munich’s subway is relatively young. Pioneered by London in 1863, subway construction soon followed in New York, Chicago and, interestingly, Budapest. Berlin, too, began as early as 1902 to move some of its local train network underground. Highflying dreams of a subterranean railway emerged in Munich only a few years later, but remained unrealized for years to come. After World War II thwarted a first attempt at building a subway system—short tunnel sections and the basic structure of the Goetheplatz station had been completed by 1941—it took another two decades, prolonged disputes between the city and the Bundesbahn and hopelessly congested streets in the city center, before, in 1965, construction of the Munich subway began. When it was announced that the city was to host the 1972 Olympic Games, the prospect of millions of visitors from around the world provided a new impetus, which speeded up construction dramatically. Three years ahead of schedule, the first subway line, the U3/6 from Goetheplatz to Kieferngarten, opened in 1971. In May of the following year, just in time for the Summer Olympics, a connection to the Olympic Park was completed. Over the next decades the network was extended to include three so-called Stammstrecken, or main lines (U3/6, U4/5 and U1/2), which share a stretch of the tracks in the city center. Today, three decades after it was opened, the Munich subway encompasses an impressive network of 92 kilometers of rails with some 90 stations.

Though most commuters agree that the Munich subway is relatively bright and safe, those who never venture beyond the stations built in the 1960s and 1970s might not be able to see how riding the subterranean rails can be an aesthetic experience. Especially the earlier stations—many of which revel in lots of orange and, as on the U1 line, all shades of brown, from ochre to sienna—were probably only deemed pleasing by 1970s designers. The design of the stations on the first line was plain indeed: the walls are clad with horizontal panels of gray concrete, while white plastic panels conceal the low concrete ceiling. Supporting pillars on the platform are painted or covered with tiles. The only exception to this sober functionality is Marienplatz. Here, in the heart of the city, the design alone (a broad vault clad in bright orange) signals to passengers that this is one special stop. In retrospect, some of the architecture from that early period, which was then considered exemplary for either its vibrant colors or simple, modernist design in the Bauhaus tradition, is considered boring or soulless today. It is a perfect example of how quickly our tastes and our concept of architecture change.
Beginning in the early 1980s, and most visibly in the 1990s, a dramatic change in style and design took place. The monotony that characterizes some of the early stations gave way to greater freedom of design and more individuality. By playing with colors and new, dazzling forms as well as adding a wealth of decorative elements and opening many stations up to daylight, local architects inspired a new generation of subway stations.

The works are remarkable given the fact that the designs are determined by a multitude of technical, engineering and financial considerations. Moreover, various site-specific factors above and below ground must be taken into account, such as tunnels or service ducts. The fact that stations receive little or no daylight and that the choice of materials is subject to a host of criteria (fire- and frost-resistant, durable, easy to clean, relatively inexpensive, to name the most important) further limits architectural freedom. Such restrictions notwithstanding, the Munich subway features a great variety of highly attractive and unusual stations. What all of them have in common is a standard length of 120 meters. Otherwise they are as diverse as the times in which they were created.

Integrating elements of a station’s surroundings into its interior by including references to the buildings and attractions above ground has turned out to be a successful strategy for shaping the unique character of a station, tying it into the cityscape and visually conveying to the passengers a sense of where they are. The Königsplatz station on the U2 line, which opened in 1980, was the first to distinguish itself in this respect. Situated at heart of Munich’s museum district, the Königsplatz station incorporates murals on the walls and displays artworks from the nearby museums and art collections, such as a prehistoric skeleton from the Prähistorische Staatssammlung and paintings from the Lenbachhaus and the Alte and Neue Pinakothek. Ten years later, giant showcases were added between the pillars on the platform, containing copies of monumental relief figures from Klenze’s Propylaeum on Königsplatz. The most unusual feature of the station is the gallery that it has accommodated since 1994, in a large, previously unused space above the platform. The Kunstbau is the contemporary art extension of the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, which is just around the corner. A large glass window at the northern end allows passengers on the escalator to catch a glimpse of current exhibitions. A better way of intergrating art into a public space is hard to imagine.

The noble, yet reserved design of the U4/ Prinzregentenplatz station makes this stop the perfect entrance hall for the legendary Prinzregententheater, which is located on the square above the station. Polished white Carrara marble is dramatically offset with grid patterns of black granite and a horizontal yellow band sporting the name of the station. The classic décor evokes the designs of René Mackintosh or the geometric patterns of a Piet Mondrian painting.
Just as bright, but in cheerful pastel colors — from ice blue to a sunny yellow and lime green — is the U3 Thalkirchen station. Here, Artist Ricarda Dietz’s series of beautiful animal murals line tunnel walls. Nearly life-size giraffes, zebras, elephants, lions and other wild animals follow an exit ramp all the way up and out of the station—a friendly welcome to visitors to the nearby Hellabrunn zoo. For hundreds of thousands of visitors, the U4/5 Theresienwiese station provides access to the Oktoberfest. What better way is there to welcome visitors to the world-famous beer festival than to have them enter it via a subway station recalling a two beer barrels. Black steel crossbeams and massive granite columns appear to “support” the two amber “vessels.”

Gern, on the U1 line, is one of the latest examples of creating a visible link between the surroundings and the subway below. Panes of glass have been mounted in front of the mat blue walls. They depict architectural drawings and plans of houses from the neighborhood as well as short texts about city planning and the history of the area. Waiting for the subway can thus become an informative lesson in local history. While most Münchner know, for example, that the Waisenhausstrasse refers to the nearby orphanage, it might be interesting to learn that the Dom-Pedro-Strasse was named after Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil and husband of the Princess of Leuchtenberg, who founded the orphanage, or that a famous 17th-century tenor, Pietro Zambonini, lent his name to the Zamboninistrasse. The Gern station is also notable for its unusual lighting. Nine pyramid-shaped “lamp shades” made of white-coated aluminum extend from the ceiling, reflecting the light from the fluorescent tubes inside. Viewed from a distance, these illuminated pyramids resemble light shafts through which daylight falls from above.

In the late 1990s, architects began to depart from the concept of sterile, paneled walls in favor of the “unfinished look.” Now, raw, concrete tunnel walls surrounded by geometric artworks of aluminum and high-grade steel became the fashion of the day. From Gern, take the U1 one stop further to the Westfriedhof station. Here, an above-ground “cage” of steel girders leads commuters down to the platform, where walls resemble an uneven rock face. Lighting effects are given an even greater priority and are used as the defining stylistic element of the station. Ten huge “light domes”—hemispheres in bright red, blue and yellow—light up the gray granite platform and dim blue neon tubes illuminating the ruddy tunnel walls make for a romantic, grotto-like interior.
At the U2 Kreillerstrasse station, the warm red of painted, concrete walls forms a dynamic contrast to the perforated aluminum metal sheets that have been mounted on the walls. An unusual light installation—a canopy of curved aluminum serving as a reflector for the light tube below—spans the platform. Two brick reliefs designed by students of the nearby Michaeli-Gymnasium add another “natural” element to a station otherwise dominated by shining metal. The clay bricks are also a subtle reminder of the resource that gave Berg am Laim its name—Lehm (clay).

Several stations on the U3-south also leave the rough surface of their supporting pillar walls exposed to great effect. At the Machtlfinger Strasse station, for example, the so-called bored-pile walls have been glazed in Bordeaux red. Here, too, a smooth ceiling canopy and two curved skylights made of shining metal create a stunning contrast to the raw concrete. Four wall installations by Munich artist Rupprecht Geiger—large geometric shapes in bright orange and pink—form another defining element of this station.

From the beginning, color was an important means of distinguishing otherwise similar-looking stations. Today, bright and vivid colors are employed as a vital design element in seemingly endless possibilities. The eastern branch of the U2 (from Innsbrucker Ring to Messestadt Ost) stands out on account of the consistent use of red in all stations. Not only does red function as the defining color of the U2 line, visually connecting the individual stations; the warmest of all colors also creates a feeling of comfort and an appealing contrast to the abundant glass and aluminum. Not always, however, do the architects refrain from employing more than one color. The uneven ceiling of the U1 Candidplatz station, which required great technical skill to construct, serves as the bearing surface of one of the city’s major sewerage canals. An unprecedented number of supporting pillars had to be erected on the platform to bear the weight. In order to alleviate the feeling of compression, the entire station, including the pillars, were painted in all colors of the rainbow, ranging from red to blue. All hues of the color spectrum can also be found at U2 Dülferstrasse, where a sequence of delicate, multi-colored strips has been affixed to laminated panels. Octagonal, turquoise columns, braced with stainless steel tubes, lend an Art Déco touch to this beautiful station. Contributing to the brightness and spaciousness of the station complex are two large light-wells, around which the concourse level is arranged like a gallery. Letting in as much daylight as possible is one of the primary goals of modern subway architecture. Nowhere in Munich has this been achieved more successfully than at U1 St.-Quirin-Platz. A giant, shell-shaped steel and glass dome spans this station, letting in plenty of daylight. On one side the sweeping glass structure extends all the way down to the platform, opening up the view to the small park in which this station is embedded. A most spectacular piece of subway architecture in Munich is the U2 Hasenbergl station. No supporting constructions or dark corners mar this spacious station in matte dark blue. It is dominated by a glimmering, lens-shaped screen that floats above the entire length of the 120-meter platform like a giant white sail. This unique canopy consists of framed, coated metal sheets and is suspended from the ceiling on steel cables, serving as a light reflector. Illuminating the “sail” from below, white fluorescent lights bring out its iridescent, nacrous shimmer.

The subway stations mentioned here are by no means the only noteworthy ones in Munich. The city’s underground is filled with architectural wonders and is a veritable maze of public art. For those who are fascinated by architecture, or for those who simply enjoy looking at the colorful fittings at various stops, a tour of this subterranean museum will prove to be as exciting as any museum tour above ground.

Candidplatz U1:
U-Bahn Referat (Subway Planning Council)
Dülferstrasse U2/8:
Architekturbüro Peter Lanz and Dr. Jürgen Rauch: Peter Lanz’s work includes the unusual steel and glass Monachia building on Nymphenburgerstrasse near the former Fiddler’s Green restaurant.
Gern U1:
Architekturbüro Claus & Forster: The firm’s architectural achievements include the freight loading dock at the Munich/Riem and the Museum für Konkrete Kunst in nearby Ingolstadt.
Hasenbergl U2/8:
Architekturbüro Braun, Hesselberger und Partner
Königsplatz U2/8:
Josef Wiedemann, a former professor at Munich’s Technical University, takes the credit for a list of architectural works in the area — some of which are listed buildings. These include: the rebuilt Glyptothek and the Carmelite monastery on the grounds of the concentration camp memorial at Dachau.
Kreillerstrasse U2/7:
Architekturbüro Grüner und Schnell: Their designs include the Büropark with its “Bamboo Hall” on Riesstrasse, the U-Bahn station Fürstenried and an apartment complex on Wartburgplatz in Schwabing.
Machtlfinger Strasse U3:
Schnetzer & Grosskopf
Marienplatz U3/6:
Alexander Freiherr von Branca:
A long list of designs include the Neue Pinokothek, the renovation of the Residenztheater, the Marriott Hotel on Berlinerstrasse and the German Embassies in Madrid and at the Vatican in Rome.
Prinzregentenplatz U4:
Alexander Freiherr von Branca, Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler: Hilmer and Sattler are responsible for additions made to Munich’s Finanzamt and several projects for Berlin’s Tiergarten.
St.-Quirin-Platz U1:
Hermann & Öttl: Their works include the Regionalbahnhof, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.
Thalkirchen U3:
U-Bahn Referat (Subway Planning Council)
Theresienwiese U4/5:
Alexander Freiherr von Branca
Westfriedhof U1:
Architekturbüro Auer & Weber: Architects for nearby Germering’s town hall and the
prize-winning design of the Helen-Keller-Realschule on Haimhauserstrasse in Schwabing.

© MF Hellmann/April 01

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