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Metro stations should be more individual

Metro stations can be dull. Not only are many stations dirty and underlit, they all look the same. What would it be like if WMATA used color and decorations to make it easier for users to navigate the system and the city?

Palm trees and film reels decorate the Hollywood and Vine station in Los Angeles. Photo by JoeInSouthernCA on Flickr.

Harry Weese, who designed the Metro stations, sought to give them a monumental and consistent identity. But the effect is both boring and impractical, particularly in a system that carries so many tourists and visitors from out of town. It's difficult even for natives to tell one dimly lit concrete underground station from another.

A subway system that doesn't confuse its users is one that gets everyone where they are going faster. Making the system easier to navigate is not merely a courtesy for visitors but an essential part of keeping Metro functioning as efficiently as possible. It also allows the Metro to reflect the variety of neighborhoods and attractions on the surface.

Boston's T stations have tiled walls or escalator banners that display the history or neighborhood of an individual station. In LA, you know you're near Hollywood because the subway stations are decorated with film reels or images of Hollywood Boulevard stars. Every station in Moscow has its own unique artwork, so of course the station at the Lenin Library has a famous mosaic of Lenin.

There are lots of ways we could decorate the Metro stations to make them unique. What if the walls and ceilings of Red Line platforms at Metro Center were painted red, and the levels below were orange and blue?

Imagine the Woodley Park escalator with panda posters, or the Waterfront stop decorated with murals of sailboats and of Arena Stage. The L'Enfant Plaza station is right next to the enormously popular Air and Space Museum. Let's decorate it with artwork featuring rockets and space travel and begin steering museum visitors there and away from the overcrowded Smithsonian stop. The possibilities are endless, and practical.

Beyond convenience, it's worth remembering that Metro is one of our most important shared spaces. Metro may not be as famous a public space as the National Mall, but it's time for users to start thinking about it as something more than just a transit utility.

Millions of people spend hours on subway platforms, riding escalators and elevators and making their way through public infrastructure that lacks color and light, to say nothing of character or personality. We expect that the Mall will be beautiful and pleasant as well as useful and interesting. Why not our subway?

Furthermore, unlike Metro, the city continues to evolve and grow aesthetically. The museums on the Mall include classical buildings such as West Wing of the National Gallery of Art as well as the modern East Wing and the Hirshhorn Museum. Imagine what the East Wing of the National Gallery or the National Museum of the American Indian would look like if they had to meet the historical preservation demands Metro currently labors under.

If planners and builders can honor L'Enfant's vision without being strait-jacketed by it, surely Metro can do the same with its original design. One option would be to designate several Metro stations as "classic" stations that adhere strictly to the original design, maintaining a link to the past, as others are modified and changed.

Aboveground, our city is full of unique neighborhoods and monuments. It's time for that diversity to come underground to individual stations.

Ronit Aviva Dancis lives in Bethesda. She serves on the board of the Action Committee for Transit. 


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"Let's decorate it with artwork featuring rockets and space travel"

It already does, sorta.

by Another Nick on Sep 11, 2013 11:28 am • linkreport

Kind of like the building height question. The consistency and solemnity of Weeses design seem appropriate to the nations capital. Partly becasue of the classical nature of the principle buildings and monuments and partly becasue of the non-commercial nature of the city's founding. NYC has some incredible tile work, but that's NYC. Anyone can build tall buildings, but symbolically, towering over the monuments and halls of government seems to send the wrong impression, even though in reality our politics is like an open market place.

by Thayer-D on Sep 11, 2013 11:29 am • linkreport

Boring brown and gruesome grey is the current color scheme of metro. That is not monumental, that is horrible.

Given the current financial situation, I do not think much will change soon. However, there are a couple of simple things WMATA could do to make things better. For instance by using LED lighting to indicate the color of a line along the platform. This could be tied into the PEDS. Better would be if (part of) the walls across a platform would light up in the color of the arriving train. WMATA could also play with the color of the lights of the flashing lights under the platform. They could come in the color of the arriving train. The metropoles outside the stations could also get LED illumination in the color of the trains coming to the station. That would make them a lot more visible, especially in the dark - finding a brown pole in the dark is impossible.

by Jasper on Sep 11, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport

They are consistent for a reason. I'd rather WMATA spend money on fixing escalators than on kitschy artwork. The system is designed for DC people, not tourists.

And getting lost? I don't think *anybody* ever actually confuses stations. What else do we need? Someone to hit them on the head and yell what station they are out? People aren't stupid.

by Matt on Sep 11, 2013 11:36 am • linkreport

Where is the money for this?

by David J on Sep 11, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

Yes, thank you! I never understood why we pay so little attention to the design of a place where many people spend large chunks of their day. I don't think art should ever impede functionality, but the current design is so cold and unfriendly. There are little touches in stations like the artwork in Farragut West 17th St entrance, the mural on U St, the sculptural artwork in Columbia Heights, but it could be so much more! I'm sure this has been posted before but how can you not look at these and lament our lack of inspiration?

Maybe it was inspiring in the 60s when Brutalism was also in vogue, but all the current stations read to me is bland uniformity.

by BTA on Sep 11, 2013 11:38 am • linkreport

Why do we put millions to put art in museums where at best a few million people see it once a year when we can put it in stations where potentially millions of people see it every week?

by BTA on Sep 11, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

Metro's visual appeal is subjective, although it's frequently claimed to be iconic and elegant architecture, with high vaulted ceilings and a brutalist design. I do agree that measures need to be taken to make the system more accessible to tourists and first time users, but considering if "the walls and ceilings of Red Line platforms at Metro Center were painted red, and the levels below were orange and blue" implies that we shouldn't really honor Metros original design.

One nifty idea I can think of is to have the station platform lights be colored according to which lines run there (many are already red), and more liberty could be taken with some of Metros above ground stations, but I think being too intrusive with Metros underground is a bad idea.

by Jason L on Sep 11, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

The metro stations are fine. They have become an iconic brand for the city, far more recognizable than anything else. That picture from LA is not only tacky but could have been in Miami, Puerto Rico, Rio, Caracas, or pretty much anywhere semi-tropical. Nobody mistakes the Washington Metro.

The stations should be modernized, cleaned up, but the overall look should remain the same. No individuality needed.

by Adam L on Sep 11, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

I really don't think the look of Metro stations is a big deal, and I really, really would not want WMATA spending any money on the sorts of things proposed in this article. It's really not hard to know what station you're at; look at the signs! And even in places like L.A. that have designs specific to that station, and you really saying that tourists somehow inherently know what station they're at because of that? They'll still be looking for signage. I really don't want WMATA spending money on stuff like this. And folks really don't spend a significant part of their day within Metro stations.

by Sandy Zuckerman on Sep 11, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

And getting lost? I don't think *anybody* ever actually confuses stations.
Seriously? Some of the stations, particularly the underground ones, have few signs and very little light, so it's quite easy to have no idea which station you're in if you haven't been paying attention and following along at each stop/counting stops. Sure, the announcers are supposed to let you know, but we know how well that works.

Of course, the simplest response to that problem is to create better signage and light it up, and even that isn't super likely to happen any time soon.

by Gray on Sep 11, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

@Matt, the system is designed for everyone, locals and visitors. It is in everyone's self-interest, yours and mine included, to make it easier for tourists to navigate Metro. The faster we move tourists through the system, the faster we can all get around.

@BTA - yes!

by Ronit on Sep 11, 2013 11:50 am • linkreport

The station pictured in this article is tacky, kitschy, and an assault on the eyes. There is no reason for DC to follow suit with that kind of approach.

The Metro is iconic. Sure, it's solemn and dark, but all stations (especially underground ones) have the same monumental feel that sets DC apart. It's a powerful relic of the Brutalist architecture movement, and should not be painted over with neon colors because we want to emulate Hollywood.

Furthermore, DC isn't DisneyLand, and the Metro's main focus is commuters, not tourists. We don't need to hand out souvenir keychains and play up the sites nearby. We're the nation's capitol, which means our subway system should be distinguished and formal, not kitschy.

The metro stops were designed by Weese to unify the system, which is important in this one-of-a-kind region with three wholly autonomous areas. You can't have WMATA make the changes alone - they'll have to involve the stakeholders. And once the stakeholders get involved, things can start to vary wildly.

I highly suggest reading The Great Society Subway by Zachary Schrag. It'll give you some historical context of the Metro, and give you an idea why Weese made it so "boring."

by Landon on Sep 11, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

More than that, they should have facilities and services. Most other subway systems I have used have all sorts of vendors. It makes waiting for a train all that more pleasant. Also, bathrooms.

by SJE on Sep 11, 2013 11:56 am • linkreport

@Landon +1

I forgot to mention it, but the Metro's consistent design is indeed a unifying factor for the region.

by Adam L on Sep 11, 2013 11:59 am • linkreport

In a perfect world, I would agree that stations could have more charm and less of a star wars feel. But the more realistic short term solution is simply better lighting.

Frankly, I dislike the wasted space of the cavernous metro system. There should be larger mezzanine levels and multiple entrances/exits from the platform. It's a safety risk to have such crowded platforms.

by MJ on Sep 11, 2013 12:02 pm • linkreport

Seriously? Some of the stations, particularly the underground ones, have few signs and very little light, so it's quite easy to have no idea which station you're in if you haven't been paying attention and following along at each stop/counting stops.

And yet, in LA, where all the stations are different, you still have this same problem.

You need good wayfinding signage and clear system navigation either way.

And I'll echo Jason L's comment: if you don't like Weese's design for Metro, that's one thing. Feel free to advocate for more individuality in the station design when we're next building a new subway line. However, that's not a reason run roughshod over Weese's design. And yes, it is iconic whether you like it or not.

That's not to say that there aren't opportuinities for public art and evolution within the existing stations. That already exists now, and there are more opportunities for it in the future.

by Alex B. on Sep 11, 2013 12:04 pm • linkreport

Adam L. "I forgot to mention it, but the Metro's consistent design is indeed a unifying factor for the region."

Not if huge swaths of society cannot afford to ride it. In fact, Metro contributes to the class divide by making the subway so expensive and not having free transfer from bus to rail.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 11, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

Placing a strip of blue neon light in the Smithsonian station to identify it as being THE Smithsonian station, would not be wildly expensive.

A few nifty NASA photographs of rockets, etc. to identify the L'Enfant plaza stop would also not be expensive. In fact, if you also put the image of the Washington Monument at the Federal Triangle stop, tourists will not all be crowding the Smithsonian stop as they now do. Thus, making the system move more efficiently.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 11, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.: Which is why this is exactly what I said. I was just responding to "I don't think anybody ever actually confuses stations."

One possible example of I guess what could be done is BART, which doesn't have exactly the same design for all of the stations but doesn't really differentiate them in particularly interesting ways either. And some of their signage is as bad as Metro's!

Montreal took a totally different approach in designing their Metro, with a different architect designing each station. The results are somewhat uneven but the majority of them turned out great--and it's difficult to mistake the interior of one station for another.

Regardless, there's no way for our Metro to get to a state like that, so I'm with the overwhelming consensus here: we need to focus on ways to improve the utility and ease of navigation of stations (with low-hanging fruit like improving lighting and signs) long before we worry about unique color schemes and art installations.

by Gray on Sep 11, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

First, a lot of people happen to really like that the Metro has a singular continuity of brutalist design. That is an important part what has made it so iconic and memorable for millions of people.

Second, if the art at the U St, Farragut or Columbia Heights stations indicate the best that Metro can do, then I'd rather have a blank slate instead because in my opinion that art is just not very good.

Third, we live in a city and region that does not take a lot of artistic risks. It's very "safe." And Metro is a very "safe" system within this "safe" region.

If we are ever going to achieve the kind of artistic merit that can be seen at stations like Stockholm, Naples, Montreal, Moscow etc then there needs to be a cultural shift in the way the system and region thinks about its public spaces.

Fourth, in choosing between panda bears for my Metro station and nothing, I'll choose nothing. Remind me again why panda bears in a zoo -- essentially a tourist destination -- are, or should be, representative of my diverse, culturally distinct, historic neighborhood? I know that was just one example, but hopefully we can do better than that.

by Scoot on Sep 11, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

I used to live in Boston, and I liked the murals in the stations. I think that coloring the station levels at places such as Rosslyn would help with navigation. I used to change trains at Rosslyn during my commute, but now I use the station once or twice a year, and I have to stop at look at the signs to find out which level I want.

by Steve Dunham on Sep 11, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

@Scoot - what do you think is representative of your neighbor? What would you like to see? I would really like to know what people want to see in their neighborhood stops.

Separately, I would argue that if we are going to go beyond "safe" we need to begin somewhere.

by Ronit on Sep 11, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

Metro recently completed replacing some of the ceiling tiles on the Blue/Orange platform at Metro Center.

It is, still, one of the THE nastiest public places in the area. The color palette varies from "old gum," and "stained concrete." There's a reason you don't find these colors in your box of Crayolas - they're ugly. And folks crowd around the few lights to illuminate what they're reading. It's dreadful.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 11, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

@Scoot - what do you think is representative of your neighbor? What would you like to see? I would really like to know what people want to see in their neighborhood stops.

Personally? I'm not sure. I happen to like the way it is now. But if there is no choice but to change it, I would want something a lot more abstract. If I want to see something representative of my neighborhood, I'll go hang out in the neighborhood for pete's sake :)

I'd probably like to see something with color and texture, since that is one thing the Metro stations tend to lack. Something that takes advantage of the system's architecture to play interesting tricks on the eyes would be cool too.

by Scoot on Sep 11, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport

Metro has done a few small things. The colored light array at the Chinatown exit is distinctive. I do like the ceilings in Anacostia station. This simple change is a nice twist on the design. But, honestly, I'm fine with Metro as it is. The simplicity of the design is comforting and timeless.

Similiary, I like the NYC stations, especially those in Lower Manhattan. The tiles and embedded station signs are a powerful link the past.

by kob on Sep 11, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

I think this conversation is irrelevant until Metro can operate a reliable, frequent service. I don't care what the stations look like as long as they are clean and safe. Trains should run every 5 minutes. You should be able to see reliably when the next train is coming. You should be able to understand what the train driver is saying. Escalators should work. Police should stop thugs from stealing phones. Once that's all happening, sure, let's have some artwork. Otherwise, I don't care.

by Dupont on Sep 11, 2013 12:25 pm • linkreport

One thing I forgot: The U Street mural, which runs almost the length of the 13th Street entrance. It's very well done.

by kob on Sep 11, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

Regarding the one comment that will stir up a hornet's nest -- the Metro is certainly there for locals..and tourists. Tourism is a massive part of the city's economy, anyway. The Metro is a great way to get tourists to and from the sites, and maybe even to get them into corners of the city they would otherwise miss.

Also, as to not knowing which station you're in -- happens to me a lot. Depending on where you're sitting, there may not be any visible sign. A little individuality on the platform would help. Otherwise, there needs to better electronic signage within the train. For tourists especially, things have gotten worse in that the maps on the train have gotten smaller, requiring one to stand right in front of it to read the station names.

I certainly understand that there is some level of economic savings in standardization -- and I'm all for preserving the iconic ceilings -- but there's room for some differences to be engineered and some sense of place.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Sep 11, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

Agree with many of the previous posters that

a) consistency of design is not a bug but a feature. I *like* that the stations share so many common design elements and think they are nice-looking. "But it's ugly" is not a useful critique because different people like different styles.

b) better lighting and signage are preferable to making stations distinguishable. I would rather be able to tell someone "get off at Navy Yard" and have them see the sign for Navy Yard than to say "get off at the stop with the giant baseballs hanging from the ceiling and the big pictures of Bryce Harper"

c) stations already have art in them and I'm fine with that continuing. But most of it's not on platform level for good reason--because the trains damages the art. is a story about how hard it is to preserve art in a subway station (plus, that story is about how vehemently people disagree about what is beautiful/interesting).

d) Metro needs to focus on things like returning to automatic control, maintaining public safety, doing needed repairs efficiently and promptly, making escalators and elevators work, keeping a reasonable inventory of parts, and firing workers who are rude or dangerous. That seems like a tall enough order without doing decor changes.

by sbc on Sep 11, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

I ride from Bethesda to Capitol South or Union Station several times a week. I am constantly helping tourists navigate the complicated farecard system and the system itself. It's not simple for the first-time user, which most tourists are. It's NOT at all easy for tourists to use.

In addition, I've started riding the end cars in order to increase the likelihood I'll be in a car with functioning air-conditioning. I have missed stops because I did not recognize them!

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 11, 2013 12:32 pm • linkreport

Here's a comment from the "Riders Abandoning Metro on Weekends" article:

"Who wants to sit in a dingy, stinky, darkly lit Metro underground station, either at nights or on the weekends? Only if I have to."

There you go!

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 11, 2013 12:33 pm • linkreport

I am constantly helping tourists navigate the complicated farecard system and the system itself. It's not simple for the first-time user, which most tourists are. It's NOT at all easy for tourists to use.

Well, unique station designs and artwork will obviously help with this.

by Alex B. on Sep 11, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

I agree with Adam L here; the unique and consistent design of the stations is an attraction in itself. I guess I disagree with you in that I think the metro stations have as much character and personality as the mall or the monuments. Perhaps it's not the most approachable and accessible design, but it's interesting nonetheless. Customizing the stations with location-specific "pop art" could get kitschy and dated real fast.

As for tourists getting lost on the metro...well newbies are going to get lost regardless of how the stations are designed. I've gotten lost myself when I'm in a new city playing tourist. There are station signs on the wall at regular intervals, and the name is on every pylon as well....and that's consistent for every station! That's the beauty of our system; once you figure out where something is at one station, you know where to find it at all of the stations.

by merarch on Sep 11, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

The LA subway stations are really tacky. Each individual station is unique, but with artwork that is hard to maintain. The station pictured (Hollywood&Highland) is full of dust and cobwebs. The artwork is covered in scratches, and the tile work is cheap. The LA stations are simply engineered boxes with artwork and cheap tiles tacked on. It is not very appealing in my opinion. The world's most attractive/iconic subways are designed by architects: DC's Metro by Harry Weese, Bilbao's subway by Foster, Vancouver's Skytrain by Perkins and Will, Montreal's subway, etc...

I fear that WMATA is about to redesign its iconic subway stations in Sketchup as
was revealed by the Bethesda station redesign proposal. WMATA should focus on maintaining and cleaning the stations without major architectural or artistic interventions. As design is subjective not everyone will be happy, but it makes more sense to protect what we have and not screw it up with additions and alterations.

Harry Weese, the architect of the DC Metro rejected the idea of artwork in the stations, fearing it would detract from the simple elegance of the station design.

by John P on Sep 11, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

Right, because all of Metro's stations are in perfect condition.

BART's stations are ugly. All of the charm of DC's with none of the grandeur or ceiling height.

I know I am likely in the minority here but I would love bright colors and artwork in the stations.

by h st ll on Sep 11, 2013 12:38 pm • linkreport

Thank you! I was completely put off by Ronit's claim: "We expect that the Mall will be beautiful and pleasant as well as useful and interesting. Why not our subway?"
Who is Ronit to tell us what is beautiful?

@Capt. Hilts
I've had my fare share of tourists ask for help at L'Enfant. Purely anecdotal, but it seems that the fare system is what confuses people, not figuring out the actual route. (The fares - paper vs. card, rush vs. standard - still trip me up!)

by Rich on Sep 11, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

@ Scoot: if the art at the U St, Farragut or Columbia Heights stations indicate the best that Metro can do
representative of my diverse, culturally distinct, historic neighborhood?

You can't have it both ways. The U St painting is very representative of that neighborhood, whether you like the painting or not.

@ Alex B:roughshod over Weese's design

Look that design with not disappear overnight. The stations are built and will stay the way they are. The question is what you can do to improve them.

My problem: This city does not do well with art. Prime example: the sad, sad musicians that practice play at the entry of metro stations.

by Jasper on Sep 11, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

So I was randomly talking about international tourism numbers by city with my friend the other day. DC is the 7th most popular city for international air travelers in 2011 (1.8 million visitors) and that wouldnt count internationals arriving by train or bus which is a lot anecdotally by my observations. According to the commerce department DC had 17.4 million visitors in 2011 (mostly domestic) obviously. We are absolutely a tourist city. Maybe if you live outside the city limits you dont notice on your commute but its absolutely a system used for more than commuting and those tourists help fund the system we need for commuting.

by BTA on Sep 11, 2013 12:42 pm • linkreport

Anyway it's not a priority I agree and I don't think most people are advocating totally revamping existing stations but there are opportunities for new stations to be redesigned and for existing ones to be spruced up a bit. Murals and small art installations are going to be relatively inexpensive and I'm sure you could finance it in coordination with existing Arts programs.

by BTA on Sep 11, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

Okay, no one here is suggesting that we take a sledgehammer to the stations to make them all completely unique. [Read the article - don't just look at the pictures]

All we're talking about here is accents that will make the stations more cheerful and easy to identify. No one's talking about getting rid of the "iconic archways" etc.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 11, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

Question for the Brutalist architecture and Weese fans : are any of you interested in my proposal to designate certain stations as "classic" stations where the original design is strictly maintained, while other stations are modified? Would you be willing to accept it as a compromise?

And following up on Scoot's comment, what would folks like to see at their local stations?

by Ronit on Sep 11, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

two advantages of the current design

1. It will make everyone so much happier about the elevated stations at Tysons Corner. I swear, when I have a choice (like where to transfer between blue and yellow in Arlington/Alex) I pick the elevated station, unless the weather is abysmal. It takes some really really nasty weather to make me prefer the dark, depressing underground stations,

2. The current design provides an incentive to bike.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 11, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport


>2. The current design provides an incentive to bike.<

Sure. The 30 minute escalator ride at Woodley or Dupont is a major incentive to bike.

by kob on Sep 11, 2013 12:57 pm • linkreport

You can't have it both ways. The U St painting is very representative of that neighborhood, whether you like the painting or not.

I'm not asking to have it both ways. I'd almost prefer art that does not "try" to be representative of a specific neighborhood, unless it is in a very very abstract sense (which the U St art is not).

by Scoot on Sep 11, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

I agree with Dupont and sbc: while I'm not a big fan of the Brutalist look, I'd rather see WMATA concentrate its efforts on bringing the Metro system back into a good state of operation than fiddling with the decor.

How would you complete this sentence: "We're the nation's capitol, which means our subway system should be ..."
I'd say, "at least functional."

by John Henry Holliday on Sep 11, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

Of all the things to propose for Metro, this seems like the least realistic and potentially one that is harmful financially. Unique decorative elements will require maintenance and that money should go into water damage, not decorative tile.

Systems like the CTA could invest in a few name brand architects because their stations didn't have much of a theme or standardization. Weese's design is iconic, it's also simple and makes use of standardized materials, which is one of the more prudent things Metro has done. Brutalism has few fans but it works in Metro stations and it will look better in 20 years than the kitsch in Hollywood.

by Rich on Sep 11, 2013 1:09 pm • linkreport

I actually think the Metro stations are pretty attractive. They're impressively huge and open spaces, which I much prefer to NYC's endless columns and low ceiling heights. They're really not even that dirty. I'm not saying some better lighting and a little color would kill them, but architecturally they're pretty great. And the best part of the metro stations is that there's very little to get run down and look worn-out, which would be my biggest concern with adding embellishments that are going to require continual maintenance.

by AP on Sep 11, 2013 1:11 pm • linkreport

"I'm not saying some better lighting and a little color would kill them,"

perhaps if they had those, I would appreciate them more. Right now, as they are, I find them depressing.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 11, 2013 1:20 pm • linkreport

Let's waste millions of dollars to redecorate the stations, so we can enjoy the time a little bit more while waiting 30 minutes for the next metro!

What a stupid question... before redecorating a metro station, let's have a decent metro system... and we are far from it!

by NoNo on Sep 11, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

This entire discussion is ridiculous. Seriously.

It reminds me of the public art project, the "bicycle musician" in Adams Morgan.

I'm writing this from memory, but the neighborhood had some $200K for public art. A committee went through a process, and selected this rather colorful, sculptural installation.

Well, someone didn't like the rat in the basket and the local mailing list went nuclear. The artwork was killed, and the city happily took the money and spent it in another neighborhood.

That's exactly what will happen with any Metro artwork/design project. Fully 50% of everyone will oppose whatever it is they do, hate it, call it a waste of money, and demand the ouster of anyone associated with it.

If I was running Metro, because it will set off a loud-mouth explosion.

So end this thread and enjoy the gray walls and the brutalist-something-or-another, because the only way public art succeeds is if it's forced on people, and then it usually takes a generation or two for it be accepted, loved and treated like a precious part of the landscape. Art fails as democracy.

by kob on Sep 11, 2013 1:28 pm • linkreport


More expensive and unique crap for Metro to have to spend a fortune maintaining.

Instead of the systems operation and maintenance being uniform, now we have to have differnent operations and maintenance programs for each station. No.

Art, décor, style is all subjective. I would bet the deed to my house that the existing architecture and style is far less distateful to a majority of metro riders than anything like that Disney land crap would be in the photo.

There is plenty of signage in the existing system. When you come into any tunnel there are signs ever 50 feet along the walls and on every pylon on the platform. If you truly don’t know where you are, you have broken all species records for being unobservant.

Metro is a tool, like a wrench. It has a function. We all wish it would perform that function better than it does, but adding multilayers of complexity to operating and maintaining this “tool” isn’t going to do it.

by Metro on Sep 11, 2013 1:30 pm • linkreport

Definitely disagree with this article. I don't think Metro stations are "dull." Anything but. Even if you feel it's aggressively ugly and cold and alienating, the soaring ceilings in the stations are at, the very least, incredibly dramatic.

Personally, I love the architecture, but I'm also a fan of brutalism. I get brutalism isn't popular right now--though, with many styles, that might change as it passes from "dated" to "classic," as all styles have--but at least it's a cohesive style. Painting Metro Center's walls and ceilings bright red is like those people who painted or slapped formstone on their rowhouses in the 1960s because brick looked dated. There's a difference between a well-thought-out architectural style and half-ass trying to hide an architectural style with bright colors and murals. The latter will never age well, and will always be one of those awkward "what were we thinking?" moments down the road.

That said, panda posters and rocket ships just sound so tacky to me regardless of how the Metro looks. I like the film rolls in the picture, because it seems clever and nuanced, but that palm tree looks like a twelve-year-old's luau-themed birthday party.

by DM on Sep 11, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

What DM said...

by Metro on Sep 11, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport

Personally, I'm a fan of Moscow's Metro art.

by lou on Sep 11, 2013 1:47 pm • linkreport

"So end this thread and enjoy the gray walls and the brutalist-something-or-another, because the only way public art succeeds is if it's forced on people, and then it usually takes a generation or two for it be accepted, loved and treated like a precious part of the landscape. "

NYC has these tiny little stained glass things on the BWay Bklyn elevated, done by a local artist. They are nice, I am unaware that anyone dislikes them.

Of course dont do anything hard to maintain or too costly. But the notion that public art, never adds to a place, strikes me as absurd. And I really doubt that the the majority of riders find the aesthetics of the current stations provides a positive experience.

Maybe if they were better lit, or had a even a small dash of color, I would feel differently. For now though, I find the look of the station provides an incentive to bike, and to prefer elevated stations. I wonder how alone I am.

BTW, if public art is bad, are the advertising posters acceptable? Why are they preferable?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 11, 2013 1:48 pm • linkreport

As many local artist we have in the city, I'm sure it's not impossible to get something done that's also cost-effective. Nothing too fancy to start out but little things here and there over time would definitely make a big difference. I've been on a few metro systems (mostly broad) and the influence of local color on each stop really helped in remembering where I was.

by Laurel on Sep 11, 2013 2:07 pm • linkreport

The underground metro-rail stations definitely need better lighting. This is a public safety issue that should be addressed.

by 202_cyclist on Sep 11, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

>are the advertising posters acceptable? Why are they preferable?<

They aren't necessarily preferable or acceptable. But they are forced on people, and may even succeed as art. And sometimes, if you keep an advertising sign up long enough, a generation or two, (think CITGO at Fenway), eventually people may consider it worthy of preservation. The only difference with advertising is it doesn't necessarily start off under the pretense of public art, even though it is.

by kob on Sep 11, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

The comments are a little dramatic. It's not an either/or issue. There is some value to tossing out ideas. Some of the article's assumptions seem odd to me - hardcore brutalist architecture is a safe choice? - but I don't think Metro's design is sacrosanct. Change can happen, it should just happen in a methodically.

I rather like the dark stations - I found it soothing after a day stuck under overlit, flat-lighted offices. Perhaps Metro could benefit from more careful downlighting to complement the vaulting, near escalators and in low-traffic areas.

For example, the placement of lighting could be used to attract readers away from the platform edge, so fewer linger in front and obstruct traffic. With an infrastructural project, I think it's better to think about the performance of the architecture more than its cultural meaning.

The theming of stations is a similar issue. How much decoration do we need to make it clear where you are? If a sign can do the job, why do we need the building to do it? One of the more genius features about New York's subway is its ornamental concision. Most of the older stations are identical, with tiled bands that reflect the character of what was around the station in 1903, but are mostly just signs with the station names.

I've found this approach to be much more helpful than Moscow or LA's total station theming, which is only useful if you already know where you're going. The Lenin Library station is at the public entrance to the Kremlin, but you'd never know that from the architecture. The signs say that, though. Moscow has abandoned theming for the second time, and will only use nonstandard stations in very high traffic areas.

I think it's fair to make improvements, but I think we should just figure out what the problem is first.

by Neil Flanagan on Sep 11, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

"They aren't necessarily preferable or acceptable."

well thats my point. The purity of the Weese vision is already compromised. Maybe we could find some things that dont compromise it any more, but add more to the experience.

" And sometimes, if you keep an advertising sign up long enough, a generation or two, (think CITGO at Fenway),"

The ads in the metro do not last more than a couple of months I think.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 11, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

Take a look at the Montreal Subway if you want to see why individually designed stations are not a good idea. Montreal was told by their consultants from the Paris Metro to have uniform stations so as to reduce confusion and ensure a clean, cohesive look. They ignored, and today the Montreal Subway is universally criticized as one of the ugliest in the world.

by Paul Weinstein on Sep 11, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

I'd rather WMATA spend money on fixing escalators than on kitschy artwork.
This region has a seriously unhealthy obsession with escalators. I'm so done with this topic.

Strongly agree with @Landon and @John P.

by dcmike on Sep 11, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

this conversation is irrelevant until Metro can operate a reliable, frequent service. I don't care what the stations look like as long as they are clean and safe. Trains should run every 5 minutes. You should be able to see reliably when the next train is coming. You should be able to understand what the train driver is saying. Escalators should work. Police should stop thugs from stealing phones. Once that's all happening, sure, let's have some artwork.


This region has a seriously unhealthy obsession with escalators.

For many of us, there's a reason to be obsessed with the escalators (and elevators, which are a closely-related issue). The federal government (and many other local employers) have historically been very friendly places for people who have limited mobility, who are blind, and who have other related needs. In my experience, this group of people is an uncommonly-high percentage of our friends, relatives, and colleagues in this area and so we care about their ability to access Metro to a greater degree than we might otherwise.

by Bitter Brew on Sep 11, 2013 2:38 pm • linkreport

"Police should stop thugs from stealing phones. "

The police can't do that on the sidewalks. Should we stop doing anything to make walking more aesthetically pleasing?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 11, 2013 2:44 pm • linkreport

+1 to DM.

by renegade09 on Sep 11, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

I think one big reason we have an uncommon obsession with escalators and elevators is that the stations are just so incredibly deep.

by Scoot on Sep 11, 2013 2:47 pm • linkreport

It's pretty difficult to change the design of something like Metro because there are always people who are used to the way it looks and like it. People's taste varies and invariably, there are people who like how stations look. Inertia is powerful.

The best chance at implementing something along the line of what's described in the article is for new infrastructure. Maybe DC's streetcar stations can use some of the ideas described in the article.

Personally, Metro's design is too dungeon-like for my taste but the easiest and least controversial way to fix that would be replacing all the burned out light bulbs and cleaning the light covers. Somehow, Metro can't keep up with even this most basic maintenance.

by Falls Church on Sep 11, 2013 2:54 pm • linkreport

Has the author of these article ever been every single Metro Station they all dont look the same. The only thing similar is the tiles, benches (older pre Largo & Noma Stations, and faregates.

The author is only speaking on the interior what about the exteriors.

Rhode Island Ave looks like no other station and the same with Ft Totten.

Noma, Largo Town Center or Morgan Blvd they dont look like the rest of the system they all look alike but not like the rest.

Franconia Springfield, Southern Ave and Dunn Loring are the same design but when including the landscape and placement of bus bays, parking lots and such look completely different.

The Tysons Corner is vastly different from the current ones with the placement of the Bridge over Chain Bridge RD, the Platform level and ground entrance level.

At the McLean station the color of the exterior is different being that is it more than one colour.

As for trees do you really need a reason for someone to sue WMATA; people have allergies and some plant species are worst than others but also tries will attract animals

by kk on Sep 11, 2013 2:56 pm • linkreport

When I moved here over a decade ago, two things struck me as funny. The Metro stations had a Soviet-esque ugliness, uh, I mean, sensibility (along with the requisite extra helping of concrete). And, the Smithsonian takes a very socialistic approach with no admission charges, while most museums, especially in more socialistic countries, have admission fees.

Anyway, instead of putting lipstick on the pig that is brutalist architecture, I'd vote for better LTE coverage, so I can ignore the look of the stations completely and focus on something more appealing, like a good old-fashioned game of Words with Friends.

by rogerwilco on Sep 11, 2013 2:58 pm • linkreport

"I think one big reason we have an uncommon obsession with escalators and elevators is that the stations are just so incredibly deep." just feels insulting to have to walk up an escalator that is broken. If you're not going to take care of them, why'd you buy them in the first place? I can go up and down stairs no problem. It's that its a clearly visible failure of the system: we can't maintain what we have.

Plus they're not all that safe to walk up in the first place.

by Another Nick on Sep 11, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

@ AP

All of the stations are not spacious, huge and open see Anacostia, Congress Heights, Wheaton, Mt Vernon (before renovations), Rhode Island Ave and Deanwood are/were kinda cramped

by kk on Sep 11, 2013 3:03 pm • linkreport

I'm a big fan of the mini-renovation that WMATA recently did to Judiciary Square.

The new lighting is a HUGE improvement, and unlike other lighting projects, they actually picked a warm (and consistent) color temperature that works well against the concrete walls.

I think we'd see a lot fewer complaints if similar maintenance projects were completed around the system. AFAIK, the Judiciary Square upgrades only took a few days to complete. WMATA could easily do the same thing to all of the other underground stations in the span of a year or two.

I also like the idea of adding more public art by the entrances and mezzanines. These areas haven't aged particularly well, and could definitely benefit from some sprucing up.

by andrew on Sep 11, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport

You guys reminded me of my absolute favorite piece of public art in transit. Stumbling upon it just seamlessly integrated into the environment made my day.

by BTA on Sep 11, 2013 3:55 pm • linkreport

It's difficult even for natives to tell one dimly lit concrete underground station from another.

The lighting is the main problem. When I moved to DC 14 years ago, the Metro station lighting was a lot better than it is today. The platform edge lights were white, not red, and the stations on the whole had brighter lighting.

If Metro spent money bringing the lighting back to its 1990s standards, you'd see a remarkable improvement in the appearance of the stations.

by Craig on Sep 11, 2013 4:27 pm • linkreport

@ Ronit, who said "are any of you interested in my proposal to designate certain stations as "classic" stations where the original design is strictly maintained, while other stations are modified? Would you be willing to accept it as a compromise?"

For me, no. Part of the beauty of the system is that it all has common design elements. Your suggestion would reduce that. I'm not looking for a compromise when I think the station design works pretty well as is, and could be improved by things you didn't even mention, like better lighting, clearer train announcements, and on-train visual displays (the new series of metro cars will have this..whether they work remains to be seen).

by sbc on Sep 11, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

great idea! maybe shouldn't be a funding priority for metro though...

by George on Sep 11, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

Fix the lighting, fix the elevators, fix the escalators, and ensure that trains run on time. If WMATA had an unlimited pool of money, it wouldn't be a zero-sum proposition.

I'll take functioning over fancy any day.

by Andy on Sep 11, 2013 4:31 pm • linkreport

The brutalist design for Metro would work (and has worked) if the system were cleaner and better lit. *That* was always the distinguishing feature of the Metro vs the NYC system - 'hey we're clean and modern not like those guys up north'.

But that's no longer the case, even with eating bans (food was never really what made NYC 'dirty'; it was graffiti - and dirt). The Metro stations' cleanliness standards are abysmal for a 'modern' system.

by Kolohe on Sep 11, 2013 4:35 pm • linkreport

I will agree with many of the previous commenters - I think the basic design is beautiful but of course can use some real attention.

The first thing we do is completely fix/upgrade the lighting in every station, the signage (I like the back lighted signs in Gallery Place - every easily seen even in the gloom) and paint and clean the stations. Then, once we can see what we have, then we can think about additional art pieces. I would be loathe to jump into colored lights and neon until we took care of the basics first.

(And maybe we can finished an unrelated but unfinshed/stalled project before we start a whole series of art installations: the installation of the outdoor escalator canopies - still waiting at Dupont Q Street.)

by DC20009 on Sep 11, 2013 5:01 pm • linkreport

I also agree about the lighting. It can get a little gloomy at times. Art pieces would be nice too considering it kind of feels like a vaulted space a la Pantheon, but I wouldn't go painting the concrete, especially with the recent leakage problems. It could turn into a maintenance hell.

by Thayer-D on Sep 11, 2013 5:07 pm • linkreport

A lot about the current design thwarts attempts at improving lighting -- and intentionally so, in fact. Our standards of brightness have increased over time, and yet the dark material palette chosen for the stations (unpainted concrete walls and ceilings, burgundy tiles, chocolate brown panels, even the bronze railings) absorb both what little light is added and dirt, which further darkens the place over time.

Regular power cleaning would help, but using more reflective materials would go further. I was amazed to find out recently that Vancouver's transit agency specifies platform lighting 40% as bright as WMATA's -- but they use light-colored walls and floors, and direct light onto the platforms, so they feel much brighter. Quality, not quantity, people.

So no, "keep it exactly the same," "focus on improving service," and "light it better" cannot all happen at the same time. "Functioning over fancy" is not the choice we're faced with.

by Payton on Sep 11, 2013 5:10 pm • linkreport

@sbc So the design has to be throughout the whole system, huh? Interesting.

"could be improved by things you didn't even mention, like better lighting, clearer train announcements, and on-train visual displays"

I'm all for that.

by Ronit on Sep 11, 2013 5:35 pm • linkreport

Metro stations should follow Union Station's lead and add clean restrooms, convenience stores/newstands, and maybe a small Starbucks, Panera, or Krispy Kreme. They probably should not let people eat on trains, and maybe not on platforms, but there's no reason why people can't grab a quick bite/drink on the way out of the station, or while waiting for a train.

by Chris S. on Sep 11, 2013 7:44 pm • linkreport

Lighting, lighting, lighting. With all the energy-efficient options out there, WMATA has no excuse. We are all aging every year (unless we die), and as we age we require higher levels of light. I agree with Payton that appropriate uses of light-colored walls would help increase the overall brightness.

I like some types of modern architecture, but Brutalism hasn't aged well, IMHO. Still, if WMATA consulted a proper lighting designer, the agency might find that the stations could be much better lit for not all that much more money.

by Greenbelt Gal on Sep 11, 2013 8:46 pm • linkreport

I saw the blurb about this in the Express. So I guess Capitol Hill will be pictures of A-holes? J/K (sorta)
Just FYI, they put instead of .org in the paper.

by Wicasawakan on Sep 12, 2013 7:57 am • linkreport

@Payton and @ Greenbelt Gal - exactly.

Lighting and appearance are not just frills but a safety issue.

by Ronit on Sep 12, 2013 9:07 am • linkreport

I've always thought the stations' design should reflect the neighborhood or surrounding area or have some other unique theme. For example, the LA Metro has extremely unique and varied station designs, some of which are very elaborate and artistic. Even in older systems like the Boston, NYC, and Philly have at least some diversity in their station's appearance.

by Matt S on Sep 12, 2013 9:35 am • linkreport

"using more reflective materials would go further"

Good luck finding the money for this alongside required safety and basic maintenance upgrades. Unless you're footing the bill, "functioning v. fancy" is indeed the choice.

by Andy on Sep 12, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

Re: wall color

Metro has lightened wall colors to make the indirect lighting work better. Visit older stations and compare to newer ones, and you will find the color of the concrete is quite different. Judiciary Sq, for example, is much darker than U Street or Navy Yard.

Re: painting

Bad idea to paint concrete. Thayer is right about water leaks showing. Metro has painted several stations to try and lighten them up, and they do not look all that good. The painted surfaces show dirt and grime far worse than the raw concrete does, and the gain in light is minimal compared to better maintenance on the lights themselves.

Re: brutalism

Perhaps the style hasn't aged well overall (no one will mourn the FBI building when it goes), but I think the Metro station design has aged quite well. It's one thing to be surrounded by concrete in an office building, but it is another thing when you're underground in a tunnel.

by Alex B. on Sep 12, 2013 9:48 am • linkreport

The real crime here, I think, was the author using an LA station (and a terrible looking one) as an example. Don't get hung up on the LA example folks.....missing forest for trees.

Having been in Paris earlier this week, I noticed how all the stations there have a different look / feel / color scheme etc. It made it much easier to navigate the system and was frankly more fun interesting.

The have much better system, that has unique stations in a capital city. This is not a wild idea. It's feasible, possible. It's already been done.

by CCTA on Sep 12, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

When I am dead, I expect to spend a very, very long time underground in a dark and rather boring place of rest.

For now, when I am required to spend a long time underground awaiting that weekend Metro train that is single-tracking, I would at least prefer a little more illumination.

I won't bankrupt the system to improve the lighting.

by Mike S. on Sep 12, 2013 8:45 pm • linkreport

I'm on two minds of this.

Yes, Metro stations are all dark, boring, depressing dungeons. I would much prefer the bright lights, detailed tile work, mixed designs, and organic energy (food vendors, street musicians, and general foot traffic) of real subway systems NYC, Bos, London, Paris, Berlin, etc.

However, if Metro is making changes I would much rather Metro focus on reducing 20 minute headways on the weekends. Metro is so inefficient outside office hours, it has basically just become a commuter rail line at this point. To say nothing of the fact it skips over many urban core areas (H Street, Adams-Morgan, Georgetown) and continues to borrow deep out into suburbia.

by Chris on Sep 13, 2013 10:40 am • linkreport

Metro was really designed as a commuter rail network with the downtown acting as a mini subway if you look at the history. It was all about getting workers in from the burbs. The Green Line was basically a concession to the "locals". That said times have changed and it probably shows a pretty impressive lack of foresight that they stopped building downtown and allowed for very little redundancy. I personally think the streetcars are probably a better investment for DC at the moment and then we can get back to looking at more subway Metro lines in DC.

by BTA on Sep 13, 2013 10:50 am • linkreport


So what explains everything in DC not near offices which is everything east of Capitol South on the Blue/Orange, everything north of Gallery Place on the Yellow/Green, Brookland, Ft Totten, Takoma, Friendship Heights, Van Ness, Tenleytown, Cleveland Park, Woodley Park

by kk on Sep 14, 2013 1:29 am • linkreport

The current beige, but with enough trains (that have working doors and air conditioning) and consistently working escalators, elevators, turnstiles and fare machines, would be the pinnacle of awesome, as far as I'm concerned. Honestly, I don't care in the least what it looks like as long as it all works. And until it all works, and there's a solid, sustainable plan in place for maintaining it, I think talking about decorating is trivial and beside the point.

by Kalieris on Sep 14, 2013 7:44 pm • linkreport

Why not give groups with the desire and the money, such as Bethesda UP, the chance to develop and propose ideas for moderating the brutalism of the current stations. The tunnel from the east side of Wisconsin has already been improved by adding art to the sterile walls.

by DickwB on Sep 16, 2013 8:07 am • linkreport

I wouldn't want aesthetic treatments to come out of Metro's budget but I could see the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities sponsoring grants for this. I think it would be nice to have a little something more to look at in the Metro stations. The few places with murals -- whatever their quality -- are very welcome, but none of them are on the platform for the people who are waiting for trains.

by Tanya on Sep 17, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

The "distinctive" station decor stops about eight feet from the trackbed at the L'Enfant and Capitol South stops. Those eight feet are just lumpy, dirty concrete.

These spaces are crying for decor that would identify the sites around the stop.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 17, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

I actually like the clean, uncluttered design of DC's metro stations. I find the super-colorful, kitschy design stations in other systems tacky and frankly, even as a tourist, I never found them helpful, just eyesores.

I say keep it as is. I do think it would help if they lit each station's signs more intensely, so they could be better seen from inside the train.

But also, most of the new cars have the station name displayed inside the train and the conductor also says the name as the train is arriving.

I'd rather Metro spend the money fixing escalators and saving up to build an additional Blue line river crossing.

by LuvDusty on Sep 17, 2013 11:45 am • linkreport

Metro has already permanently changed the way stations look; in fact, Metro is systematically and irreparably destroying the system's architectural integrity. Metro has installed innumerable hanging cables and ugly steel pipes with virtually no regard to architectural sensitivity. Metro can't even bothered to paint the pipes and cables the same color as the concrete. There are some especially egregious assaults on the architecture at Union Station and Faragut North. I think it's sad that no one seems to care that Metro is defacing the stations and that Metro apparently seems not care. In my view, it's a lost cause even worrying about the system's architectural integrity.

by Rodger on Nov 20, 2013 1:19 pm • linkreport

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