Atlantic Cities
Postcard

Berlin's Subway: 'An Underground Art Gallery'

Berlin's Subway: 'An Underground Art Gallery'
Kate Seabrook

For all their powers, the urban transport systems of Paris, London, and Madrid make for a visually dull ride.

You might not think twice about those uniform design schemes until you've seen the E.U.'s other great heavy rail network, the Berlin U-Bahn. Photographer Kate Seabrook, in her project "Endbahnhof," has lined up all 173 capricious interiors. It's like flipping through a paint-sample catalog of pattern, typography and architecture.

"It's essentially like an underground art gallery," she says.

On the U-7, for example, which runs from northwest to southeast across the city, station design doesn't just riff of a single template. There are six different design schemes just in the stations of the former East Berlin. Further west, the walls burst into mosaics and shine with monochrome coatings of red or orange.

All told, the variance seems to illustrate a dozen different programs of partial renovation, each dating to a different era and a different stylistic impulse. (Many of the system's most famous, older stops -- including Deutsche Oper, below -- were the product of the evolving tastes of the Swedish architect Alfred Grenander, who designed dozens of stations between 1902 and 1930.)

Even a transfer between lines can be like traveling through time, as at the two platforms of Fehrbelliner Platz, the one stern and decorous, the other bright and exuberant.

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Seabrook, who moved to the German capital from Melbourne in 2011, has spent the past year riding the rails and photographing the lines station by station. It's harder than it sounds. Snapping photos without people is difficult, especially on weekdays. But on weekends, trains only run every ten minutes, so getting off at every station can stretch a photography project into a all-day activity.

The stations aren't as exquisite as those of St. Petersburg, or as bombastic as those of Stockholm -- their design variance is quieter, more approachable, and some would argue, more fitting for a utilitarian transport system. And while Munich has constructed some of the most radiant underground stations in the world, the Bavarian city's network is only half the size of Berlin's and offers none of the timeworn contrasts -- it dates from 1971; Berlin's from 1902.

No, traveling through the Berlin U-Bahn is a more subtle trip, a journey through fonts, graphic design, tile-work, molding and color. And, cliche though it may be, history.

Maybe stations like this make it harder to miss your stop.

 

All images copyright Kate Seabrook.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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