What’s wrong with ‘Metro Brown?’

Last week, the Washington Post featured a lengthy profile of WMATA’s head architect, the man behind the concepts in Metro’s recently unveiledstation of the future‘ concept. The article offers some insight into the thinking behind the proposed re-design of the Bethesda station, as well as some of the pushback Metro has received already from the Commission on Fine Arts (among others).

Some changes seem sensible, like higher-output light fixtures to replace current fixtures, with the goal of increased light levels while staying true to Harry Weese’s indirect lighting scheme. These seem more like mechanical or operational challenges for the most part, the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff that won’t make such a huge difference in the appearance of stations.

Other proposals seem like change for the sake of change: replacing bronze with stainless steel, for example:

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.

While stainless steel might require less maintenance, that doesn’t make it maintenance-free. Plenty of Metro’s entrance canopies are already showing their age, along with accumulated dirt and grime. Likewise, I can’t see any objection to the use of stainless steel features in new stations, but fail to see why this is such a critical element for the improvement of existing stations. If an escalator replacement opens the door for a stainless steel enclosure instead of a bronze one, so be it – this would hardly be Metro’s first stainless escalator. However, that reasoning doesn’t apply to bronze railings that are not in need of replacement.

Stainless steel station elements at NoMa-Gallaudet U Station. Photo by author.

Aside from bronze, the other element of Metro’s aesthetic under attack is the color brown:

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.

As ubiquitous as brown is within the Metro system, it is by no means the dominant color inside stations. The complaint that bronze is too dark seems to ring hollow, as well. Concrete and the red tiles are far more dominant in the palate than either brown or bronze.

Brown elements are limited to accent pieces and signage. The shade of brown itself is so dark that it doesn’t readily register as a brown at all, but almost a black-brown. Contrary to the assertion from Metro, this dark background provides a great deal of contrast for white lettering, making signage easy to read. White text on dark backgrounds is hardly unique to DC in terms of mass transit signage, either.

Combination of stainless steel, painted steel, and brown signage elements at NoMa-Gallaudet U Station. Photo by author.

Even in Metro’s newer stations (those not a part of the originally planned system), Metro’s white-text-on-brown-background signage standard remained intact. Why change it now and disrupt the uniformity across the system?

The addition of gray elements to Metro’s signage scheme is not new, either. Gallery Place, WMATA’s designated ‘test’ station for new signage, has seen lots of designs over the years, including different background colors and fonts and backlit signage, and the use of gray backgrounds for directional arrows – but none abandon Metro Brown.

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