Rethinking the design of metro stations


Ivo Karadimov is pictured in the Bethesda Metro Station. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN)

When many Washingtonians think of Metro, they aren’t thinking about the future, they’re thinking about right now. Will my farecard be accepted? Will my train arrive on time? And will any of the gosh-darn escalators work today?

Answering those questions isn’t Ivo Karadimov’s job.

Karadimov is the manager of architecture for Metro, the person who is responsible for the look and feel of the stations, including the prototype for newly renovated stations the transit agency made public in early April.

A native of Bulgaria whose full first name is Ivailo, Karadimov has spent years as an architect, but little time in the limelight. He spent nine years in the Washington office of global architecture firm Gensler and a short stint at Group Goetz Architects before joining Metro in 2009 and later moving up to head the unit.

The anonymity of his work came to a sudden end after Karadimov presented his plans for a model renovation of the Bethesda station to Metro’s board of directors. With chronic escalator breakages and frequent train delays caused by malfunctions or track work, Metrorail riders questioned why the agency was planning for the future when it frequently appears unable to maintain the stations and cars it already has. “That’s probably the most frequent thing I’ve heard,” Karadimov said.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles says that renovating the stations will make them more modern and better functioning.

But in designing the needed upgrades it isn’t just Sarles, the board and riders that Karadimov has to answer to — it’s historical preservationists who want to ensure that key elements of the stations, originally designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, aren’t mauled by the renovations.

Robert Bruegmann, who wrote a book on Weese, told The Washington Post that Karadimov’s design amounted to “taking a Victorian storefront and slapping aluminum siding on it.” Andrea Smith, an assistant professor of preservation planning at the University of Mary Washington, wrote that altering the stations’ core design elements “would be an irretrievable loss.”

And within weeks of unveiling the plans, Karadimov had heard enough concerns from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which will weigh in on the designs, that he has pulled back on parts of his initial proposals, such as replacing some concrete parapets with glass.

Thomas Luebke, secretary of the commission, said it’s critical to realize what’s at stake with Metro station renovations. “It’s such an important part of our civic infrastructure for the whole capital and the metropolitan region,” he said.

“It’s one of the finest systems in the country, if not the finest system in the country, and it’s very carefully designed to convey the feeling that this is the national capital and it’s Washington’s subway system,” Luebke said.

Metro chose the Bethesda station, which opened in 1984, to test its new ideas for a combination of reasons. The station is already slated for escalator replacement in 2014. It will also likely be one of 10 initial stations to receive new fare card vending machines systems and possibly one of the first stations on the Purple Line. Much of the escalator and fare vending work, Karadimov said, can be integrated. It also has a “center island” design — meaning the waiting area for trains is between the tracks — which Karadimov says contributes to poor lighting, one of the main things Metro would like to improve.

Not including the escalator replacements and a new stairway already under construction, the Bethesda upgrades are expected to cost about $10 million. They do not require approval by the board and could be completed by the summer of 2015. Metro officials are considering how to collect public input.

Karadimov is trying to balance the interests of riders, the board and preservationists at the CFA. Last week, he walked through the Bethesda station and offered his approach to improving every aspect of the station.

Lighting

Maybe the principal priority for Metro in renovating its stations is to improve lighting, particularly for the sake of riders with visual impairments. And riders have let the agency know they are not happy with stations such as Farragut North, one of the darkest.

The National Capital Citizens with Low Vision, which supports local residents with visual impairments, has criticized the agency for allowing the “severe problem” of low lighting to continue. Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee has argued for better lighting throughout stations. Everything is worse when light bulbs burn out and are not quickly replaced. In all, it’s a pressing question of accessibility.

Flooding the stations with new lights, however, Karadimov said, would quickly destroy the dim ambience that Weese intentionally produced.

So Karadimov proposed a number of changes aimed at creating ambient, indirect lighting through the station while trying to avoid glare or lighting that would shine in people’s eyes. Stronger lights would be added atop the pylons. A line of lights along the center rib of the ceiling would be added on the mezzanine level, as Metro has already installed in the Judiciary Square station. Lighting along the outside wall beside the tracks currently requires eight-foot long fluorescent bulbs that are difficult to clean and obsolete enough that Metro has begun to stockpile them. Shorter, newer bulbs could be simply hosed down. “What’s happening now is they don’t clean them, they just replace them,” Karadimov said.

Bronze

In designing a subway station befitting a city full of monuments, Weese used a metal found in many of the city’s statues and memorials: bronze. Railings leading from the entrance down the mezzanine to the platform are bronze, as is the side paneling to the elevators.

“I think to some extent its design, which was developed in the 1960s, was a time of trying to rethink the idea of monumentality in a modern vocabulary,” Luebke said. When designing for grandness, bronze is often a key element. It also does not wear down easily, so it can handle crowds. “It’s considered the most durable monumental metal, and I think that’s probably why it was chosen in the first place,” he said.

Karadimov acknowledges bronze as a central element of the “original palate” of Metro. But operationally, it is not ideal. Bronze needs polishing, not just cleaning, and the grime on the railing in Bethesda easily comes off to the touch. In the NoMa-Gallaudet and Largo stations, some of the system’s newest, there are already stainless steel railings that Karadimov says are less expensive to clean (though he did not have a cost estimate) and lighter in color. Same for the first group of five Silver Line stations under construction and the canopies that cover some Metro entrances.

Karadimov proposed replacing the bronze railings and escalator panels throughout the Bethesda station with stainless steel; after criticism over the idea of stripping out so much bronze, however, he retreated, agreeing not to replace the bronze with stainless steel or any concrete parapets with glass. Instead he says Metro will keep all its bronze railings. But he says the escalator panels are a less central element that needs replacing. “That is one thing that we are going to have to have a further conversation about,” he said.

Security

Improving safety wasn’t a driving factor for renovating stations, but it is one that figures into many of the decisions Karadimov is mulling.

Making the stations brighter is not only helpful to those who have trouble seeing signs or stairwells, but for security cameras trying to spot suspicious activity.

When the fare card vending boxes lining the entrance to the Bethesda station are replaced, they will likely be installed into a wall panel that reaches from floor to ceiling, doing away with certain blind spots.

Replacing concrete parapets along the top of stairwells with glass would have also provided more transparency and visibility for passengers, but for the CFA that was a nonstarter; Luebke called the concrete parapets a “beautiful” element to the stations.

“They’re very expressive, and they’re kind of a nice, almost organic piece within this very austere and geometric station design. So we’re very interested in holding onto those. We think they’re very characteristic pieces,” he said.

Station manager kiosk

The booths where station managers operate are filled with communication and security machinery that Karadimov said no longer needs to be located in such a highly trafficked corridor. He has proposed moving it to a wall panel elsewhere and building slimmer kiosks that would allow space for more fare gates.

“The idea behind this new design comes from the operational needs of providing the station manager with only the space he needs for those functions,” he said. “There is way too much room inside that kiosk for a single person to operate and that is driven by tons and tons of equipment that is currently inside the kiosk.”

The existing Bethesda kiosk is the shape of an octagon, though that is not nearly as recognized or appreciated as the hexagon tiles on the floor. Karadimov has proposed an elliptical shape.

The color brown

“Metro Brown” is the color of the stations from the pylons outside indicating an entrance to the station, to elements throughout the mezzanine and station platform to portions of the exteriors of trains themselves. The station’s signs, trash cans, newspaper bins, fare gates, fare collection machines and many other items are either blanketed or trimmed in brown. Because there is no “Brown Line” the color provides a neutral, connecting theme for the stations on every line.

But if the stations are to get brighter, Karadimov said, brown cannot continue to be the dominant color. “We’re not going to keep any brown,” he said. “We believe that having a lighter color will help make the station more bright.”

Like the bronze, brown unquestionably contributes to the placid feeling of the stations, but Karadimov said it contributes just as strongly to views that the stations appear dated. Whether the agency will have to retreat on the color brown as it did on bronze has not been decided.

Karadimov also has not formally proposed a color to replace it. He talks about light gray and silver, which he said would make signage easier to read, but without stainless steel to pair it with he may have to reconsider.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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