Eastern Hemispheres (Line A stations, Prague, Czech Republic)

Prague’s Line A stations always seem to be less well-known than I expect. These true transport beauties show up occasionally in articles of the “World’s Most Beautiful Metro Stations” type (for instance, here) so they’re not exactly unknown. But most of the time if I show people some pictures, they react with stunned surprise, or – in the case of non-transport geeks – at least vague interest (which isn’t bad going, really). If you know the Prague Metro stations, consider yourself very well informed. If you don’t, then prepare to be – quite literally – dazzled by one of Prague’s modern architectural highlights, albeit one which is several metres below the surface.

Muzeum station. Photo by Ralf Roletschek (talk) – Fahrradtechnik auf fahrradmonteur.de [FAL or GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons

Although there are some exceptions, like Hradčanská’s Fosterito-style entrance, the surface entrances to Line A’s stations are generally simple and unobtrusive structures, giving little clue as to what awaits below ground at platform level. Adorning the platform tunnel walls at Line A’s stations are massed ranks of gleaming metal panels in a glittering array of colours. Most are shaped either with protruding or recessed hemispheres which catch and reflect the lighting within the station, in different fashion depending on whether the panel is a pimple or dimple. The higher rows of panels across the roofs of the tunnels are generally bronze, while the lower rows, at eye level, are in several different but complementary colours.

Staroměstská station. Photo by Ralf Roletschek [GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons

Short gaps allow for station names to be displayed in extruded lettering. The hemisphere panels can also be found in the ceilings of the concourses between platforms at some stations, but it is undeniably the platforms where the visual effect is the most dramatic.

Concourse between the platforms at Flora station. Photo by che [CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

Line A opened in 1978. Confusingly, and in a move which would do any British transport network proud, it opened four years after Line B. Line C at least had the decency to arrive in its logical place, third, in 1985.

Though extended several times since 1978, the core of Line A comprises its two earliest sections. Dejvická – Náměstí Míru opened in 1978, comprising seven stations. Náměstí Míru – Želivského opened in 1980, adding another three stations.

It is the stations on this section which feature the coloured metal panels similar to the ones seen in the pictures above. The approach lends most of the central section of Line A a very pleasing visual unity. There are modern shades here of the work of architects like Lucien Bechmann (for Nord-Sud in Paris, as featured previously on The Beauty of Transport) and Leslie Green (for Underground Electric Railways in London, as also featured previously on The Beauty of Transport) in creating a common design framework adapted slightly for each individual station. In particular, Line A uses Green’s trick of identifying stations by colour. Travelling on Line A,  a passenger need only perceive a station out of the corner of their eye, or glimpse it through the press of bodies in a crowded carriage, to know the station at which they have arrived.

The colours are no random selection either. According to this article, they have specific meaning relating to the places after which the stations are named. Malostranská’s green panels reflect the Royal Gardens above, while Muzeum’s brown colours refer to Prague’s one-time defensive walls, for instance.

Although it is the variations in colour which are the most striking difference between the stations, there are detail differences too. The panels are most often seen arranged in a grid pattern, but those at Muzeum and Malostranská, for instance, are spaced out by intermediate acoustic damping panels (like pegboard in appearance, if you are old enough to remember it) and the hemisphere panels are arranged in a staggered, brickwork-like pattern instead.

Malostranská station. Photo by Elephant0406 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the panels are arranged brickwork fashion, even if acoustic panels are not applied, as at Jiřího z Poděbrad.

Jiřího z Poděbrad station. Photo by [FAL or GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons

The hemisphere panels don’t always run the full length of the platform tunnels. At Náměstí Míru, they are interrupted by a band of flat – but still coloured – panels, identical in shape to those which form the lowest rows at most of the stations.

Náměstí Míru station. Photo by Ralf Roletschek [FAL or GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons

Můstek, meanwhile, lacks the bronze hemispheres which are normally seen cladding the roof of the platform tunnels; flat panels are used instead.

Můstek station. Photo by Thomas Ledl [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Želivského lacks the hemispheres altogether, using only flat panels.

Želivského station. Photo by Ralf Roletschek [FAL or GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons

Dejvická, meanwhile also lacks the hemisphere panels, but this is perhaps explained by the fact that it is a cut-and-cover station rather than a tunnelled one, so its design aesthetic is different anyway. Nevertheless, it is notable that the two extremities of Line A’s initial phase are the only stations which do not sport the line’s typical coloured panels and hemispheres, making them somewhat anticlimactic bookends.

Although Line A’s station panelling decorative scheme seems an impressive artistic endeavour, it was a much more prosaic reason which drove the use of the metal panels. The development of Prague’s metro was constrained by finance and a lack of stone to use for cladding within stations. The coloured metal panels, actually pressed aluminium with the colours enammeled on, were a cheap and simple solution. They also happened to be extremely striking in appearance. Yet they were (and are) very practical as well. They are naturally hard wearing and low maintenance, but if a panel does need to be replaced, it’s easy to find and fit a spare because they are all a standard size.

Hradčanská station. Photo by VitVit [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

As writer and engineer David Bennett¹ points out, we have no named architect to whom to credit the appearance of the phase 1 Line A stations. There is no Leslie Green or Lucien Bechmann of the Prague Metro. The closest we can come is to acknowledge the role of one Dr Otruba of Prague’s Transport Board Design Centre, who oversaw the overall design and architecture of Line A.

Line A’s later extensions, sadly, did not continue the use of coloured hemisphere panelling within the stations. The cut-and-cover stations which were added at the east end of the line in various stages between the late 1980s and mid 2000s were much less visually arresting. More effort was made with the latest addition to Line A, which extended out to the west in 2015. The mayor of Prague was quoted as saying, “Four beautiful station will again benefit the transport in the capital.” The new terminus at Nemocnice Motol sees Line A rise to the surface and the station features an attractive glass roof. The remaining three are tunnelled stations, built on a grand scale and it is clear that some effort has been made to recapture something of the style of the early Line A stations.

Bořislavka station. Photo by Jklamo [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Coloured panels, long strips this time rather than squares, line the tunnels and the station name lettering is beautifully illuminated. However, all three stations are virtually identical in colour palette, rather than individually realised as with the early Line A stations. They are indeed very nice, but they’re not as arresting as the original, hemisphere-clad stations.

Bibliography and Further Reading

¹Bennett, David (2004): Metro – The Story of the Underground Railway. Mitchell Beazley, London.

…and anything linked to in the text above.

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