Enamel transits rapidly underground
In Madrid, Munich, Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Washington, Singapore, Caracas, Milan… Enamel resists chemical, atmospheric and human agents; makes writing and sprays easy to clean away; offers bright, substantial colours, great for reproducing any pattern, slogan, map, sign system and information; recommended for décor...
If we were to plant flags bearing the ideal logo of the International Enamellers’ Institute in all the underground railway systems where vitreous enamelled panels and décor have recently been used, we would need a planetarium to do it. In fact, enamelled modules have been installed in Madrid, Munich, Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Washington, Singapore, Caracas, Milan…
There would be a much thicker scattering of flags if we were then to add one for each airport, railway station, hospital, ship, important public and private building… But let’s stick with the underground railways for now. And let’s start by looking at the great photographs of some of these installations.
The first impression you get as you look at the big passageways and waiting areas is one of sheer brilliance, of a subdued gleam, the luminous substance of the colours and the sense of cleanliness and hygiene that emanates from the enamelled surfaces large and small, as they reflect the lights. The next thing you notice is just how easily the enamelled elements blend in with the context, the other materials and décor in each case.
The endless potential for making modular use of colours and patterns and the slight signs of geometric grouting between flanking panels enliven these large spaces, lightening even the heaviest, most intrusive shapes. The photos show the striking, colourfully varied array of what can be done with looks and patterns, qualities that make enamel popular everywhere, but especially so in northern climes, where the sunlight is neither as strong nor as frequent as it is further south.
Silk screen printing can be used to reproduce images and symbols related to the cultures of north and south, west and east (look at the spectacular effects achieved in the Singapore underground), scientific images (as in the Museum station of the Munich underground, which depicts animal skeletons and ancient Greek vases); but also quite simply advertising images, geometric patterns, drawings and cartoons, all of them extremely up to date. This is shown to great effect by the photographs that record how “once again, the Paris Métro has chosen enamel for its make-up”: a fresco measuring thirteen metres long and 2.7 metres high, featuring a silk screen print that required four passages through the kilns, has been installed in the station at Réamur.
Silhouettes two metres tall depict young visitors to the museum and the library of the CNAM (National Conservatory of the Arts and Crafts) located near the station, which holds a rich heritage of works: the fresco is also an effective, attractive way of taking care of the need to provide information and signage, as it acts as an invitation to discover the
treasures up on the surface. This continues past traditions, as enamel used to be used extensively in past centuries (and still is in some countries!) for road signs announcing local place-names and other information of various kinds. Using differences and nuances of colour, or by explicitly referring to services or whatever else is available in the vicinity of the individual stations, these illustrations can make the various stops easier to recognise at a glance, an obvious advantage for travellers.
In the Washington DC subway, for example, little maps showing the entire route and all the stations have been reproduced on the columns, combining the useful with the decorative.
Enamel is also eminently suitable for the benches, seating, waste baskets, ashtrays, screens and other décor features usually found in underground railway stations, as enamel is an ideal material for places that are used by large crowds of humans in conditions that are not always ideal, as they are subject to sudden changes in climate and temperature, as well as to pollution both outdoors and indoors. But as well as resisting chemical agents and eccentric weather, enamel is also great at coping with human eccentricity: graffiti and spray writing whose artistic inspiration and content is often of questionable value have now unfortunately spread everywhere. Enamel makes it child’s play to wipe the slate clean of the creations of so many graphic vandals, using any ordinary detergent or solvent. In addition, enamelled sheeting can also be moulded and funnelled in various ways (for Milan’s Line 2, for examples, the designer duo Albini and Helg opted for diamondtipped moulding for the panels, for the precise purpose of discouraging writing).
If we want to takea look that goes deeper than the surfaces, involving a technical discussion with people who have already used enamelled sheeting materials, qualities that are less visible but no less important come to the fore: these materials generate no toxic emissions in case of fire,
they are fast to assemble and allow access to the underlying structures and technical plant; they need practically no maintenance at all and ar easy to clean, very often only requiring a damp rag or a jet of water or steam. All advantages that more than make up (and do so very quickly) for any greater initial outlay compared to other materials or claddings.
Last but not least is a value of enamel in underground railways that may appear to be abstract, but is still worth considering. If we allow the effect of the frantic rhythm of our lives, overcrowding during peak hours and the obligation to share words, noises and smells to be compounded by the deterioration of the spaces where we wait and transit, then the life of habitual travellers can grow even bleaker. A feeling of freshness and light, of cleanliness, full, restful colours, useful drawings and positive scenes can certainly help underground railways to become a better experience, so also improve our lives. It may be an abstract value, but it has significant repercussions, both personally and, as a result, socially and economically.