As rail-starved Ottawans wait for the latest attempt at light-rail transit to creep slowly towards completion, one question remains unanswered: who will design the stations? Admittedly, this has little to do with the actual nuts and bolts of the proposed system, or to do with the all-important dilemma that is funding its construction, but it is an important question nevertheless. After all, this system will be used by tens of thousands of people every day, so it seems only logical that stations should be pleasant and interesting places to wait for a train, right?
The current Transitway system seems to be the antithesis of this philosophy. Right now, stations range from dank and unpleasant (St. Laurent), to utilitarian (the majority, like Hurdman and Lincoln Fields), to mildly pleasing (Dominion comes to mind). Transitway stations betray their 80s heritage at a glance: concrete abounds, and the ubiquitous red tubing and glass that makes up nearly every shelter quickly becomes depressing and repetitive.
It’s hard not to compare to our neighbours to the east in Montreal. There, each individual Metro station was designed by a different architect, which, aside from obvious necessary similarities, lends each its own particular feel, and creates a varied, interesting system. My defining moment on the Metro came when exploring the city and randomly deciding to get off at Outremont station, on the blue line. There, a dazzling light well extends from track level to several metres above the surface. Other stations in the system have similarly impressive features, and the Metro is that much more pleasant to ride because of it. Other cities around the world have become famous for the architecture in their metros, even resulting tourists visiting to see the system. Stockholm , Moscow, and even Toronto’s Museum station are good examples of architecture being put to good use in public transit development.
So why the concern over Ottawa’s LRT? Well, while it is true that an architectural designs are likely a long way from final, what renderings we do have of the new system show, well, more of the same —just a standard trench station with a few more plants. And while it’s certainly functional, it’s a long ways from attractive. At the end of the day, let’s not forget that transit is a fundamental element of public space in any big city, and that those spaces should be enjoyable and perhaps even iconic places to be in. Ottawa has traditionally shied away from truly impressive civic architecture, but the new LRT represents an excellent chance to change that philosophy. After all, it’s not all that often that we start totally reconstructing our rapid transit system, so it would be tragic to let this opportunity slip by us.
Photo by Alex Caban