As I suggested in the last post, the decision to replace the Ottawa busway with light rail may well make sense, but that it should not be an occasion for anti-busway triumphalism, as the busway was never complete; the crucial downtown segment was always missing.
But I also think that design and architecture matter, and I wonder if some aspects of the original busway’s design made it hard for people to appreciate.
The screaming red color of every non-concrete surface, including the buses, is helpful
if you’re trying to find your transit system in a snowstorm, but in all, the
Ottawa busway has a very 1970s look — a look that lasted about as long
as 1970s hairstyles. Portland readers may note similarties between
that curving awning in the last image and the mushroomy curves of the 1978 Portland Mall bus shelters, removed during
the remodel in 2008:
fashions are powerful because they operate subconsciously. To anyone
with any awareness of design or style — which is most of us — the
Ottawa busway feels intensely dated. Modernism, which was current then, feels more brutal now, especially as the New Urbanists re-introduce us to the pleasure of awnings, pediments, and brick paving. Of course, most of Ottawa is a very modernist city, and perhaps the busway fits into that reality …
… but once people start to find modernism oppressive, they’re going to find the busway oppressive too. This is bound to have some
effect on whether the people using the busway see it as fitting into
their city, and their lives, in 2010.
It’s hard to know how to do this better. Forty years from now, much of our current design vocabulary — like our hairstyles and clothes — is going to look dated. I suppose I’m arguing for conservatism in the fundamental architecture of transit. Lean toward aesthetic choices that have some history, some resonance with aesthetics and values that are more than a decade or two old. Use public art, rather than architecture, for the more daring and confronting elements that may or may not look good over time.
(Public art can also do much to redeem unpleasant architecture of the recent past. See, for example, what the Czechs did to their broadcasting tower after the fall of communism. I don’t recall any public art in Ottawa’s busway stations, certainly nothing strong enough to interact with the stations’ design.)
Brisbane’s busway (toured here, here, and here) copied much of Ottawa’s, but seems to have gotten this right. The design choices are comforable but not daring. The most innovative idea in these outer stations is the freestanding individual letters of the station name over the entrance. It’s catches the eye, but if the next generation hates it it’s simple enough to change.
Other ideas in these stations are mostly about new ways of expressing enduring values. For example, the lower level platforms feature a glass wall in front of the structural concrete wall. Between these, inaccessible to vandals, is a narrow planting strip whose plantings will eventually grow to partly enclose the waiting area in foliage. These choices are safe long-term bets for a city that has always valued its lush subtropical setting.
The architecture of the Brisbane busway is a little conservative for some tastes, but transit architecture (again as opposed to public art) probably should be conservative, because our daily exposure to it makes it a powerful element in forming our aesthetic impression of a city.
It’s always tempting to make a strong stylistic choice that expresses our vision of the moment, which is what the Ottawa Busway did. But this infrastructure must last for decades. If our grandchildren decide that what we’ve built is brutal or oppressive or embarrassing, it will make them turn away from an essential element of their city. Better to err in the other direction. If our grandchildren find our transit architecture boring, they can add public art that will make it theirs.
UPDATE: In response to early comments, let me say that my reaction to the Ottawa busway is my reaction. I don’t need you to share it; I’m not implying that people who react differently are wrong. Aesthetics is a space where we are all entitled to our gut reactions to what we experience, and the urban architect’s job is to understand those reactions and form ideas that address them. I also agree with several commenters that postmodernism can be as irritating as modernism, which brings me back to the point that rather than argue over our favorite architectural -ism, we should avoid over investment in any particular -ism when designing long-life transit infrastructure.
Engineer Scotty questions why I focus on design here when elsewhere I’ve emphasised the importance of cost-effectiveness (e.g. in streetcar arguments). The answer, of course, is that regardless of cost every piece of infrastructure has a design, and the design matters. There’s no conflict between that observation and a concern for cost-effectiveness. If cost pressures help transit architecture become more conservative, that may not be bad. Conservative shouldn’t mean plain or dull, and I don’t think it does in Brisbane. But if you aim for conservatism and end up with something people find plain and dull, you can come back later with public art. I suppose you could also come back later and paint everything bright red, if that’s your community’s taste.