Well-known and influential designer Massimo Vignelli died yesterday at age 83. Perhaps most known (at least in transit circles) for his 1972 diagrammatic New York Subway map, he also designed the iconic pylons that stand on Metro platforms today.

Pylon at Rosslyn. Photo by the author.

The pylons were Vignelli’s solution to the unique wayfinding design problem that Metro faced.

Harry Weese, the architect responsible for designing Metro’s soaring vaults, wanted nothing to mar them or obstruct the airy design. That ruled out overhead signs. It also ruled out signs mounted on the vault.

Vignelli’s answer to this problem was the pylon. These columns were to be the primary wayfinding system within stations. Some pylons contained a vertically-oriented strip map or directions to particular exits. Others contained the name of the station, written sideways.

The plyons served two other functions as well. In underground stations with center platforms, lights in the pylon’s crown shine on the vault, providing indirect lighting. At outdoor stations, the pylons carry four light globes at the top.

The other main function is air circulation at underground stations with center platforms. The pylons release air from their crowns (the return is beneath the granite benches).

Lights in the pylon crowns at U Street. Photo by the author.

I had the privilege to attend a talk by Vignelli at WMATA’s Jackson Graham Building a few years ago. He talked about the design challenges and how the pylons were received early on. It didn’t take Metro very long to install the horizontal station names on the vault walls, but Vignelli noted that it was much easier to read the signs on his pylons since the vertically-oriented text was easier to track with your eyes as the train arrived. The horizontal signs were simply a blur of text.

Vignelli’s pylons were (and remain) an elegant solution to preserve the sanctity of the vault and help riders navigate. But Metro signage has continued to evolve, and at some stations, limited overhead signs are starting to appear.

And while the pylons remain an iconic symbol of Metro, the transit agency has already decided not to install them in future stations. They’re absent in the stations opened in 2004 and won’t be around in the new Silver Line stations.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.