The Underground World of Norman Foster (Metro Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain)

As you’ll remember from last week, the city of Bilbao’s response to an economic crisis at the end of the 20th Century was to reinvent itself through architecture. That ambition extended to its transport network, and saw architect Santiago Calatatrava employed to redesign Bilbao’s Sondica Airport’s buildings, and before that deliver a new pedestrian footbridge in the city centre. The most famous part of Bilbao’s reinvention was Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1997. It’s now one of the most famous visual representations of Bilbao. But almost as famous (check the guidebooks if you don’t believe me) and taken to heart just as much by the residents of Bilbao themselves, are the characterful glass entrances to its metro network.

Fosterito at Bagatza station. Photo by Ardo Beltz 15:32, 22 January 2006 (UTC) (Taken by user User:Ardo Beltz) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Fosterito at Bagatza station. Photo by Ardo Beltz 15:32, 22 January 2006 (UTC) (Taken by user User:Ardo Beltz) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

While the Guggenheim was under construction, so was Bilbao’s new metro network, and it was the Metro which opened first, in 1995.

The distinctive glass entrance structures to the Metro have become just as much Bilbao as Guimard’s Art Nouveau Metro entrances are Paris, so much so that they have gained the nickname “Fosteritos” as a term of endearment, after Norman Foster, the architect who designed them.

Fosterito at Moyua station. Photo by Xauxa (Håkan Svensson) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Fosterito at Moyua station. Photo by Xauxa (Håkan Svensson) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Foster’s firm had a level of input into the appearance of Metro Bilbao far beyond that to be found on most other metro projects, giving it a cohesive and very distinctive identity which assists with the forward-looking image Bilbao sought (and seeks) to project. I can’t think of another metro network where a single architecture practice has had such a high degree of involvement. Charles Holden stamped his mark on the London Underground extensions of the 1930s, but by that point the central area already had many stations designed in an earlier style by Leslie Green. Hector Guimard’s Paris Metro entrances are famous, but his influence didn’t extend to the detail of the platforms, and the architect of two of the early Metro lines was his rival Lucien Bechmann.

Because Bilbao’s first two Metro lines opened in quick succession in a “big bang” approach, there was an almost unique opportunity for Foster to impose his vision throughout the stations and across an entire public transport network.

The Fosteritos are the only surface elements of Bilbao’s underground Metro stations. As on many metros, the ticket halls are under the ground, so the Fosteritos are the only thing which can draw attention to what lies beneath. The curved canopies are designed to draw daylight down into the stations during the day. At night, illuminated from below, they hint at the activity below and draw passengers in.

Fosterito at Abando station. Photo by Crop [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Fosterito at Abando station. Photo by Crop [CC BY-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

The Fosteritos are of the same profile as the escalator shafts below, extended above ground and into the air. They’re a very honest expression of what is happening underneath. The escalator shafts then run down until they open out into a large station tunnel.

Looking up the escalator shaft to the Fosterito on the surface, at Abando station, shows how the profile is continuous throughout. Photo by Zarateman (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Looking up the escalator shaft to the Fosterito on the surface, at Abando station, shows how the profile is continuous throughout. Photo by Zarateman (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although each station is individual, most follow a similar basic template, with the escalator shafts delivering passengers to a mezzanine level suspended above two platforms. It’s on the mezzanine where the ticket machines and gatelines can be found. Stairs lead down from here to the platforms situated at the outer edge of the tracks, at which point it becomes clear how clever the design of the mezzanine level is. The dimensions of the mezzanine match the trench between the platforms in which the metro train tracks run. It looks as though the mezzanine was originally joined to the platforms as one continuous surface, the central section of which has been lifted up to form the mezzanine, leaving a trench between the platforms for the tracks. It hasn’t, of course, but with the suspension mechanism of the mezzanine on show, you can imagine that it might have been.

Typical underground station of Metro Bilbao, with the mezzanine 'lifted' above the tracks. Photo by to get down [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Typical underground station of Metro Bilbao, with the mezzanine ‘lifted’ above the tracks. Photo by get down [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

The station tunnels are clad in curved, fair-faced concrete panels, which gives a softness to the stations in complete contrast to what you might expect from such a material. The colour palette is muted, and applies not just to the stations but to Bilbao Metro trains and the signage used throughout the system. Essentially it’s a base of silver/grey, with a sparing use of black and white, while the single colour used is red. It’s clean, simple, surprisingly soothing, and may well be completely timeless, looking as up-to-date today as it did in 1995. This branding, which also includes the Metro’s distinctive linked wheel/tunnel segments logo, was designed by Otl Aicher and developed by Michael Weiss and Hans Brucklacher. It is as well-known to Bilbao residents as Transport for London’s roundel and red/blue corporate colours are to Londoners. The typeface used throughout the system, for those who like to know such things, is Rotis Semi Sans semi-bold.

At surface stations on Metro Bilbao, its corporate identity remains strong, with the colour scheme matching that of the concrete on underground stations. Curved platform canopies at some stations recall the tunnels of the underground sections, as do sections of track with arched gantries for electricity supply.

Urbinaga station, where curved canopies are an especially strong reminder of the feel of Metro Bilbao's underground stations. The refined colour palette is exactly the same. Photo by Flickr (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Urbinaga station, where curved canopies are an especially strong reminder of the feel of Metro Bilbao’s underground stations. The refined colour palette is exactly the same. Photo by Flickr (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Although most of the underground stations are superficially similar, varying only in their site-specific details, some are noticeably different. In particular, Sarriko is probably the grandest on the network. The station is in a large concrete box rather than a bored tunnel, and is a larger and loftier space.

Sarriko station. Photo by Cornelius Kibelka [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Sarriko station. Photo by Cornelius Kibelka [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

Just as the typical Fosteritos are a surface reflection of what is happening in the station below, so Sarriko’s Fosterito is larger and cuboid to match the station box underneath.

Sarriko station entrance. Photo by Daniel Erler (Reveal) (German Wikipedia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons
Sarriko station entrance. Photo by Daniel Erler (Reveal) (German Wikipedia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

“The first station entrance canopies that Foster proposed were very cubic pieces – not at all like the sensuous structures that he developed later,” said Agustin Presmanes de Arizmendi, director of IMEBISA, the Basque government company set up to undertake the engineering of Metro Bilbao.  “These new canopies were so distinctive, with such an unusual form that nobody really knew how to describe them. Then somebody here in Bilbao coined the term Fosteritos and the name stuck. It seems to characterise them perfectly.”¹

It’s not often that a type of transport architecture is given a pet name based on its creator. This is something subtly different from a Guimard entrance, or a Holden entrance, or a Leslie Green facade. In Bilbao, “Fosterito” is enough; it doesn’t need a qualifier for everyone to know what you’re talking about. It’s a measure of Foster’s success that the Metro Bilbao entrances now bear his name. He gave Metro Bilbao a street presence so appealing that it was taken to the city’s heart, and became an intrinsic part of Bilbao itself.

Foster’s work on Metro Bilbao made him an obvious choice to design one of the stations on London Underground’s Jubilee Line Extension, and Foster+Partners was awarded the commission for Canary Wharf station. There, you can find Bilbao’s Fosteritos reinterpreted and redesigned to a much larger scale, and the rectangular box of Sarriko station revisited at a similarly increased size. That’s a story for another time, though.

Further Reading, References and Bibliography

¹ http://www.fosterandpartners.com/design-services/research/innovation/bilbao-metro/

Foster+Partners project page on Metro Bilbao, here

Metro Bilbao website, especially its “about us” section, here

Asensio Cerver, Francisco (1997): The Architecture of Stations and Terminals. New York: Hearst Books International

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