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The Role of Beauty in Infrastructure: Kazakhstan's Almaty Metro Inspires

I recently rode the Almaty Metro, in Kazakhstan, at present a single-line subway that opened in 2011 after being under construction since the late days of the Soviet Union. Exiting at Almaly station, I was captivated by a stained-glass mural, which led me to contemplate the role of beauty in infrastructure–specifically in American subway station design.

Stained Glass at an Almaty Metro Station

The vibrant stained glass depicts an apple tree. During the Soviet period, Almaty was called "Alma-Ata," which in Kazakh means "Father of Apples," because the cultivation of the apple is believed to have begun in the surrounding region.

The interurban lines that would evolve into the New York City Subway and the Boston "T" were built during late nineteenth century Gilded Age, a period when the Beaux Arts–inspired City Beautiful movement aimed to ennoble the American cityscape, the John Ruskin–influenced Arts & Crafts movement tried to counter the ills of the Machine Age through hand craftsmanship in England, and on the Continent, Art Nouveau embellishment reigned in metro station design. Station design of this period was, not exclusively, but in select cases, the antithesis of Louis Sullivan's dictum, that "…form follows function." For example:

Copley Square Control House

The Copley Square control house restored by DeAngelis Iron Work, Inc.

These stations had, and continue to have (City Hall excepted), a utilitarian function, but a century later, they have been preserved because they are beautiful. Beauty uplifts the human spirit. It conveys the rosier side of the truth about the human condition. It may stir the imagination or encourage contemplation. It is civilizing and ennobling. It spurs creation and preservation, rather than destruction. The architecture of these stations – elegant in form, remarkable in craftsmanship, and of enduring materials – calls the commuter to be worthy, reminds the passerby of the capabilities of the human hand and intellect, and dispels the notion that buildings should be evanescent, subject to the wrecking ball at the end of their "design life."

Subway stations and other infrastructure must be efficient and economical, but they also should be beautiful. Currently, the NYC Subway, the Boston "T," and the Washington, DC, Metro, have programs to commission or otherwise incorporate art exhibits into their respective stations. This art is temporary, however, and therefore its effect has a shorter lifespan than civic art in architecture.

How should architects, landscape architects, and urban designers integrate beauty into infrastructure, and how should beauty, utility, and economy best be balanced? Comment here or on Twitter! Share on Facebook!

Credits: Image 1 by Sunny Menozzi, Image 2 and data linked to sources.