A metro system is an excellent demonstration of how the built environment can influence the quality of our daily lives. The construction of tunnels for trains is usually considered in isolation from the provision of circulation spaces for people, even though they are part of a continuous experience for the traveller, starting and ending at street level. Designed and constructed in two phases to create a pair of interconnecting underground lines along the banks of the River Nervión, the Bilbao Metro is unusual in that it was conceived as a totality: from the beginning, architectural, engineering, construction and graphic design skills were integrated within a shared vision.

The majority of subway systems today are difficult to negotiate, ultimately relying on complex signage systems to tell you where to go. In Bilbao, in contrast, the architecture itself is designed to be legible: the routes in and out − via escalators or glazed lifts − lead travellers directly to the generous station caverns; and the caverns themselves are high enough to accommodate stainless-steel mezzanines and staircases above the level of the trains. The experience of moving through a single grand volume in this way is dramatic, and the concept offers a high degree of flexibility for future change. The curved forms of these spaces are expressive of the enormous forces they are designed to withstand, while their construction reflects Bilbao's great engineering tradition - the Spanish engineers who pioneered the use of mobile gantries for the aerospace industry exploited this technology to erect the prefabricated concrete panels that line the stations.

The glassy entrance canopies − or 'Fosteritos' − that announce the inner-city Line 1 stations at street level are as special to Bilbao as the Art Nouveau Métro entrances are to Paris. Their shape is evocative of inclined movement and generated by the profile of the escalator tunnels as they rise up to pavement level. The canopies admit natural light by day, and are illuminated at night, forming welcoming beacons in the streetscape. On Line 2, where the deep-cut stations made it impossible to use escalators, banks of lifts create iconic and easily recognisable entrance points at street level.

Sketches + Drawings




When we began to think about the detailed design of the stations

the engineering consultants from the Madrid metro said, 'You can't have glass - it's too fragile; you can't have exposed concrete - it's too high-maintenance; you can't have stainless steel - it's too expensive; you can't have lighting in the balustrades...' But we have them all - and now Madrid has them too!”Agustín Presmanes de Arizmendi, head of IMEBISA, 2003

The escalators emerge under glass canopies which rise out of the street floor with great elegance and smoothness. This is our fin-de-siécle equivalent of the famous entrances to the Paris Métro designed by Guimard a century ago; like those

the Bilbao ones use the most advanced glass technology available to offer an urbane sense of welcome and arrival. They are rightly memorable elements of the cityscape.”Mary Mistry, The Architectural review, May 1997

The ability to master physical communication – the ease with which people can move freely and in a civilised manner – is essential to the future of our cities; and the architecture of this kind of infrastructure is critical to urban development.”Norman Foster

Facts + Figures

  • Appointment: 1988
  • Completion: 1995
  • Area: 13 500m²
  • Capacity: 158904 passengers per day, 58 000 000 per year
  • Client: Basque Government, Dept of Transport and Public Works
  • Quantity Surveyor: Davis Langdon & Everest
  • Lighting Engineer: Claude Engle Lighting
  • Additional Consultants: Sener, Bilbao, TYPSA, Madrid, Otl Aicher, Rotis, Claude Engle Lighting, Arup Design and Research, Mott, Hay, Anderson, London


  • RIBA Architecture Award
  • Brunel Award Madrid
  • Manuel de la Dehesa Award Commendation
  • Premio Radio Correo Award for


Ticket hall, security and track crossovers at mezzanine level within station cavern.
Station services at either end of cavern with distribution below platform.
Mezzanines in high temperature stainless steel. Escalator access from mezzanine to surface.

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