Metro Bilbao

March 27, 2017

Essay by García de la Torre Arquitectos.


Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 01

© Foster and Partners.

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

The metro in Bilbao is probably the most important and ambitious project of the series of actions aimed at the renovation of the urban fabric and the reconfiguration of the city. The combination of functionality and aesthetic quality made the metro an outstanding project within the regeneration of metropolitan Bilbao.

In 1988, a competition launched to select a project that would balance architectural design and engineering. It was awarded to the team led by London-based Foster and Partners. Their proposal successfully integrated civil, structural, and transportation engineering with architecture and visual communication. Today, twenty-two years after its opening, the metro system continues to expand and shape the geography of metropolitan Bilbao.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 02

Norman Foster concept sketch. © Foster and Partners.


In 1974, the first in-depth study of the transportation problem of the Greater Bilbao area was published by the Provincial Council of Biscay (Bilbao is the capital of the Biscay province) called Coordinated Study of Mass Urban Transportation for Bilbao and its Area of Influence. As a result, in 1977 the Ministry of Public Works generated and approved the Construction Plan for a Metropolitan Railway network.

With the handover of authority to the Basque Government in 1981, the Complementary Study for the Bilbao Metro Network was completed, but not entirely accepted.

Throughout 1983, a new Study of Public Transport in the Bajo Nervión Area was undertaken. It proposed a combined solution of metro and railway, and can be considered the source of the project eventually carried out. Subsequently, the previous 1981 plan was revised and a new document was prepared and approved in 1987. This new plan outlined a route that was closer to the surface, in an attempt to bring the system nearer to the users and increase the accessibility to the stations.

Design Competition

In 1988, the Basque Administration launched a restricted competition inviting architectural teams from different cultures and with different sensibilities: Foster and Partners (London), Architektengruppe U-Bahn (Wien); Gregotti Associati (Milan), Santiago Calatrava (Valencia), Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza (Navarre), José Erbina (Alava), Fernando Olabarría and José Luis Iñiguez de Onzoño (Biscay), and Rufino Basañez (Biscay). The architect Luis Peña Ganchegui (Gipuzkoa) was also invited, though declined the invitation and instead joined the jury.

The Jury’s Verdict

The competition jury was comprised of José Luis Burgos (architect and vice councilor for Transport), Javier Ruiz (civil engineer and chief of planning and projects for the Bizkaia Transport Consortium), Agustín Presmanes (civil engineer and director of Transport Infrastructure), the architects Francisco Hurtado de Saracho, Oriol Bohigas, and Luis Peña Ganchegui, the sculptor Néstor Basterretxea, the painter Agustín Ibarrola, and the economist Lourdes Llorens from the Transport Studies Center. The jury unanimously awarded Foster and Partner’s proposal, a submission hailed as “having the clearest architectural design and image for the metropolitan railway as a whole, as well as being the one that best expressed the idea of an integrated transport system.”

The clarity of the architecture of the metro is reflected in three basic elements: the interior (platforms and railway lines); the intercommunication (lobbies and stairs); and the exterior (street architecture commonly referred as “fosteritos”). The stations, located at a depth of between 20 and 25 meters, give the impression of well-equipped, spacious caves that are never overwhelming. One of the elements that most contributes to this perception is the pedestrian traffic distribution mezzanines between the platforms, steel slabs suspended in case vaults.

In Norman Foster’s words, “in Bilbao, the architecture itself is designed to be legible: the routes in and out—via escalators or glazed lifts—lead travelers 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.”1 About the glass entrances at street level, Foster said that they “are as special to Bilbao as the Art Nouveau Métro entrances are to Paris.”2

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 03

Longitudinal section. © Foster and Partners.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 04

Cross section. © Foster and Partners.

Dialogue Between Architect Engineer: A Connection Between London and the Basque Country

When Foster and Partners started to work on the project, the route of the line, the stations’ locations, and the configuration of the caverns and tunnels had already been determined from years of research by various local technicians. The London team concentrated on the design of the station interiors, and the development of the entrance positions and access shafts. The ideal shape of the caverns was designed so as to fit the mezzanines, the stairs, and elevator. The typical cavern station is 13,500 cubic meters, 16 meter wide and 11 meter high from the platforms. On either side there sit twin center tracks platforms.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 05

Metro Bilbao. © Richard Davies, Foster and Partners.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 06

Metro Bilbao. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 07

Metro Bilbao. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 08

Metro Bilbao. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 09

Metro Bilbao. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

Once the general outline was completed, the team concentrated on the design of the interior fittings: metal carpentry; mezzanine structures; benches, signage; lighting; and glass enclosures for the access. While the team in London developed the detailed design, local technical and engineering firms prepared the construction plans and ran the calculations. The New Austrian Tunneling Method (NATM) with shotcrete was used as the primary structure. As the final finished surface to the caverns and passenger tunnels, 1.2 meter by 2.4 meter precast concrete panels treated with a transparent anti-graffiti coating were used. For the sections of the tunnels running beneath the Nervión River, prefabricated caissons containing twin tunnels were assembled above ground and then lowered into place on the riverbed.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 10

Metro Bilbao entrances. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 11

Metro Bilbao entrances. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 12

Metro Bilbao entrances. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 13

Metro Bilbao entrances. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

It is also important to note the involvement of the graphic designer and typographer Otl Aicher, designer of the pictograms for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, who was responsible for the corporate identity of the metro. Metro Bilbao was to be Aicher’s last major commissions before his death in 1991. As described on Metro Bilbao’s website, “the symbol, formed by three rings, is an abstract figure based on tunnels and wheels in movement. Their thickness grows in the direction of reading (left to right) and creates a sensation of movement. The logotype uses the Rotis Semisans typeface in its semi-bold version and in lower case letters.”3 The identity uses four colors: a “Bilbao red” for the background of the signs; white for text and arrows; black for pictograms and to highlight specific texts; and, in exceptional cases, grey as a background color instead of the red.

Present and Future

On November 11, 1995, at 11:11 a.m., the president of the Basque Country, José Antonio Ardanza, inaugurated Metro Bilbao. Along with him and other politicians, thousands of people waited anxiously yet patiently to ride the new metro system. Metro Bilbao opened with a single line covering 20 km along the right bank of the Nervión River. The network expanded soon after the opening with new stations and Line 2 running along the left bank of the river. It currently covers 45 km with twenty-five underground stations and sixteen above ground stations, with Line 3 opening in April of 2017, and with preliminary studies for Line 4 and Line 5 in the works. The design of Metro Bilbao has received multiple awards, including the Brunel Prize for Railway Architecture in 1988, for the network as a whole, and the Sarriko Station in particular.

With almost 90 million passengers a year (the metropolitan area of Bilbao has 1 million people), the network has restructured the geography of Bilbao and become a core element of its present and future.

Mas issue bilbao metro bilbao 14

Moyua Square. © Nigel Young, Foster and Partners.

Facts and Figures

Author: Foster + Partners
Client: Basque Government, Department of Transport and Public Works
Years: 1988-1995 and 1997-2004
Capacity: Currently 90 million passengers a year.
Foster and Partners Team: Norman Foster, David Nelson, Spencer de Grey, Gerard Evenden, Rodney Uren, Mary Bowman, Kevin Carrucan, Etienne Borgos, Nigel Greenhill, Michael Borinski, Mark Bramhall, Ken Gomez, John MacFarland, and Alex Trussov
Main Contractor: IMEBISA
Cost: Davis Langdon & Everest
System Planning Infrastructure and Engineering: Sener (Bilbao) and TYPSA (Madrid)
Signage: Otl Aicher, Rotis (Germany)
Lighting Consultant: Claude Engle Lighting
Concrete Consultants: Arup Design and Research
Tunnel Engineering: Mott, Hay, Anderson, London

1 “Foster+Partners,” accessed January 31, 2017,
2 Ibid.
3 “Metro Bilbao,” accessed January 31, 2017,