Übercool underground | Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain

The subway system in Bilbao turned out to provide not just a super efficient and convenient way to get around the city, but it was also filled with visual feasts that suckers for good design and strange languages like me simply couldn’t pass up.

To my delight, warning signs in the wildly incomprehensible Basque, or Euskara, language abounded, whose meanings I could only guess imaginatively. Case in point: I assumed that the phrase above warned metro passengers to “mind the gap” or something to that extent, as they waited to board the train from the platform. But I can only guess. Even google translate fails miserably, providing the following unintelligible translation: ‘off the train into the’.

The metro signage, including the Rotis font typeface, the colors and the logo in the photos above and below, was designed by German graphic designer Otl Aicher – the man behind the visual identity of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, who is also credited with paving the way for the ubiquitous stick figures currently used in public signs, which he initially employed as symbols for the various Olympic sports.

Although impossible to capture within the format of this blog, several other features of the subway system’s design also impressed me and are worth mentioning. Most obvious, perhaps, were the glass tunnels that cover the escalators or stairs leading in and out of the stations, which were designed by Norman Foster as part of the entire underground system’s structure, and which are endearingly referred to as ‘fosteritos‘ by Bilbao’s residents.

The concrete vaults that house the stations themselves, also designed by Foster, were quite impressive as well. About them, the architect was quoted as saying:

“A tunnel dug by man through earth and rock is a very special place. Its shape is a reaction to the forces of nature and the texture of its construction bears the seal of man. This must be respected, not covered up to make the place look like any other building. One must be able to feel being underground, and make it a good, special experience.”

And it is one indeed. Even without awareness of the impressive design that is behind Bilbao’s underground systems (various features – from the Sariko station to the seating systems, have received design awards), using the Bilbao metro was nothing short of a special experience in pleasure and efficiency – something that very few subway systems in the world could compete with. To their defense, however, it’s worth remembering that the Bilbao Metro is relatively new (its first line opened in 1995) and small in scale – currently consisting of only two lines and 45 stations.


2 thoughts on “Übercool underground | Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain

  1. The sign means “Enter (i.e. cross this line) when the train is stopped”. Euskera is, like all languages of course, only incomprehensible if you don’t know any of it :)

    • Thanks for your comment and your translation. You’re right, of course, in saying that Euskera is only incomprehensible to those who don’t know it. That was also my point, and I guess what I was trying to say was that it was quite strange for me personally. Since I either speak or have at least dabbled in the study of several languages from different language groups – Slavic, Germanic and Romance, I can usually make out the meaning of words in different languages from those groups even if I don’t know the particular language. But with Basque, to me, the words seemed like an incomprehensible series of letters strung together and I couldn’t make any sort of guess about their meaning. [Incidentally, I also felt like that in Hungary and Lithuania, where I could read the signs but had absolutely no clue about what they said. :)]

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