Subway as Art







In 1997, when the transportation authority in Naples announced a tremendous new project to build nine lines of subterranean train tracks that would wind through downtown and connect all the sprawling suburbs of this metropolis (1 million people), certainly few paid attention. It would never been built, many probably assumed. Or, if it was, it would take decades and turn out yet another drab, dinghy, crime ridden subway system that nobody used.

Guess what. Everyone was wrong. In just seven short years, three lines of the subway are operating, and dozens of stations are open. Beyond this, the system itself is an artistic statement. Not only has the city made tremendous headway in rebuilding its infrastructure, it has redefined the role of modern transport.

It all began in 2001, when architects Alessandro & Francesco Mendini unveiled their Salvatore Rosa station on line 1. In effect a museum first and a train station second, the Mendini’s conceived of their building as a tableau for local artists. Hardly a wall or bit of floor space in the entire structure is unadorned with artwork. Burlap-covered cars, mosaic tiles, stained glass: The entire structure seems to shimmer with activity.

A year later, the new station down the line, the Piazza Dante station in the center of downtown, opened. As designed by Gae Aulenti—a glazed, airy building infused with blue light—this too was outfitted by contemporary artists, including Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth, Nicola de Maria, and Jannis Kounellis.

The entire project, which planners hope will be complete in 2011, is mind-boggling. Estimates place the cost at 3.8 trillion Euros, encompassing 1400 kilometers of subway and 400 stations.

Such numbers smack of a surrealist fantasy. In literature, ambition like this is usually scolded by failure. Yet, at this early point, the idea of the Naples Subway as “a new space for movement and culture,” seems apropos. We—and many like us—are extremely hopeful.