beyond grey

San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) is, let's be frank, extremely grey.  Most of its above-ground stations feature vast expanses of exposed concrete, true to the prevailing modernism of the age.  (Most of the system was designed in the 1960s.)

At stations like MacArthur, where the grey station infrastructure interacts with the surround grey ramps of the freeways, one can wonder if the original BART planners were so obsessed with competing with freeways that they deliberately chose freeway-like lines and colors, especially where real freeways were nearby.  This, of course, would be competition by resemblence rather than by differentiation.  At one stage, that probably made sense.

And yes, cool grey can be beautiful, but only if there's color to throw it into relief.  Modernism sometimes drew encouragement from the coolness of classical Greek and Roman architecture, but of course the ancient world seems colorless to us only because paints, fabrics, and other vehicles of color don't survive the centuries. 

So it was fun to open my mail this morning and find this painting by Alfred Twu, reimagining the freeway-dominated landscape of MacArthur BART station with a more tropical sense of color.  Why must we go to Germany to see bright colors and strong choices in design?


UPDATE:  I can't resist highlighting a comment from jfruh:

I always think that BART is what someone in 1969 thought the future was going to look like.

If you're too young to remember 1969, I strongly recommend reviewing Stanley Kubrick's great film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1970).  When I rode BART for the first time in 1976, I felt like I had arrived in the world of that film. 

18 Responses to beyond grey

  1. Roland S April 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    I like the concrete look of BART and its cousins in Atlanta and Washington.
    The brutality of the architecture makes the system feel like the unvarnished, honest expression of the metropolis’ immense power to channel and direct the flows of millions.

  2. anonymouse April 7, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    @Roland, it’s a bit ironic, then, that the Moscow Metro, a manifestation of immense power of the Communist regime to direct the flows of millions (which, I might add, it does rather more successfully than BART with 20 times more daily ridership) has a design style that is the antithesis of BART’s gray brutalism.
    As for the painting, I love the bright colors, they seem so much more cheerful, which is especially nice in the gloomy San Francisco fog. On that note, one thing I kind of like about BNSF is their use of red gravel for track ballast rather than the typical grey. It’s like a subtle bit of corporate branding, a touch of color to let you know you’re riding on Santa Fe tracks

  3. jfruh April 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm #

    Some of the more colorful stations — like 12th and 19th St. in Oakland, or the downtown Berkeley stop — aren’t much better, with lots of curvy brick. I always think that BART is what someone in 1969 thought the future was going to look like.

  4. Ted K. April 7, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    One factor in BART’s station designs is that it’s in earthquake country. They chose maximum strength at the expense of utilitarian appearance. I personally wish that the station designers had opted to embed strips of polished stone (granite or basalt) as accents at the blander stations.
    I’m not going to rule out rigid thinking on the part of the architects. It seems that decorative concrete with patterns and / or colors has been around for roughly a century.

  5. Julian April 7, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    I was on BART last weekend and found some stations on the Fremont Line having a some green awnings, which was a surprise

  6. Tom West April 8, 2011 at 6:06 am #

    @ Ted K: You can dye concrete pretty easily, and aned up with a wide variety of colours other than grey. (Hot pink it a little tricky, though).

  7. Ted K. April 8, 2011 at 6:32 am #

    @ Tom West – Agreed, though one needs to take care to chose colors that are stable and don’t reduce the concrete’s strength. It’s just very lame and repetitive that the S.F. Peninsula stations from Glen Park on down to San Bruno, except for Colma, seem to be tributes to E.E.”Doc” Smith (“Gray Lensman”). Perhaps it was an attempt to make the ads on the walls more interesting (e.g. Balboa Park)[;->].

  8. BBnet3000 April 8, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    BART has added *some* color, I think part of the reason is to help tell the stations apart, because compared to the trains ive been on in New York, the stations arent all that visibly marked from the train.
    Especially through the Market Street portion of the system, ive had people ask me which station we are at many times.
    I like the grayness of Civic Center though, the huge UN logos and stuff are cool. The modernism of it definitely makes me think its what a station AT the UN itself would look like.

  9. david vartanoff April 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    several points. First FWIW, my three favorite stations for looks are the two on Mission and downtown Berkeley. That said, these stations are IMHO bad designs because they should have been at the fare control mezzanine level as side platforms. Closer to the surface makes everything faster and easier for riders. Look at the original IRT for how to do it right.
    As to colors, the red/orange of the 12th St in Downtown Oakland is butt ugly in my view–BUT as we see others like it.
    In recent years some decoration was added in the “tunnel” formed by the BART Macarthur station and the flanking freeways including more lighting and color.
    A fine example of adding color to otherwise boring railway embankments was done several decades ago in Chicago where a “summer youth” program had kids paint various images all along the walls. BART could emulate this in places to advantage. BART did sponsor a lovely ceramic installation @ Rockridge memorializing the 1991 fire in the nearby hills.
    As to 60’s designs, the original Metroliner cars on the NEC were clearly emulating airliners with tiny windows and curved bodies.

  10. Mike C. April 8, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    I love the colors in the artwork but am not so sure we’d be happy to see the colors it would have been painted in the late 60s/early 70s.: burnt orange, avocado green, chocolate brown, aqua.

  11. Dexter Wong April 8, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    You mentioned 2001, A Space Odyssey in your post on BART. Would it interest you to know that THX 1138 was filmed in the BART tunnels before the system opened? Photographers like the Powell St. Station for its futuristic lines.

  12. Ted K. April 9, 2011 at 7:20 am #

    For the curious :

  13. W. K. Lis April 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

    I have seen the colour grey used as the pigment in home remodeling or renovation shows on TV. They call it a neutral, to match whatever the residents decide to put in.

  14. Eric Orozco April 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

    Funny…I had the opposite reaction when I saw Alfred’s painting. To me this composition is reminiscent of 1960’s late modernism. Specifically, it reminds me of the work of Archigram: defiant “sky” urbanism of massive proportions. An urbanism that was also all about movement…Lines streaming to and fro the horizon to boot!
    Maybe we imagine the utopia of the 1960’s in black and white because our main images of the era are in black and white. But if you look at the futuristic work of Archigram, it was boldly colorful and comic book like.
    What is not modern about this painting and is seductive is the details it leaves out. What it suggests is evocative: the appropriately elevated aerials reflecting the colors of the bay below (so much color re-reflects from where else?), and the ground plane streaked with linear parks instead of asphalt.

  15. Ed Sanderson April 10, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

    I would like to have (which I do in many cases) butt-ugly rapid transit stations than none at all and these stations, regardless of their beauty, have to be above ground or below ground because all other “rapid transit” solutions are a pure fictions, i.e. they are transits but they are not rapid and never will be.

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  17. Tom Radulovich April 21, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    I watched Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” over the weekend, and think he really captures how the brutalist modernism became the architecture of the Post WW-2 welfare state. It became predominantly the architecture of government, including government offices (Boston City Hall), transit stations (BART, MARTA, and Washington Metro), automobile infrastructure (freeways and parking garages), universities (the infamous Berkeley and Yale architecture buildings), museums and concert halls (The Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center, and the Barbican) public housing estates, and hospitals.
    Occasionally it rises to poetry; (Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla), but mostly folks find it oppressive and dull. BART’s Embarcadero and Glen Park stations rise above the general level, but the rest of the BART stations are pretty grim. Combined Brutalism with Modernism’s incompetent urbanism and the result is grimmer still.
    It’s too bad; the Post WW2 welfare state represented genuine social progress, but came wrapped in the most unappealing packaging.

  18. Event photographers Denver February 29, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    I like your post. Colors sense of BART project is really nice. Gray color is used for home modeling.
    Also in my house walls color is gray that’s look beautiful.