Sticking it to the Man

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An anonymous group of Lisbon straphangers strikes a blow for public space.

Illustration by Ben King

The Baixa-Chiado Metro station connects Baixa, the Portuguese capital’s 18th-century lower city, with Chiado, its bohemian heart. This grand, underground public space opened in 1998 and was designed by Álvaro Siza, Portugal’s most celebrated architect. At the time, Siza persuaded the Lisbon Metro’s operators to keep the station free from all advertising, the idea being that passengers shouldn’t be brand-bombarded consumers but citizens using a common good. Not for long

Much like other state-owned, highly indebted transport operators, the Lisbon Metro has been hit hard by the austerity plan attached to Portugal’s €78 billion (around $102 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Fares rose three times in a year. Student and senior-citizen discounts were slashed. Service was reduced.

This was the backdrop to the purchase of Baixa-Chiado’s branding and naming rights by Portugal Telecom last September. PT, Portugal’s largest private conglomerate, now owns (if only symbolically) the city’s busiest station, which it renamed—in lowercase and in English—“baixa·chiado PT bluestation.” The investment behind the four-year contract remains undisclosed.

The overnight renaming—and the use of a foreign term over a toponym that evokes Lisbon’s rich geography and history—irked many, chiefly city historians and councilors. But the promise of free Wi-Fi, new platform lighting, and a news-and-weather channel spoke louder than the critics. The newly branded station offers a “curated” program of cultural events such as concerts, poetry readings—and hand massages. But as the station is now PT territory, people involved in such events are asked not to challenge the corporation’s “brand values.” Why ask for free speech when you’re given free entertainment?

PT’s presence is also felt beyond the station’s walls: Its square, turquoise trademark is now found next to every occurrence of the name Baixa-Chiado on all the network’s maps and diagrams. Wherever you go by Metro, PT follows you.

So on New Year’s Eve, when a new set of logos suddenly appeared on Lisbon’s subway diagrams, riders could have been forgiven for thinking that other brands had followed PT’s example. Five large corporations—EDP (an energy company), ZON (a cable operator), Vodafone (a British telecom), Banco BIC (a bank), and Repsol (an oil company)—and the IMF were represented, their logos stuck next to prominent stations. But something was amiss. Most of the associations were provocative: The IMF logo, for instance, was pasted next to the station opposite the Finance Ministry.

Five days later, a political blog published photos of the changed subway diagram, characterizing it as a reaction to the Baixa-Chiado rebranding. Shared profusely on Facebook and Twitter, the images reached a journalist at Lusa (Portugal’s state-controlled news agency), who, after contacting the Metro administration—which dismissed the action as a prank and had the stickers promptly removed—wrote a story that in a few hours got picked up by online editors at most national news outlets.

A week later, more of the same stickers were pasted. Another Lusa article followed, now with quotes from the group of around 15 designers, architects, artists, and others who had been responsible. The protesters asked for an end to baixa·chiado PT bluestation. Though they acknowledged that advertising helps finance public transportation, they argued that this branding exercise was something different. It signaled that the state’s chronic deinvestment in public transportation has made it dependent on the charity, wiles, or whims of marketing directors—who, the activists added, should not rule over public space.

Why ask for free speech when you’re given free entertainment?

Within 48 hours, the story hit Portugal’s major daily papers. Praise, condemnation, and hyperbole ran wild on social media and comment threads. Yet so far, little has changed. Metro officials did nothing but quietly remove the stickers from train cars. Baixa-Chiado is still PT’s bluestation. Fares keep rising. Service continues to deteriorate. But a conversation has begun.

The corporate sponsorship of public-transit hubs is not exclusive to Lisbon: AT&T adopted Philadelphia’s Pattison Avenue station in 2010, and cities such as Toronto and Boston are considering selling the naming rights of stations, and even entire lines of their transportation networks.

As states become further indebted and discredited (in both senses of the word), corporations gain ever more power, while we stand on the platform and watch. But what happens when PT, AT&T, or other brands lose interest in “their” stations? How much is a station worth when its whole network is branded? What is the price, and cost, of public space? And when does public space cease to be “public”? These are questions that all citizens, but especially designers, should have answers to.

By employing the same graphic device that allowed a corporation to transform an information interface into an advertising surface, these citizen-designers reimagined a subway diagram as a platform for protest. Moreover, they proved that when designers have something to say, they will shape their message but also subversively exploit the media around them to say it. Let’s all keep an eye on logos pasted in unexpected public places.

Update: Since this article was published, there have been some new developments in the corporate rebranding of mass transit. On March 13, Madrid’s transit authority temporarily renamed Sol, the city’s highest-trafficked station, as Sol Galaxy Note!, after a new Samsung device. In an article in the Spanish-language newspaper El Pais, Alberto Corazón, who designed the Madrid metro diagram, criticizes the move as short-sided. “Who can take over the control and manipulation of public space?” he asks. “It belongs to the citizens, and such a boundary should not be crossed without a comprehensive consultation.”