Design for maintenance:or what to do when award-winning architecture makes for a suboptimal user experience
Photo: WAMU/Tayla Burney.
The Commission on Fine Arts and the American Institute of Architects have criticized WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, for painting the "ceiling" walls of the transit station in Union Station ("Why Painting the Union Station Metro Cheapens an Architectural Masterpiece," Washington City Paper; "Metro’s Effort To Create A Brighter Station Is Met With ‘Brutal’ Opposition," WAMU/NPR).
The internal structure of the underground sections of the WMATA Metrorail system was designed so that each part--the station vault and platform area--was designed as one element of an integrated whole constructed from unpainted, patterned concrete.
The design, by the architect Harry Weese, is heralded. But the material used, concrete, doesn't age well, and especially from the standpoint of the perception of safety within the station, t makes it hard to properly light the stations (because the concrete "absorbs" much of the light).
I've written ("Transit, stations and placemaking: Stations as entrypoints into neighborhoods") about the Weese design before, focusing more on how it is designed to put distance between riders and the system and this distance shapes WMATA's attitude toward placemaking:
The key issue is that architecturally, the WMATA system evinces all the problems I excoriate in writing about starchitecture.But the design is also problematic from the standpoint of what I call"design for maintenance."
For the most part, starchitecture are more like art and sculpturein that the design of the site(s) and building(s) purposely disconnects and holds at arms length the community and the built environment that lies beyond the boundaries of the site.
-- Docomo webpage on the architectural design of the WMATA system
-- the section of this WMATA case study on architecture covers the issues too, from Metro Cincinnati
Yes, Harry Weese designed the station interiors to be very specific and with a design consistent across the system, with vaulted tunnels, etc. ("Harry Weese, 83, Designer Of Metro System in Washington," obituary, Washington Post). But the stations were never designed to connect to and enhance neighborhoods or the community outside of the station. Inside, despite the vaulting they are dark, the concrete looks dingy, etc.
Still, this self-referential internally-focused architectural attitude shapes WMATA's placemaking culture to this day. In short, there isn't much of a placemaking culture, a recognition that transit stops and stations have a role to play in quality of life.
Not unlike Dan Kiley's famous park space in Tampa, which was overdesigned to a point beyond the capability in expertise and funding typical for a local government agency ("The Life and Death of a Masterpiece: What went wrong with a 1988 park by the late Dan Kiley, and what can we learn from its imminent demolition?), the stations are dark, often dank, and dingy," Landscape Architecture, April 2004).
Not to mention, the vaulting ended up costing more money to build because a much greater volume needed to be excavated to enable the effect.
Note that the WCP article disagrees with my take. From the article:
On a more visceral level, what can beat the sensation of descending into the cool, dim Metro on a blazing 100-degree day? The white tiles of the New York subway try to distract us from the knowledge of being underground, but D.C.’s Metro wants us to embrace that and enjoy it as a subterranean place apart. There is a reason that Instagram and Flickr are full of moody black-and-white photos of Metro stations: People love them as they are. (More frequent trains would be nice, however.)
Yes, WMATA needs to fix dark spots and general light levels in many stations—but slapping on some paint is a crude way to do it. Smart architectural lighting designers armed with LEDs can solve this problem. Metro leaders: Stop whitewashing Harry Weese’s masterpiece.
OTOH, it is easier and cheaper to replace lighting than it is to constantly repaint the ceiling, which becomes necessary once the surface is painted.
Design for maintenance installs materials and creates process designs that minimize the cost and time required to maintain places to a "state of good repair."
In any case, as with the Kiley Garden in Tampa, I think it's reasonable for design professionals to evaluate the effectiveness and relative success of the Weese design.
I find the Weese design wanting on practical dimensions--the slippery surface of the platform tiles when wet is another major flaw-- even if it works as sculptural architecture and at a distance--not unlike how City Beautiful era architecture and public sculpture was designed to exalt the power and authority of the state.
It would be useful for the professions to acknowledge this and make some recommendations for improvements, although the lighting point as made by the City Paper's new architecture critic, .Amanda Kolson Hurley, who already appears to be a great addition to the city's corps of cultural critics.
Tile. Note that there is a reason that subterranean spaces put a premium on high quality lighting and why highly reflective tile -- "subway tile" -- is used in many subway systems. DC's going a different direction hasn't proven to be a superior practice by comparison.
Some examples include prevalent use of tile in stations on the New York, London, Hamburg, Seoul, and Berlin subway systems.
The need for design oversight in transportation agencies. I have written for some time that transportation agencies need to have a "chief urban design architect," to address how transportation infrastructure functions as architecture and urban design, and should be a positive contribution to civic architecture.
Relatedly, I have mentioned recently how Transport for London has "design managers" for various "lines of business," such as the "London buses."
And how VIA, the transit agency in San Antonio, has an urban design unit and manager ("VIA urban planner wants to build a better San Antonio," San Antonio Express-News). It definitely shows. Compare VIA's Centro Transit Station to either the Silver Spring Transit Center or the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center.
It comes to me that I have never come across a WMATA official tasked with such responsibilities.
Artist Bill FitzGibbons designed the "tower of light," called "Chroma Tower," at the Centro Transit Station in San Antonio. While FitzGibbons has executed many public art commissions across North America, he happens to live in San Antonio.
Relevant previous entries
-- "DC's bad urban design as it relates to trnasportation inrastructure"
-- "Transportation Infrastructure and Civic Architecture #3: Rhode Island Avenue Pedestrian Bridge to the Metrorail station"
-- "Transit stations as an element of civic architecture/commerce as an engine of urbanism"
-- "Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center: A Critical Evaluation"