The subway system aesthetic is one built around service to the masses but also defined by the people who use it. You may not notice the little details while you’re hopping from train to train, or even consider how you contribute to the aesthetic while you wait behind the yellow line, but there is a lot going on all around you. Purpose, efficiency, and culture shape this aesthetic like a layer cake over different eras and this blog post will dissect these themes.
To understand the subway aesthetic, we must go to its origins. In 1863 the first underground train in the world opens in London as the first line in the grand London Underground that will come. Other cities like Boston and New York (as well as others around the world) would open theirs in 1897 and 1904 respectively. This urbanistic endeavor was fueled by the simple goal to transport city goers efficiently and to de-crowd the growing industrialized urban environment.
Because of the constraints of the areas where they were built, the industrial capabilities at the time, and its primary purpose, subways were built using crammed tunnels, winding pathways, but also late 19th century gothic architecture and early 20th century art nouveau and art deco styling. Even today you can see evidence of this in modern subways. Whether it be stations that still retain their original infrastructure, or modern updates which take the existing tiling into consideration, one aspect of the subway aesthetic is a 100+ year old elegance combined with a crude sense of adventure which reflects the heart and soul of its purpose: People.
Another aspect of the subway aesthetic is its efficiency. As the minimalist art movement came into the norm and modern thought about more than just art was sweeping across the world, the old aging subway systems were getting a makeover. The first step could be attributed to Harry Becks famous London Underground map from 1932. It got rid of landmarks, straightened the lines, and make stations relatively even in space on the page. This revolutionized the way people traveled in subways making it vastly more efficient and easier to use.
The signs saw a re-design as well. Examples like Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway re-design transformed the experience of the subway traveler. From the text, to the color coding, to the actual placement of the signs in the station, Vignelli completely altered the way we travel in subways, pushing efficiency and usability in every aspect. This emphasis contributes to the second aspect of the subway aesthetic which is the ease of use and general efficient air that is noticeable in complex underground systems.
The final aspect of the subway aesthetic is culture. Spanning all the way back to its origins but extremely prevalent in todays society, the subway and the people that use it have formed a unique cultural space core to cities around the world. In subways you’ll find performers and artists, as well as businesspeople and tourists, and even homeless refugees. It really is a space for everyone which is reflected in its unique cultural nature.
It has been a place for protests, gatherings, daily commutes, and one time visits. It is used daily by many which is why it is unique. In a city where you may only know the people on your floor yet be surrounded by millions at all times, the subway system is the place for human convergence. Art installations are held in the same spaces where graffiti culture was born, and stories of violence, compassion, and silliness are witnessed and sometimes put on social media for the world to interpret. This final aspect of the subway aesthetic is less about the infrastructure and more about the user which is you. We as a people have a large influence on how the subway experience is interpreted, and so the aesthetic relies heavily on the people involved.
The subway aesthetic is complex and is the product of a century and a half of use. It takes the culture and viewpoints of the people that use it, set within an efficient framework built around ease of use, all falling back on its original purpose which was to serve the masses. In a way the subway aesthetic really is a human aesthetic in that it is a melting pot of ideas that deal with human interactivity which remind you of a very basic human instincts: where do you want to go, what do you want to do, how will your experience be shaped.