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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.