On LRTs and architecture

Light well, Outrement Station, Montréal Metro

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


  1. I would certainly *love* to see a situation develop like Montreal’s (should be coming election allow this plan to continue) but being where we are (even transit supporters are already screaming bloody murder over the cost), I don’t think that we will be entreated to such a wonderful thing. I doubt that many would be on board.

  2. Interesting concept piece, but that reference to Dominion as ‘mildly pleasing’ is killing me, and should cast serious doubt to all readers as to whether the author has any idea what an aesthetically pleasing built environment should look like!

    (Seriously? Dominion?)

    • Hi Hertso,

      I think I know what David means; with Dominion it is the way it integrates with its location that is pleasing; a couple of blocks earlier and there wouldn’t have been the views of the river and parkway. If you are going to wait for a bus, you can do a lot worse http://bit.ly/d5vrvC

  3. Yup, that’s exactly what I meant, Evan. It’s not that someone came up with a brilliant design so much as a happy accident of location, but it’s enough to elevate the station a little bit above the normal concrete ‘n red tubing we get to look at.

  4. Dominion is mildly pleasing in late April and early May, but most of the rest of the time it is exposed to either winter winds or summer heat. The fact that Dominion is mildly pleasing at all has as much to do with the NCC as the City of Ottawa – there’s only so much one can do to mess up a site already blessed with shrubbery that you’re not allowed to touch.

    Nevertheless, the City did manage to make mistakes with Dominion, and that includes primarily not extending the platforms all the way back from the pathway crossing. Those areas have now become trod down.

  5. A better example from Toronto is the entire Sheppard subway line which, while not so appealing from the outside, have unique patterns, tiles and imagery throughout on the inside.

    Or even better, each subway stop for the Spadina extension to York University was designed by highly touted architects (Foster, etc.) – see the designs: http://bit.ly/2lrFA8

  6. Dominion station is little more than a bus shelter at an on-ramp with a traffic light that means buses had to stop there anyway. It’s an eminently sensible location for a stop, bringing transit that much closer to the northwest corner of Westboro, but the best you can say about it from a design perspective is that it looks like it was cost effective.

    The Sheppard line in Toronto is interesting to compare to the Transitway — it too has plenty of bare concrete, and from platform level the stations are pretty much indistinguishable (the saving grace being that the subway always stops at each one, so there’s never any ringing or flagging required). The varied decor is a nice touch, but it’s effectively wallpaper on an otherwise repeated utilitarian design.

    The Museum station platform’s theme-park jumble of oversized figurines isn’t architecture at all — it’s decoration. That any public money was sunk into it is one of Toronto’s less remarkable, minor scandals.

    The station design concepts currently circulating for the Spadina extension are quite interesting, though surely the best parts will be sacrificed to cost cutting.

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