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In Naples, the Stazione Toledo subway station's conical opening toward the sky was originally created to remove volcanic sediments during excavation and was meant to be closed after work ended.

As you descend into stazione Toledo, a blue mosaic ceiling wraps you in the magic of a pointillist cone of light. A few hundred metres away, all your senses are challenged as stazione Università’s psychedelic floors morph beneath your feet. It sounds unreal, especially if you’re used to travelling the cash-strapped transit systems of many big cities. In Naples, Italy, however, a major program of architecture, art and archaeology — the “three As” — animates the public transportation network.

Known for many of the wrong reasons, but also for its remarkable heritage and beauty, Naples embarked on the formidable infrastructure undertaking in the 1980s. From the start, the idea was to revamp the city’s image while upgrading and expanding its subway system. Sixteen stations were targeted along Linea 1 and Linea 6, both under the management of Metropolitana di Napoli, a private consortium created in 1976. The truly innovative idea: inviting renowned architects and artists, from Italy and elsewhere, to take part in this revitalization.

Surprisingly, few people are aware of the program’s scope, even in the Campania capital. In 2020, the Italian journal Economia della Cultura published an interview with two of the main players: Ennio Cascetta, who acted as adviser, then CEO and finally chairman of Metropolitana; and art critic and curator Achille Bonito Oliva, who led Metropolitana’s artistic direction. Both attributed the program’s success to a climate of “continuity” and “transparency” enabled by 30 years of stability at the municipal level, and an enduring collaboration between municipal leaders and their counterparts at the regional and provincial levels. “The idea,” Cascetta explains in the interview, “came from politicians who had a ‘noble’ vision of the city. We faced a lot of criticism: ‘Naples is a city of beggars and you allow yourselves great architecture, you allow yourselves contemporary art…’ ”

In Naples, the Stazione Toledo subway station's conical opening toward the sky was originally created to remove volcanic sediments during excavation and was meant to be closed after work ended.
Stazione Toledo’s conical opening toward the sky was originally created to remove volcanic sediments during excavation and was meant to be closed after work ended. Thankfully, Spanish architect Òscar Tusquets Blanca chose to exploit its full poetic potential, cladding it in Bisazza tiles. Photo by Luciano Romano

When centre-left Antonio Bassolino became mayor in 1993, Naples (like the rest of the nation) was in shambles. This did not stop him from overseeing the adoption of a new municipal transportation plan that Metropolitana would take the reins on. (Key to the plan’s success was Giannegidio Silva, who chaired the consortium before Cascetta’s tenure until his untimely death in 2015.) That Metropolitana was responsible for designing and building the stations was an atypical circumstance for Italy. “Today, we’d have to go through the tendering process in order to select the architects, designers, artists, construction companies and so on,” Cascetta explains.

But back then, everything was managed by Metropolitana in agreement with the city. “We were given the opportunity — and we used it to the full — to propose some of the world’s best designers to the municipality.”

From 2001 on, a succession of “Art Stations” opened: Museo (2001), Salvator Rosa (2001), Quattro Giornate (2001), Dante (2002), Materdei (2003), Vanvitelli (first opened in 1993 and revamped in 2005). The architects involved in this first phase were mostly Italian: Atelier Mendini, Gae Aulenti, Michele and Lorenzo Capobianco, and Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas (who are still at work on stazione Duomo). Karim Rashid was also commissioned; he produced a unique, colourful series of sculptures and icons — and spellbinding graphics — integrated into the architecture of stazione Università. Some of the best Italian and foreign artists — among them Michelangelo Pistoletto, Sol LeWitt, Mimmo Jodice, William Kentridge and Shirin Neshat — produced works for the stations or exhibited existing ones therein.

With Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance, Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura’s Piazza del Municipio surfaces a complex transportation hub below. In coming years, significant ruins and artifacts found in situ will be displayed for public viewing. Photo by Paolo Cappelli and Maurizio Criscuolo, Studio 64.
The dynamic circulation route includes bean-shaped cuts in the wall for fascinating views. Photos by Paolo Cappelli and Maurizio Criscuolo, Studio 64.

Another unique aspect of the program — most unthinkable for North American observers — was its involvement of academics in decision-making processes related to city development. The late Benedetto Gravagnuolo, the former dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Naples Federico II, played a strong role in proposing architects for the new stations. So did Alessandro Mendini, who, along with being a key figure on the architectural and design scene, had served as editor of Casabella (1970 to 1976) and Domus (1979 to 1985). His intimate knowledge of who was doing what and where likely explains the presence of architects Álvaro Siza Vieira, Òscar Tusquets Blanca and Gae Aulenti in Naples, as well as other personalities revered for their thoughtful approach to architecture. Mendini and his brother Francesco (who also worked at Atelier Mendini) designed stazione Salvator Rosa and were later hired to coordinate development on several stations by other architects.

The artists were brought in as the architectural concepts evolved: According to Metropolitana’s 2023 figures, there are now 180 works of art by 90 artists exhibited in Naples’s “three As” stations. This meshing of creative minds has resulted in a remarkable legacy for Naples and a shining example for other cities to follow. The effect of this astounding collaboration can be intensely felt at stazione Toledo, designed by Òscar Tusquets Blanca. On the steep descent toward the platform level, 38 metres below the piazza above, one is struck by the Catalan architect’s whimsical blue mosaic intervention, somewhat reminiscent of Barcelona’s Modernista masterpieces while celebrating the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Playful waves pop off the walls on either side of the giant conical skylight enhanced by American artist Robert Wilson’s subtle LED installation.

South African artist William Kentridge also contributed to the station: above ground with his ironic Il Cavaliere di Toledo, and on the subterranean levels with a series of giant wall mosaics executed by teams of craftspeople carrying on a millenary tradition. They illustrate Naples’s urban transformation and pay homage to utopian architect Lamont Young, who by the early 1880s had already come up with a plan for the city’s first subterranean transport system.

Inaugurated in 2012, the highly photogenic stazione Toledo grabbed the attention of the international press. In the U.K., the Telegraph went as far as branding it “the most beautiful subway station in Europe.” The well-deserved recognition was almost entirely focused on this one station and made little or no mention of the much larger project at hand — a complex feat which was not only addressing the stations themselves but also the concurrent rehabilitation and ex novo creation of urban squares.

Piazza Garibaldi spans the footprint of Naples’ old train station. Its minimalist design is enhanced by a playful pergola-like spatial device that protects people from the strong Mediterranean sun. Photo courtesy of Dominique Perrault Architecte /ADAGP

Piazza Garibaldi, for instance, now gathers people where the old train station once stood. When the building was demolished in the 1950s, it left a huge scar in the urban landscape — a blank canvas proffering French architect Dominique Perrault the freedom to invent what is now, at 62,000 square metres, the largest square in Naples and one of the largest in Europe. Its salient feature is an elongated “pergola” that is influenced by the work of Pier Luigi Nervi, the hallowed architect of the nearby stazione Napoli Centrale. The train station’s triangular roof modules inspired Perrault as he created the eight 16.5-metre-tall metallic trees that rise from below the ground and extend textile-wrapped prismatic “branches” to protect passersby from the sun. An orange glass parapet adds a fleeting touch of colour.

Eight metallic treelike structures emerge from below the plaza, where circulation corridors from various underground stations converge. The atrium alls for much deeper penetration of light. Photo by Peppe Maisto, courtesy of Dominique Perrault Architecte/ADAGP

Below street level — where national, regional and local rail infrastructures converge — Perrault was entrusted with the difficult task of fitting a new Linea 1 station into an already crowded maze. Part of the solution was to bring riders down to the platforms via parallel escalators inserted into a circulation shaft where mirrors and clever lighting transform a banal journey underground into an exceptional visual experience. Perhaps the most challenging project of the entire Linea 1 program is stazione Municipio and its eponymous piazza. The 47,000-square-metre site abuts significant monuments: the 13th-century Castel Nuovo, the 17th-century Fountain of Neptune and the late-19th-century Galleria Umberto I.

Located a short distance from the main port, the new station — which connects Linea 1 with the elongated Linea 6 — presented Portuguese architects .lvaro Siza Vieira and Eduardo Souto de Moura with extreme technical complexities due to significant archaeological findings: The dig revealed ruins — including the remains of several wooden ships, three of them in a remarkably preserved state — from successive eras that had gradually built over the ancient Roman harbour of Neapolis. (Some relics are exhibited in stazione Museo; others will go in the galleries of Municipio’s subway junction.)

Stazione Municipio was operational as of 2015, even though there was still work to be done. Undeterred, Siza told Italian national newspaper la Repubblica in 2018, “Ruins and new architecture coexist here, different from Pompeii where the ruins are isolated. Archaeology and architecture are made of the same material as the city. It is a unique case.” Today, Siza and Souto de Moura have spent over two decades working on the site, transforming their project more than 20 times and demonstrating what architectural writer Giancarlo Ferulano described in Exibart as “the delicacy and commitment necessary for the protection and enhancement of the historical evidence found…far beyond anything anyone could have predicted.”

Karim Rashid's colour- and pattern-morphing Università subway station in Naples
Karim Rashid’s colour- and pattern-morphing stazione Università. Photo by Iwan Baan.

In his new book, Diario di un viaggio nei trasporti e non solo (Rubbettino, 2023), Ennio Cascetta describes his personal journey through the subway revitalization. The book exposes all the technical, political, financial and psychological hurdles to be overcome in creating a legacy such as this. It also argues that qualitative improvements — beauty, that is — measurably benefit the well-being of citizens and the image of a city. “The cost of the ‘art stations’ was only three to five per cent higher than that of the ‘regular stations,’ ” Cascetta writes. “However, every euro invested in ‘beauty’ generated three times its value in terms of increased use of public transportation, which in turn meant less car traffic and lower levels of pollution.”

Naples’s unique initiative has already borne fruit beyond Metropolitana’s jurisdiction — and the city limits. A striking example is stazione Napoli Afragola, on the city’s outskirts and part of its high-speed rail, designed by Zaha Hadid. At a smaller scale is the in-progress stazione Monte Sant’Angelo: In June 2023, la Repubblica published a photo of world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor in front of his impressive tubular sculpture that Linea 7 users will go through to enter the station, by London’s AL_A. The model is spreading. Hopefully, it will reach other cities.

Photo, top of article, by Andrea Resmini.

How Naples Put Art and Architecture at the Heart of its Subway Expansion

Over several decades, Naples has transformed its subway system with stations by architects including Òscar Tusquets Blanca, Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura – and major works of art.

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