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Metro motifs, part 3: Other design motifs

The underground vaults and above-ground station roofs may be Metro's most distinctive design element. But in addition to having a commonality of design in station architecture, the system has many other common design elements.

Pylons (columns): Perhaps the most recognized symbol of Metro is the brown pylon. There are two types of these columns. Inside the station, a simple brown pylon includes in white text the name of the station running vertically up the side. Some also include strip maps, station exit information, and emergency call boxes for patrons on the platform. Additionally, there are exterior Metro pylons. These feature the same brown column, but they are topped with a large, lighted white 'M' and a stripe or stripes indicating the line(s) serving the stop. These beacons indicate where station entrances are.

In addition to providing information to riders, the columns provide lighting. At underground stations with island platforms, the columns have lights in their crowns which give indirect lighting to the station. At exterior stations, bulbs extend out perpendicularly from the plyon and are surrounded by a fish bowl-like globe.

At subway stations, the columns on island platforms also serve as vents for the cooling system.

Exterior pylon

Platform pylon

Interior platform pylon

While almost every station in the system has interior pylons, the post-ARS stations opened in 2004 do not include the pylons. Instead, they feature vertical white poles, each with four down-facing lamps illuminating the platform. Station names are printed on a horizontal sign affixed to the pole. Exterior (entrance) pylons remain unchanged at the post-ARS stations.

New "pylon" at New York Ave

Hexagonal tiles: Each station in the system also includes terra cotta-colored tiles in the shape of hexagons. Of late, Metro is testing new sturdier concrete tiles at Takoma Station. They will likely be expanded at other outdoor stations.

At one point, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is responsible for building the Silver Line, suggested eliminating these tiles as a cost cutting measure. It's unclear whether they'll be included or not.

Hexagonal Tiles

New and old tiles at Takoma

Granite strip and flashing 'train approaching' lights: All stations are also outfitted with a granite strip running the length of the platform. Embedded in this strip are lights which flash as a train approaches and stands on the platform.

Recently, WMATA has begun to change white incandescent bulbs with red LED bulbs. A study done by the transit agency showed that the red lights were successful in keeping passengers back from the platform edge best.

Indirect lighting: Underground stations are mostly light indirectly. Some of the dimmer stations have had lighting added underneath the mezzanines and most stations have overhead lighting above the mezzanine.

As mentioned above, lighting is generated from the top of the pylons at island stations. It also comes from banks of fluorescent lights situated along the bottom of the vault. This vault-lighting is present at both island and side platform stations. At underground side platform stations, additional fluorescent lighting banks are in place between the tracks.

This lighting configuration presents a spectacular light show. As trains come and go, their shadows are cast high up on the ceiling.

Unfortunately, it has had the effect of making some stations quite dim. Metro has responded by painting some station vaults white, conflicting with the architect's intentions. After all, the word brutalism, the style of Metro, comes from the French béton brut, "raw concrete."

Red LED edge lights

Lighting between the tracks

Lighting at the vault base

Wall Separation: Meant to be graffiti proof, the station vaults and walls are kept back from patrons. Even the tunnels leading to and from stations have curved bases and railings to keep would-be artists from tagging the walls. Station platforms are set away from the base of the vaults not only to protect against graffiti, but also to allow for the indirect lighting discussed above.

Entrance Canopies: One of the newest motifs added to the system are the glass canopies covering escalator shafts. These transparent covers are meant to resemble the waffle vaults of the downtown stations, yet present a modern, welcoming appearance. They're being installed to improve escalator reliability.

Initially, designers did not want covers over the escalators. If someone was ascending an escalator into the rain or snow, it could present a safety issue. With an uncovered escalator, one takes his or her umbrella out as they ascend, when they're first hit by raindrops. If the escalator is covered, people stop at the top to take out their umbrella, and those behind them can't step off the still-moving escalator.

But frequent escalator breakdowns and high repair bills convinced Metro that it was worth the risk.

Ped tunnel

Canopy from below

Canopy from the street
Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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There are actually at least three interior pylons: skinny side platform ones, monumental center platform ones for coffered stations, and shorter center pylons for the arch stations. There may be more, for Wheaton-style stations, or others.

by цarьchitect on Aug 28, 2009 2:24 pm • linkreport

I was really happy when Metro put the flashing red LED's in. I thought how cool, Metro is installing colored LEDs based on the arriving train color. I thought this because the first ones I saw were on the red line and matched.

Then I saw them everywhere and thought to myself, what a missed opportunity! Wouldn't it be nice to have those blink in the color of the incoming train?

by Erik on Aug 28, 2009 2:30 pm • linkreport

Czarchitect, there aren't any pylons in Wheaton or Forest Glen at all. The name of the station and strip maps are on brown panels on the inside wall. Ventilation is in every other panel.

Glenmont, as an island station has brown pylons similar to other underground station.

by Cavan on Aug 28, 2009 2:51 pm • linkreport

I second the vote for blinking lights coordinated with the color of the approaching train.

by bko on Aug 28, 2009 3:18 pm • linkreport


Cool indeed. How would they do the silver line?

by RJ on Aug 28, 2009 3:37 pm • linkreport

Do they have to vary font sizes on the pylons to get the extra-long station names in?

by HM on Aug 28, 2009 3:42 pm • linkreport

To me the red lights fit in perfectly on hot summer days, as they give the darkish stations a more hellish atmosphere.

by Jasper on Aug 28, 2009 3:46 pm • linkreport

Didn't think about the silver...maybe they could be white LEDs?

by Erik on Aug 28, 2009 4:27 pm • linkreport

While LEDs that match the color of the train would be cool, it's not high on my list of capital improvements I'd have WMATA make given a budget of $x. Also, WAMTA chose Red because they found it works best for convincing passengers to stand back. Presumably, then, the other line colors would be less safe choices.

by Josh B on Aug 28, 2009 4:58 pm • linkreport

Josh--I can only imagine how quickly the lawsuit would be filed when some passenger on the Green Line steps into a train, arguing "I thought green meant go".

(Not to mention the ADA suits from color-blind folks who use the Blue or Yellow lines.)

by ah on Aug 28, 2009 5:07 pm • linkreport

I do miss the soft warm up and fade off of the old platform lights. The LEDs switch on and off too harshly.

There really needs to be a retrofit for the old fishbowl light fixtures. Especially the ones outside. Something with a reflector and a bit of a shade would be nice.

The recessed bulbs in the pedestrian tunnels need to be lowered inside the fixtures. I got a simple socket extender from the hardware store for mine at home. Really makes the spiral bulbs work in recessed cans.

by shy on Aug 28, 2009 5:35 pm • linkreport

It is important to note, the station graphics are in far greater abundance then when the system first opened. The surface bronze entrance pylons with the back lit M had no color line served strip on it, the station name was not on the entrance pylons. There were no horizontal station name, directional panels in the stations both surface and in subway. There were no strip maps on the arch vault walls in some of the island platform stations. Those strip maps on the walls replace the pylons that were removed to increase passenger flow in Farragut West, Clarendon, Virginia Square and Ballston. There were no directional signs above the bottom of the escalator in the lower levels of the 3 downtown transfer station. There were no back lit advertising sign boxes on the platform.

All of the additional directional signs and graphics were added as an after thought after realizing that the basic graphic package was inadequate.

It did take some arm twisting to get the advertising sign boxes on the platform. In the beginning advertising was restricted to the entrance passageways only.

by Sand Box John on Aug 29, 2009 12:58 am • linkreport

Speaking of unusual things on the pylons, if you look at the ones on the platform at Huntington....if you look closely, there's a Blue Dot under the Yellow one .... having the station be Yellow was supposed to be temporary with it reverting back to Blue as originally planned

by coneyraven on Aug 29, 2009 8:01 pm • linkreport

Speaking of the strip maps, in the early days, when the strip maps were applied to the pylons, the ENTIRE planned line was applied, then a brown adhesive was applied to the unopened sections that could be pealed away as sections opened ... As time went on, this proved a problem because things didn't turn out as planned (i.e., Blue to Franconia and Yellow to Huntington) ... You'll notice that where this became a real problem, a second brown plate was applied to the pylon over the old graphics to correct this problem

by coneyraven on Aug 31, 2009 8:18 am • linkreport

Since it wasn't mentioned in the previous articles or this one, I just have to bring up last year's video game Fallout 3, developed by Bethesda Softworks (who are not in Bethesda anymore). Set in a post-apocalyptic alternate reality where design aesthetic froze sometime in the 1950s, the game did a really great job nailing the Metro stations, which made its portrayal of post-WWIII DC much more compelling. And this was possible because of how distinctive the DC stations are.

by Anderkoo on Aug 31, 2009 11:57 am • linkreport

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