Railroad terminals are often recognized for their architectural significance, but rapid-transit stations usually get dismissed as street furniture, occupying something of a design netherworld along with bridge-tender houses, park shelters, and newsstands. Yet there’s a quasi-glorious tradition in subway station design, at least in other places. Turn-of-the-century architect Hector Guimard’s sinuous wrought-iron canopies and ornamentation at Paris metro entrances epitomize the art nouveau style; historian Nikolaus Pevsner calls them the “most insistent survivors” of la belle epoque. Moscow’s subway stations–with their lavish materials, extravagant finishes, and monumental proportions–suggest the grandeur of museums or government buildings. The Washington metro is a model of hushed modern efficiency. And even in New York, intricate mosaic tile work is commonplace in many stations built before World War I.

Then there’s the el. More than any other component of our built environment–even more so than Sears Tower or Wrigley Field–the el has come to symbolize Chicago. Its gritty, clanging presence embodies the city’s populist, working-class image. The el’s stations have always tended to emphasize function over form, but the system has also produced its share of pleasant places for public gathering and transition, perhaps providing an incentive for people to use the system and a reward to those who already do.

Considering the CTA’s current fiscal crisis, talking about el station design may seem a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. But millions are currently being spent on construction projects that must pass through a cumbersome process involving multiple architects and agencies–money and resources that could often be redirected toward improving or maintaining service–and the results are frequently abysmal.

Over the last decade the CTA has been on something of a building binge. A number of older stations have either been renovated or replaced, 11 entirely new stations have opened along the new Orange Line and in the suburbs, and the fates of more than 20 stops on the rehabilitated Green Line are now being decided. Somewhere in CTA headquarters, someone is thinking about design. Just not very much.

Whatever thinking is done about the design of the city’s rapid-transit stations doesn’t necessarily come out of CTA headquarters, and maybe that’s part of the problem. The CTA doesn’t really own all of what we think of as the CTA. That’s because the el was composed by consolidating the holdings of privately owned train and streetcar companies bought out of receivership by the city during the Great Depression. The Chicago Transit Authority was invented in 1943 to own and run the subway, which, like Lake Shore Drive, was built in the late 30s as a project of the New Deal. So the CTA may own the subway, but the city owns the el structure and surrounding real estate. The city is charged with the care and maintenance of the aboveground tracks and stations, while the CTA runs the service and sees to the rolling stock and subways. Every public transit system in America depends on state and federal governments for their survival. In the case of the CTA, much of the funding for ongoing repair and rehabilitation comes from federal grants administered by the city primarily through the Department of Transportation’s bureau of bridges and transit. Its dependence on outsiders is further aggravated by a precipitously declining ridership.

Each of the government agencies involved has a design staff of its own, so many station projects are collaborations among the CTA, the Chicago Department of Transportation, city architects, and numerous private firms. Where the trains venture into other towns, the respective municipal departments get involved too. To complicate matters further, everyone connected has to work within the guidelines specified for projects getting federal money, which ordinarily requires review by yet another set of architects. Once something is done, no one steps forward to take credit, and perhaps there’s good reason.

Commissions for station design work are awarded like other government contracts. When a particular station is slated to be improved or replaced, an outside designer is brought in as a consultant, the various agencies issue requests for proposals, and architects then submit their plans. On the Midway route, guidelines were jointly developed for the entire line, and outside architecture firms were invited to bid on assignments for individual stations.

Different stations, then, are designed by different teams, an approach that appears to be even more scattered in the ongoing Green Line rehabilitation project, which runs from Jackson Park to Oak Park. Some of the stations along Lake Street–white wooden sheds unified by their Burnhamian, post-Columbian Exposition spirals and eclectic detailing–are undergoing historical renovation, but others will be torn down. Two “transit centers,” planned near the south and west ends of the line, will contain stores and other amenities such as day-care centers. But though these projects acknowledge the communal function of el stations, they may provide a limited benefit if other stops are shut down and train service is cut back.

It’s understandable that those charged with the design of rapid-transit stations may be more concerned with meeting the dictates of the Americans With Disabilities Act or coping with vandalism or staying within budgets or simply keeping their jobs than with issues of urbanism and public accommodation. But apparently nobody’s paying much attention to the final designs of el stations because, even with so many cooks stirring the broth, nobody seems to be in charge.

When the Loop elevated was built in the 19th century, ticket booths and waiting areas were built above the street, at either the mezzanine or track level, and featured the prevailing contemporary styles of commercial architecture: neoclassical detail, masonry exteriors, wood-trimmed interiors. In residential neighborhoods they were built at grade and had a more modest character.

Some, however, were substantially grander, like the Wilson station in Uptown, which was built in 1922, when the neighborhood around Wilson and Broadway was a thriving business district. Though the area is not the same today, you can easily envision the neighborhood in the 1920s, with its many terra-cotta storefronts. Along with the Riviera and Uptown theaters, the station stands as a testament to Chicago’s history as a manufacturing center for the distinctive fireproof tiles that adorn so many early-20th-century buildings. The beaux arts exterior of the station blends seamlessly with the surrounding streetscape. The description of the Wilson station in the AIA Guide to Chicago points out that it replaced a structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and argues that its luxuriant appearance was “designed for a glamorous era in train travel but now reflects the grimy reality of public transportation.” Grimy though it may be, it has been left substantially unaltered and continues to function as a beautiful building. Given the erratic quality of the stations newly built or renovated in the last decade, interference here would most likely be no blessing.

Where the CTA pays attention to history, the results are usually rewarding. Its rehab program in the Loop got off to an auspicious start eight years ago when the Quincy el stop was returned to its 1897 appearance (design credit went to the city’s Bureau of Architecture, which was disbanded several years ago when bureau architects were assigned to individual departments). An attention to details–like the highly lacquered tongue-and-groove millwork and panels of decorative pressed metal–makes the track-level enclosures appealing. On the platforms outside, the historical theme continues: wooden benches add charm, but the ersatz turn-of-the-century advertising posters are a bit cheesy. Ironically, one of the most pleasing features of the design–the warm, burnt caramel color scheme–is the product of an archaeological mistake. In the design team’s zeal for historical accuracy, it erroneously determined that the brownish primer coat under the layers of old paint was the original finished color (it was actually a dreary gray).

Unfortunately, the latest project unveiled by the system indicates that nothing was learned from its past successes, which does not bode well for things to come. It’s hard to imagine anything less inspired than the new Washington stop on the Loop elevated line above Wells, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Perhaps its budget was consumed by the cost of escalators, but the entire design comes off as purposefully sterile. It’s worthwhile comparing the Washington stop with its next-door neighbor, the abandoned (and soon-to-be-demolished) Randolph station, which actually hovers above the east-west alley called Couch Place. The Randolph station represents an era when el stops were designed to reflect the styles of the buildings among which the trains trundled. Perhaps that’s why the new Washington Street station is so aggressively bland: it mirrors the few minimalist late-modern buildings that now abut the elevated tracks.

Yet where designers are innovative, their products are an asset. A three-tier station at Clark and Lake, completed in 1992, was designed in total by three different teams, and it provides promising evidence that something positive can come out of these collaborations. It cannot be entered from the street, but rather must be accessed through the adjacent James R. Thompson Center and the 203 North LaSalle building. Murphy/Jahn, which designed the Thompson Center, devised an appealing approach that continues the building’s patterned terrazzo motif, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, architects of 203 North LaSalle, similarly echoed the host building in its unobtrusive but elegant vestibule leading up the escalator to the train. Both entrances also provide access down to the O’Hare/Congress/Douglas subway. The Clark/Lake platform, conceived by the city’s Bureau of Architecture, is one of the most successful designs in the system. It offers a crisp use of materials and creates an excellent frame for some sweeping vertical vistas, capturing a sense of excitement about the urban environment.

The firm of Dubin, Dubin & Moutoussamy (now called DubinReid) served as the general architectural consultant on the Midway line and as a subconsultant on the Merchandise Mart project. It designed the Davis Street stop in Evanston and the new station for the Skokie Swift. It was also responsible for the rehabilitation of the Addison stop on the Howard line. It’s somehow fitting that its work represents the best and worst of recent rapid-transit station projects.

The Davis Street station may be the most satisfying rehabilitation project completed. Its open platform, with a trussed-metal roof soaring overhead in the manner of the great 19-century railway sheds, creates an exhilarating portal. Evanston’s preservation society gave its first award for new construction to Dubin, Dubin & Moutoussamy, citing the firm’s respect for the fabric of the station’s surroundings.

The design of the Orange Line is radically different from most of the el system, more akin to light rail. For most of the distance it’s not even elevated, sitting above a bermed embankment alongside the Stevenson Expressway. Today concrete does the job that once required massive steel members. Many of the Orange Line stations are built directly into the berm, perhaps contributing to their uniformity. Yet the pedestrian walkway by Harry Weese Associates connecting the train line with Midway Airport succeeds through a clever use of imagery lifted from the old el. The walkway’s stamped metal panels resting on concrete columns create the perfect visual metaphor for the bolted and girded el structure with a streamlined steel train perched atop it. Driving beneath the walkway on Cicero Avenue is a completely familiar experience.

Dubin, Dubin & Moutoussamy’s Addison stop, completed in 1994, is perhaps the sorriest chapter in the rehabilitation saga. With so many people passing through the station when the Cubs are playing at Wrigley Field, it’s especially disappointing that the CTA blew what could have been a dandy public relations coup, beneficial to the city, the el, and the Cubs. The stop posed a unique challenge among the system’s stations. On the 80-odd days a year when there’s a Cubs home game, the station must accommodate a geometrically greater number of riders than on the other 280 days. Functionally, with its better routes of access and multiple ticket booths and turnstiles, the renovation has undoubtedly improved the station. At the platform level the granite benches and transparent windscreens are handsome and well proportioned, but the face the station presents to the street is a major league disappointment.

Maybe the facade could have echoed the buff stone fronts of the neighboring flats on Addison or the gray stones along Sheffield. Or it might have referred in some way to the spirit of Wrigley Field. Or it could have suggested what’s modern about rapid transit. Instead it looks like the 1960s renovation of the CTA bus barn at Clark and Deming. Its unadorned wall of magnesium-fired brick and brushed stainless-steel signage might have been an effective treatment somewhere, but here it feels cheap and inappropriately institutional. For this they tore down the His ‘n’ Hers? It’s an almost tragically missed opportunity.

The Addison station illustrates where the values of the CTA part ways with the aims of good design. Lip service may be paid to integrating stations into the urban fabric, but for nearly three decades that fabric has been running up the middle of expressways, so the institutional feel of the concrete islands along the O’Hare line was in a sense appropriate to their environment. Now that new stations are being built downtown or in the neighborhoods, the CTA has yet to shed its prison mentality. The problems of vandalism and crime require open, vandal-proof spaces: metal benches, no glass, no colors (lest bright hues attract graffiti).

The new Green Line offers an unprecedented opportunity to wed an inexpensive and functional approach to neighborhood-friendly design. Whether the CTA can or will capitalize on this opportunity remains to be seen.

The CTA has long planned to close the Ravenswood or Brown Line for a similar overhaul. But with the Green Line drowning in cost overruns, it appears that this plan will have to be postponed (much to the relief of Brown Line users). New and improved stations might give Ravenswood riders a positive feeling about public transit. But in an era of tighter budgets and potential service cutbacks, I’d guess most riders would opt for the “grimy reality,” thinking the el would be better off if left alone.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.