The Metro can be disorienting for a newcomer. For a long time after I moved here, I got turned around every time I changed trains at L’Enfant Plaza, and always ended up having to go back and read the signs. Could mosaics of the world above make it easier to navigate?

Mockup of a mosaic depicting the convention center at the Mount Vernon Square Metro station. All images by the author.

Metro’s uniformity makes it difficult to navigate. I was describing this for a friend who grew up here, and he knew what I meant. My mother doesn’t take the metro at all, he told me, because she can’t read. The signs aren’t any help to her, so she has to stick with the bus where she can see landmarks through the windows and not miss her stop.

Here I was griping because I had to read the signs to navigate the metro, while my friend’s mother, like millions of other American adults, isn’t able to use the metro system at all because she can’t read the signs. I am a mosaicist, which means I make mosaics. When my friend told me about his mother’s situation, it gave me an idea: why not put mosaics in the metro depicting the view on the street above?

Mosaic of my dog, Buddy.

Here is a picture of a 4’x4’ mosaic I made of my dog, Buddy. Notice how the background in the mosaic meshes with the fence behind it. Imagine mosaics similarly made mounted inside the coffers (those pockets you see on the sides and ceilings of the underground Metro stations) depicting the street view overhead. As a train pulled into a station, you could “look out the window” to see where you were.

The mosaics, especially if illuminated, would help dispel the Metro’s gloominess by adding color and “sunlight” to the platforms. At the same time, because they would sit inside the coffers, they wouldn’t interfere with the grand vistas of architect Harry Weese, who designed the stations.

This project could engage the community, bringing in neighbors of each Metro station to select the subject matter for their station’s mosaics. WMATA could set up a website where residents could offer suggestions for neighborhood landmarks or vote on others’ submissions. WMATA could even advertise the submission process as a way to give every DC area resident a stake in “our Metro.”

Mockup of a mosaic for the Gallery Place Metro station.

Mosaics could be of recognizable landmarks specific to the area around each station, like the Friendship Arch at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station or the Capitol dome at Capitol South. Or they could be of an interesting view, like the tops of rowhouses, or the entrance of the Thurgood Marshall Academy for the Anacostia station.

Each mosaic would have to satisfy artistic and technical conditions. For example, a mosaic of the skyline wouldn’t work because the subject matter is too big to be rendered mosaically with sufficient detail. After passing WMATA review, the local ANC could select a final design from a list of top vote-getters.

The cost could be very reasonable. Each metro coffer is 100 inches wide. If the mosaicist used standard 5/8” x 5/8” ceramic tiles, the rendered mosaic would look very much like the mock-ups depicted here. The cost to complete a station would be less than the $250,000 per station WMATA already has budgeted for public art along the new Silver Line.

Detail of a potential mosaic.

Mosaics would be resistant to vandalism, easy to maintain, and easier to clean than the concrete they would cover. They could be made in sections, then installed all at once overnight with no disruption to service. They would also be durable. In my view, one of the primary benefits of installing mosaics in the Metro is that they could be historical windows into our time for future generations of riders.

Visual cues in the Metro system could add interest to every rider’s experience. They’re especially helpful for visitors and newcomers as well. But for those who struggle with illiteracy or a learning disability, mosaics below ground depicting the street scene above ground could provide life-changing benefits.

Craig Nelsen studied Western Philosophy at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, from where, via China, New York and Omaha, he moved to Washington in 2003. He is starting a non-profit called Buddy’s Club for those in distress due to loneliness, and he thinks factory farming is an abomination.