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Review: Lackluster Expo Line reflects Metro's weak grasp of design

From dated, and almost useless, canopies to the jarring stretch of brick near USC, the Expo Line is a mix of architectural goals that never fully meshes into one unifying concept.

May 02, 2012|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Expo Line stations exhibit a mostly understated architecture.
Expo Line stations exhibit a mostly understated architecture. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

This is getting to be a pattern. Every time a major rail line opens in Los Angeles, my reaction tends to unfold in two distinct parts: excitement tempered pretty quickly by a sense of disappointment, of opportunities missed.

The $930-million Expo Line is the latest example.

The excitement flows from the way new transit lines are remaking — genuinely, thoroughly remaking — the civic, cultural and architectural map of Los Angeles. Running south and then bending west from downtown, skirting the campuses of L.A. Trade Tech and USC before reaching the corner of Jefferson and La Cienega boulevards, the Expo Line's first phase, with its eight stops, has brought the city's light-rail network to the doorstep of the dense Westside.

Expo Line 360°: La Cienega/Jefferson station | Expo Park/USC station

When two more stations open over the summer, the line will cover a total of 8.6 miles. It will add Culver City, incubator in recent years of art galleries and ambitious restaurants, to a light-rail and subway system that already ranges north to the San Fernando Valley, south to Long Beach and east to Sierra Madre. A final phase will extend the Expo Line west to Santa Monica by 2015 or early 2016, delivering riders within a few blocks of the beach.

The architecture of the new stations, unfortunately, is not just weak but somehow aggressively banal.

If that strikes you as a contradiction in terms, you're right. The stations seemingly want to disappear into the cityscape and at the same time assert a Big Metaphorical Idea about what public transit means for Los Angeles. And in trying to do both, of course, they do neither.

Designed primarily by Roland Genick, chief architect for rail and transit systems at Parsons, the huge Pasadena-based construction conglomerate, the new stations are topped by undulating light-blue canopies of perforated metal panels that are not only dated — bringing a public-art project from the early 1990s to mind — but provide almost no shade or rain protection. Or solar power, for that matter, though from certain angles the stations look a bit like they're covered with photovoltaic panels.

The canopies are meant to suggest a woven pattern, symbolic of the way new Metro routes, and the Expo Line in particular, are knitting parts of the city together. (Their design is a modified version of an idea first developed by L.A. artist Cliff Garten in 2004.) Gruen Associates and Miyamoto International also contributed to station design, along with Jorge J. Pardo, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's director of creative services.

In concept, the weaving idea is perfectly inoffensive. In execution, it has grown into a sort of ornamental kudzu. It overwhelms the rest of the station architecture, which is generally understated, even minimalist, and the impressive landscape design (also, according to Genick, handled by Parsons) that helps connect the line to the surrounding city.

In fact, with the exception of the stretch where the line runs near USC — and more on that later — the Expo Line almost melts into the neighborhoods it cuts through, maintaining a low-slung profile. Three stations near the western end of the line's first phase are elevated, but the others, at street level, are split in half as they straddle major intersections. It's as if each stop is two miniature stations.

That modest scale is a concession to the density of many neighborhoods the new line runs through. But it's also an effective design gesture, a reminder that many of the most impressive stations in the Metro rail network — think of the Mission stop on the Gold Line — are also the simplest.

The crux of the problem is that Metro never managed to clarify its architectural goals for the Expo Line. A sleek, restrained design strategy, focusing on details and stressing above all a seamless transition from station to neighborhood, might have worked here. So might a more ambitious, design-first kind of architecture.

To be fair, the new stations represent a modest improvement over those on the 2009 Gold Line extension. They're appreciably better than the underground stations on the Red Line, which started service in 1993. Metro has finally abandoned the idea that every rail station ought to be uniquely designed to reflect the demographics of the immediate neighborhood. That approach, employed on the Gold and Red lines, was a misstep architecturally and a disaster in terms of maintenance, since each station has to be cleaned differently, its materials aging and breaking down at a different pace.

But saying that the new stations aren't quite as bad as the older ones isn't saying much at all. When it comes to architecture, Metro has set a very low bar.

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