10 striking examples of subway art in Brussels

We delved deep underground, into the bustling subterranean tunnels of our capital’s subway system, and hand-picked 10 stations that grabbed our attention, whether for their striking architectural features or for its intricate and intriguing artwork. Even if your daily commute may seem mundane, we’re hoping this series will freshen up your everyday metro travels.

Writer: Emi Vergels

Photographer: Thomas Ost

Crainhem / Kraainem

Located in Woluwe-St.-Lambert / St.-Lambrechts-Woluwe, on the border between the capital and Flemish Brabant, this key metro station opened in 1988 as a result of the extension of the Eastern branch of the non-existent 1B line, going from Alma to Stockel / Stokkel. Thanks to its large park-and-ride location, it is one of the few metro stops with its own overground station building (as opposed to a mere underground mezzanine). Additionally, it’s a rare example of a metro station without a public art installation; instead, it boasts a beautiful architectural design, taking full advantage of the large space. Concrete walls and pillars covered in red and yellow geometric lines break up the chapel-like ceiling, bringing in tons of natural light – a much welcomed, yet unusual feature for a metro station.

 

Avenue de Wezembeeklaan (1200)

Vandervelde

Similarily to Crainhem / Kraainem, this station was inaugurated in 1982 following the extension of the former 1B line from Tomberg to Alma. Named after the avenue it is located on – which in turn is an homage to the Belgian socialist politician-cum-social scientist Émile Vandervelde who was active during the turn of the 20th Century – Vandervelde is at the heart of the UCL student neighbourhood Chapelle-aux-Champs / Kapelleveld. The platform walls are adorned with La grande taupe et le petit peintre, created by the Bruxellois hyper-realist painter Paul de Gobert. Very much in line with his overall artistic career focusing heavily on nature as well as public art, this fresco is a re-imagination of the vast valley of Woluwe – birds and flowers, as well as the overlooked underground subsoils – in all its glorious seasonal, before the forces of urbanisation and industrialisation took over. A poignant reminder to protect our nature and its landscapes, especially in our current age.

Avenue Emile Vanderveldelaan (1200)

Tomberg

Opened to the public in 1976, Tomberg was the original eastern terminus for the former 1B line, until the aforementioned extension to Alma in 1982. Located in the heart of the posh residential area of Georges Henri, and surrounded by a multitude of parks (Georges Henri, Roodebeek, Malou and Van Muylder), this station was renovated in 1998. Antwerp-based artist couple Guy Rombouts and Monica Droste took advantage of this opportunity to decorate the platform and entrance walls with L’Alphabet Azart, a full-blown family-friendly redesign. Besides the red, yellow and blue passageway barriers, the walls are covered in deep blue (West) or cream-coloured (East) Portuguese enamel tiles, with the entire alphabet stylised into intriguing animals, plants and characters of the same colour palette. An exemplary case of the couple’s fascination with the alphabet, as witnessable in their Drieletterwoordenboek line of work; as well as one of Droste’s last artworks before her premature passing away. A fun opportunity to teach your little ones the ABC’s while waiting for your metro.

Avenue Paul Hymanslaan (1200)

Merode

An important junction station connecting commuters to lines 1 and 5 as well as the national SNCB / NMBS train service, this station is found right by the colonial Cinquantenaire Park / Jubelpark. Merode was an unusual choice of name for its time, since the area had no link to the eponymous Belgian house of high nobility. However, due to the criteria in the 1970s for choosing short and snappy station names, more appropriate options (such as the adjacent park) were excluded; and over the years the name became synonymous with the area, largely thanks to the station’s crucial role. Another story goes that it was initially planned to be built underneath the now non-existent Bank Brussels Lambert (and currently the modernist ING building) on Avenue Marnixlaan, but due to security reasons the plan was halfway abandoned – some signs of the construction still exist there to this day, though. Part of Brussels’s original underground subway infrastructure in 1976, its unusual structure of one track laid on top of the other means that both platforms face a black wall across the track. As such, local abstract artist Jean Glibert’s iconic Carrelage Cinq was installed in both platforms: dark and earth-toned and glazed ceramic tiles laid out in a distorted geometrical mosaic, over a hundred metres. Furthermore, Merode is blessed with one of the more notable art installations in town, with time paintings from none other than Machelen’s Sir Roger Raveel. Ensor: Vive la sociale (alternatively known as What Ensor Meant with “Vive la sociale”) is a grand tableau in attention-grabbing colours, loosely referencing the artist’s idol – and godfather in Belgian Expressionism – Baron James Ensor’s controversial Christ’s Entrance into Brussels in 1889, as well as the Flemish Primitive art brothers van Eyck’s Het Lam Gods. From Adam and Eve, to the human manipulation of our environment, to the blue-collar movement of the 60s: a realistic celebration of our society, made up of people from all walks of life.

Avenue de Tervueren / Tervurenlaan, Rue des Tongres / Tongerenstraat, Avenue des / Keltenlaan (1040)

 

Roi Baudouin / Koning Boudewijn

Swapping the South-East for the North-West, the current Western terminus of the smaller metro line 6 connects Brussels’ residents to the infamous King Baudouin Stadium found in Heysel, since 1998. It lacks an upper mezzanine, and features direct exit through its central platform instead. One such exit leading towards Avenue Impératrice Charlotte / Keizerin Charlottelaan is adorned with Lodelinsart’s sculptor Elisabeth Barmarin’s full-sized, post-humous, bronze bas-relief of the former people’s king. Its pièce de résistance however has to be Ixelle’s Philippe Decelle’s Vol de Canards: thirty-one aluminium tubed ducks flying above commuters’ heads, in a fluorescent multi-coloured range; significantly lighting up the station. Already a serious practitioner of urban and public art, he has a strong affinity for neon colours and shiny materials – as is evident from his Plasticarium collection (previously found in the Dansaert neighbourhood and now bought by the city’s ADAM Museum). An intriguing play on light, colours and shadows in an otherwise static station.

Avenue des Amandiers / Amandelbomenlaan, Avenue Impératrice Charlotte / Keizerin Charlottelaan, Avenue Houba de Strooperlaan (1020)

Pannenhuis

Another station along the mini metro line 6, this time located in the royal neighbourhood of Laeken, Pannenhuis first opened in 1982 near its namesake Rue du Pannenhuys / Pannenhuisstraat. It curiously shares many characteristics with Crainhem / Kraainem metro station: both are found overground, and both lack a public art installation. Instead, it hosts striking architecture, similarly to its south-western counterpart. In predominantly ochre-red and cream hues, the metro station carries distinctive and striking structural design elements: a dynamic roof decorated with multiple potholes and cylindrical forms; material-defying walls made up of asymmetrical curves and waves. It’s easy to get lost for hours, studying the many fantastical designs.

Rue Charles Demeerstraat (1020)

 

Étangs Noirs / Zwarte Vijvers

Koekelberg’s “Black Ponds” station was inaugurated in 1981, along the mainlines 1 and 5. It was also infamously the centre of attention in 2007, when a stolen Ford Fiesta was forcibly rammed into the station by mysterious pranksters. Thankfully, it left the giant, four by fourteen-metre-long oil painting adorning the passageway walls unscathed. The fresco depicts none other than the Black Ponds, which once was located on the station’s exact location – and is now part of the sewage system, after the entire neighbourhood underwent a considerable gentrification make-over. Mechelen’s Jan Burssens – also co-founder of the “Art Abstrait” collective – experimented with some non-conventional materials, but otherwise stuck to a classical painting tradition, as is evident in his rather abstract De Zwarte Vijvers. He sought to remind commuters of the calm waters, once brimming with life but now no more through his use of a dark and mysterious colour palette and the trademark interpretative, abstract style. Still waters run deep.

Chaussée de Gand / Gentse Steenweg (1080)

 

Botanique / Kruidtuin

Inching closer towards downtown Brussels, St.-Josse-ten-Noode / St.-Joost-ten-Node’s Botanique was originally built for the pre-metro tram line in 1974, before being fully incorporated into the official metro structure in 1988. It’s unsurprisingly named after the former national park, which was relocated in the 1930s due to the city’s ever-growing expansion, but of which the idyllic complex of gardens was saved under the guise of the francophone community’s cultural venue Le Botanique. Visitors can enjoy the Carologian Émile Souply’s Tramication fluide – Tramification syncope, installed in 1978. A goldsmith by trade, Souply became interested in the creation of art from the remnants of rising industrialisation, as is made clear with this oeuvre made up of round, steel and enamelled pipes in bright, primary colours. Botanique is rife with other examples of public art though, installed over thirty years: Portuguese Júlio Pomar neo-realist tile work Homenagem a Fernando Pessoa (1991), Pierre Caille’s paper-doll Les Voyageurs (1980), Martin Guyaux’s monumental bronze solar disk and slip-through walls L’Odyssée (2004), and of course the metal birds flying high amongst the clouds in Jean-Pierre Ghysels’ The Last Migration (1977).

Boulevard du Jardin Botanique / Kruidtuinlaan, Rue Royale / Koningsstraat, Boulevard Bischoffsheimlaan (1210)

 

Porte de Namur / Naamsepoort

Matonge’s Porte de Namur / Naamsepoort station was originally built for the “pre-metro” tramway in 1970, before being re-appropriated as a heavy metro in 1988, and currently operates on the 2 and 6 line. Located underneath Ixelles’ small ring-road, this rather monotone and modest station is the home of Pierre Cordier’s Zigzagramme. Mixing chemicals with light-sensitive materials, the photographer-turned-visual artist was the first to invent chemigramy; and this large experimental painting is a prime example of this new technique’s possibilities. Initially installed in the Rogier station in 1988, it was eventually moved to Ixelles’ vibrant neighbourhood in 2012. Additionally, four giant medallions made of veiny white marble – Het uiteindelijke Verkeer (1979) – created by Ghent’s Octave Landuyt are found throughout the station. Literally translated into English as “the ultimate traffic,” it is meant to represent the different stages of the human life: birth, love, adulthood and eventual death. A whole new set of meanings can be applied to the sombre yet passionate bas-reliefs.

Square du Bastion / Bolwerksquare, Chaussée d’Ixelles / Elsense Steenweg (1050)

 

Thieffry

If science fiction were to be condensed into a metro station, it’d be the Thieffry underground stop. Inaugurated in 1976, this Eastern branch station was named after the nearby Rue Aviateur Thieffry / Vlieger Thieffrystraat – which in turn is a public homage to the First World War hero Edmond Thieffry – along an already existent national railway line. Now operating on the mainline 5, this dusty ochre-red tiled station boasts two dynamic artworks. Above the tracks hangs Vic Gentils’ Aequus Nox (1976): millions of fractured mirror shards reflecting and refracting the lights according the movements – rather reminiscent of a disco ball. Move past the barriers and towards the ticket hall, and you might literally stumble across Félix Roulin’s oeuvre, simply titled Sculptures, installed in 1976. Sculptures is far from simple, though – large, invasive pillars made of Corten steel and oxidised bronze erupt from the floors, disrupting the commuters’ space. If you move in closer though, you should be able to spot a foot, a thigh, a pair of buttocks… Seemingly so real, you almost have to reach out to see if your senses aren’t playing tricks on you. A rather telling and gruesome comment on modernity, industrialisation and liberty.

Pont Fernand Demanybrug (1040)