Los Angeles: Before You Board, There’s a Quiz

Highlight of my transit tour of Los Angeles today: Vermont / Santa Monica subway station.  It’s by Ellerbe Becket.  Striking, certainly, but an entrance so ominous that if I didn’t know what it was, I’d guess it was a memorial to a horrible event. Enter under a heavy almond-shaped mass that looks like it’s about to fall on you, or perhaps a jaw about to close.


Vertical constriction at the entrance makes it feel like you’re descending into a dark hole.


Quite disturbing until you adjust to the massive gray vertical space, and those strange hints at words on the wall.  Again, it could be a memorial.


I should add that the fuzziness of this pic captures pretty well what it looked like at first, as my eyes were in the process of dilating to transition from a bright sunny day.

Those words on the wall?  They’re questions.  A quiz.


And they’re hard questions!  Some are almost koans.  For example:

Was the planning of this public transportation system the best use of public funds?

Do we create psychology or do we discover psychology?

What social policies discourage urban decay?

Who would want to live in a world without theatre?

Why do we participate in athletics?

Why do we participate in social activities?

Who participates in art?

Is art used to divide?

Who controls how an urban transportation system is created?

Can architects contribute to the creation of successful urban environments?

Do architects contribute to the creation of successful urban environments?

Who proposed an additional entrance for this station?

How would an additional entrance affect the use of this station?

Who is curiosity important to?

How do we rely upon systems?

Why do we live in buildings?

What social policies discourage urban decay?

Who seeks beauty?

Who seeks pleasure?

Why seek pleasure?

Why not seek pleasure?

How does a public transportation system connect disparate landscapes?

Would the world exist without weather?


Text is common enough in public art now.  But these questions that cover the vast grey walls are also hard to read, which is also an interesting choice.  Only people interested in both transit and public art will stop and try to read them.  You can imagine how garish it would be if they were too prominent.  But the effect, especially all of those verticals that look like water tracks, also suggests a ruin.

Maybe it’s only my literature training that makes me impulsively want to read partly obscured words.  Or perhaps I get it from my mother, an artist and an expert in cemetery preservation, who’s read a lot of damaged gravestones that look much like this.

If you’ve used this station, how did it strike you?

26 Responses to Los Angeles: Before You Board, There’s a Quiz

  1. Brisbane November 3, 2010 at 12:46 am #

    It resembles… a mausoleum!
    This is kinda interesting- because it might be one circumstance where you could think about non-service characteristics of a transit system.
    How did it affect your transit experience? Are scary looking stations bad for patronage?

  2. Zoltán November 3, 2010 at 4:40 am #

    I had to do a double take on the first picture. Is that really a rapid transit station without a bunch of at least medium-rise buildings around it?

  3. Eric November 3, 2010 at 5:52 am #

    It is often a missed opportunity with underground stations to not put a special focus on that tunnel experience. This is the transitional space from surface world to subterranean journey world, the turn of the journey.
    I suspect these questions are what the artist(or artists – also Ellerbe Becket?) encountered during the public participation process. Nevertheless, an interesting marriage between infrastructure phenomenology and text. Bringing the pop to Zumthor. Ha, is this a tactic for making the Louis Kahn question “What does a tunnel want to be?” more legible for people in a hurry?
    Fearless and great spatial transitions with the constriction to/from daylight. Overall, an intriguing design from what I see here.

  4. Tom West November 3, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    Eric: “It is often a missed opportunity with underground stations to not put a special focus on that tunnel experience.”
    With good reason – a lot of people feel uncomfortable with being in enclosed or underground spaces, and so transit systems often aim to de-emphasise the fact you’re underground as much as possible.

  5. Mirko November 3, 2010 at 6:25 am #

    Yes, a mausoleum. A collective tombstone. An artifact of a culture long-gone or a civilization that is disappearing. A grave whose metal lid is about to be shut.

  6. Joseph E November 3, 2010 at 7:42 am #

    Someday, Metro hopes to get a developer to build something over this station, so the “coffin lid in an empty concrete plaza” theme should be temporary. Well, it’s lasted for 10 years so far…
    I’ve used this station, but I actually use the second entrance to the south, closer to my destination. This is one of the few Los Angeles subway stations to be blessed with multiple exits.

  7. Jean-Luc November 3, 2010 at 9:27 am #

    For my first 3 years in LA I lived two blocks from this station entrance and used it often.
    I always liked the entrance and descent. It struck me as modern and somewhat monumental, not utilitarian like some stations (7th/Metro) nor cheeky and kinda silly like others (Hollywood/Vine).
    It is too bad there hasn’t really been any TOD around it…and I’m not including the expansion of El Gran Burrito’s parking lot next door.

  8. colin November 3, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    …wait there’s a subway in LA?

  9. Eric November 3, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    @Tom: Hence the need for art… I would argue it is exactly here and for this reason why there is an opportunity to engage the explorer very effectively. Here is a transition point where he or she is vulnerable. Feature the transition to another world, not the mundane one. Well-conceived design is sensitive to the human experience of transitional spaces, balancing comfort and trepidation to spark the imagination.
    There is something about subterranean spaces that make them great for art. (Ignoring for an obvious moment that civilization was probably weaned in a cave). This is why other uses, of course, don’t work so well underground. That’s why the food court created in the tunnels beneath DC’s Dupont Circle lasted only a few months in the mid-90’s.
    Successful designs emphasize and work with the experience. This is why, I believe, the current proposal to turn Dupont Circle’s tunnels into an art gallery/wine bar may just have a much better shot of success… See: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/31/AR2010103104529.html

  10. Tessa November 3, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    “With good reason – a lot of people feel uncomfortable with being in enclosed or underground spaces, and so transit systems often aim to de-emphasise the fact you’re underground as much as possible.”
    Not the Swedes: http://www.damnfunnypictures.com/cool-pictures/4702/swedish-subway-station/
    I’m not sure how I think of it. It’s probably better than overly generic subway stations, i.e. Vancouver’s Canada Line, but I’m not sure I want my station to look like a mausaleum. And that thing above the entrance looks awfully awkward.

  11. anonymouse November 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    I’ve used this station before, and I don’t think I ever noticed those words, probably because I was running up or down the stairs to catch the bus or train. That thing above the entrance is pretty awkward and probably comes from the “collapsing building” school of architectural design. At the same time, I feel like there should be something above the escalators, to help the transition into subterranean darkness (and the LA Metro is also pretty dark, which is also annoying). My favorite station in that regard is North Hollywood, where the covering over the station escalators is both nice looking and functional. And I think on the whole, the designers are getting better at what they do. I like the appearance of the two new Gold Line subway stations much better.

  12. Nicholas Barnard November 3, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    I actually kinda like the big metal wing above the station. The entrances to the transit tunnel in Seattle are so blasse, they’re actually kinda hard to find.

  13. Art Busman November 3, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    A urinal for Godzilla. Architecture is designing living space that creates emotions compatible with that space. If you want people to be angry and aggressive, create a dangerous, sharp, unharmonious space with vibrant colors. Many homes now have this coffee and vanilla color on the walls to simulate our ancient mud huts and African savannah mud and grasslands. It’s calming.
    Many architects however, are misanthropic (take Hitler) and create this horribly egotistical, huge, monuments to their egos that are of such large scale it makes humans look like ants, and that’s exactly what they think of humanity (take Hitler). This subway station is one such example. It is grotesque and its questions only distract you from the central question of WTF?

  14. Kathy November 3, 2010 at 4:41 pm #

    This is why we love reading your blog. The intersection of literature, literary writing, design, sharp observation, world travel and practicality.

  15. Mirko November 3, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    @Art Busman. The other end of the spectrum, quite homey:

  16. Bgfa November 3, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    I use this station pretty regularly. I think it is one of the nicer ones in the system, especially on platform level, where the station design is very sleek and simple. It was used as the set for the subway station in the filem Minority Report because it looks likely to hold up in the future (2080 in Washington DC, to be precise).
    I have been told that the wacky station canopy is a direct copy (rip-off?) of a station in Tokyo but I do not know where.

  17. anty November 3, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    I live near this station and use it somewhat regularly. The giant canopy is a relief on a hot sunny day. The faded text is a nice distraction because I end up reading something different each time–still have no idea if there is a unifying point to it. What I don’t get are the light red metal fronds sprinkled about.

  18. Sofia Roberts November 3, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    The metal covering is just stupid and the mauseoleum writing is pretentious. Overall, about an average aesthetic experience for the Red Line. My experience with the ‘art’ in the Metro subways and light rail is making me seriously question the value of ‘public art’. So little of it is even minimally pleasant and none of it is integrated into the local environment. I don’t want to be experimented on, I want to be inspired. What’s surprising is that Metro has a superb, integrated graphic design for their publicity. The contrast is really striking.

  19. bzcat November 4, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

    Of all the things I can write bout that are wrong or just plain weird about LA’s Metro, the aesthetic of Vermont Sunset station is not high on top of that list 🙂

  20. anonymouse November 4, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    One of the biggest architectural mismatches or contrasts is between Union Station and the Metro stuff, both the Gold Line station and the subway. Union Station has a very strong and distinct style (30s Art Deco) and a generally warm color scheme. The instant you pass through the portal into Metro-land, you’re plunged into grey concrete and dim cool blue light, which is quite a harsh contrast with the station. The Gold Line architecture doesn’t clash as much with the rest of the station, but doesn’t really fit in with it either. I just feel like they could have done better.

  21. Fallopia Simms November 4, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    Been taking this station everyday for the last 5 years. I’ve finished the up escalator wall now I’m working on the one on the way down. Actually while I was living in Brooklyn I remember many stations including my home station Kingston on the 3 had very little just rows of residential brownstones and lots of trees surrounding it. This is a neighborhood station, it’s not Hollywood and Highland. I like the starkness and bleakness of this station, it’s not bland nor is it over the top.

  22. Sameer November 4, 2010 at 11:13 pm #

    This is actually one of my favorite stations. I really dig the cavernous feel, the engraved walls, and the entrance structure. I prefer this station waaaaay over stations like 7th/Metro.

  23. Andy Kuziemko November 6, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    It seems Mr. Becket was more concerned with making something novel than beautiful. This subway stop is a public place that thousands of people have to pass through every day. It should be a pleasant place to be. Charming, even. Unfortunately, the inside of this station looks like a futuristic catacomb. The hard-to-read writing on the walls is supposed to be clever, I suppose, and show that there’s something more here than just ugly concrete walls. But it would be better to just design a station that’s pleasant for human beings to be in in the first place and leave the cleverness aside.
    And that thing on top of the entrance is just bizarre. Looking in the background of that picture, however, it doesn’t seem there’s much in the way of urban fabric into which this station should be integrated. So we end up with one more indescribable thing on our landscape.
    I’m thrilled that Los Angeles is investing in transit. Since that investment will be around for generations, however, it would be better if its design took its inspiration from the best of classic civic art and not the latest art school fad.

  24. David Keddie November 7, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    It certainly looks interesting, if not beautiful or graceful. It will be interesting to see whether this design ages well or eventually gets replaced. I’m more struck by the total lack of transit-oriented development. I live in the New York area where developers sue to overturn zoning in order to build more TOD, but it seems that in cities that developed around the car it’s much more of a challenge. Is it even smart for Los Angeles to be building subways or even light rail? is bus rapid transit the better way to go? It seems to lend credence to your ‘pro-bus’ perspective Jarrett, as some put it.

  25. calwatch November 8, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    At some point there will be dense development. After all, Wilshire and Vermont was an empty lot for over a decade until they dropped apartments on top of it. With single family neighborhoods resisting denser development, the train stations (which are generally not in single family neighborhoods) will be denser, assuming that people feel safe there of course. You don’t notice TOD on the Blue and Green lines through South Central since there is a high perception of a lack of safety, especially for women and people not of the predominant race in that area.

  26. Kenny March 6, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    I’ve always thought that covering looks like a lid that gets opened and closed – though of course, it never actually closes. I’ve never noticed the writing on the wall, but I think with this station, I’ve mainly just gone past on the bus, bike, or car, rather than actually getting out at Santa Monica. (I used to live at Vermont and Sunset, and now I live at Vermont and Beverly.)