Art and Architecture of the Chicago Transit Authority

An essay discussing Chicago’s public transportation system as a city-wide public art exhibition



The Chicago Transit Authority has published a book on the art and architecture of the transit system. Iker Gil was invited to contribute his essay titled “Art Encounters.” The essay looks at the value of the public transportation system not only as way to move from point A to point B but also as a city-wide public art exhibition.

You can find Iker’s essay below.

Art Encounters

I can’t recall the last time I drove a car. For a brief period of time in the late 90s, I had a car back in my hometown of Bilbao, but that was it. For the last fifteen years I have not owned a car and, when I moved to Chicago, my wife and I purposely looked for a place to live where we were not dependent on a car for our daily lives. My way of moving around the city is based on walking, some cycling, and, for the most part, using public transportation. First, it is convenient when you consider the time and money you save, but it is also an opportunity to share your daily routine with thousands of citizens and to take notice of ordinary and extraordinary spaces of the city as you walk to and from the stations and ride the trains. In a way, there is a sense of civic engagement, and even commitment, with the city when taking public transportation.

Chicago’s rapid transit system, known as “L” for “elevated,” is the third busiest in the United States after the New York City Subway and Washington Metro. Wrapping around the Loop, it extends out radially to the north, south, and west to the edges of the city and even into some of the neighboring suburbs. The Loop is the core from which you start a trip that allows you to understand the scale of the city, and discover the culture, history, and diversity of its communities. Some lines and stations have disappeared since the first pre-CTA L started in 1892 and others have been added, most recently two stations designed by Ross Barney Architects south and west of the Loop in the Green Line. In total, 146 stations that dot the landscape of the city.

But the L is more than public transportation to take us from point A to point B of the city. It is also a public art exhibition. Through the Arts in Transit Program, funded by the Federal Transit Administration, and CTA’s Adopt-A-Station program, the L has more than fifty pieces of art located in forty stations. While not equally distributed, they are present along all lines: 18 are along the brown line; 12 along the red line; 9 along the pink line; 8 along the purple line; 2 along the blue, orange, and green lines; and 1 along the yellow line (some of the stations are served by multiple lines). The CTA recently announced an extension of this program, adding another 11 transit stations in four different lines and, for the first time, a bus terminal. With a ridership of 750,000 passengers each weekday, the L is indeed a massive public art exhibition. If we consider that the Art Institute of Chicago had an attendance of 1.4 million people in 2014, the L has, in just two days, the same amount of “visitors” than the museum does in a year. Or said in a different way, the art in the L could be seen by 182 times more people a year than the art on the walls at the Art Institute of Chicago. Think about the impact that art can have on residents and visitors riding the L.

The first time I noticed an art installation on a CTA station was on the Sox-35th Red Line stop. Working at the time on an architectural project nearby, I spent some time in the station waiting for the train to come. There, I was confronted with a series of numbers, stripes, and symbols whose meaning I could not understand but that I found intriguing. I later learned that it was the work of Cody Hudson, an artist whose other work I knew and really enjoyed, and that the artwork, Magic Numbers, celebrated key dates for the Chicago White Sox as well as team trivia. The installation uses the nearby stadium and baseball team as a source of inspiration to intersect with the daily lives of the CTA riders.

Since that first encounter I have been paying more attention to the artwork in the stations and, in some cases, I have even stopped in stations just to see the art. That is the case of the Montrose Brown Line stop where graphic designer Jason Pickleman, whom I have collaborated on several projects with, designed the mural. His installation is a celebration of neighboring streets, bringing his wit, finesse, and mastery of language to a public scale. Here, a set of letters typical of commercial signage are repeated and broken in odd places, producing a confusing and liberating interpretation of the familiar streets.

Those are two from the long list of artists featured along the CTA rail system. Each art installation is a reflection of the immediate cultural, social, and historic context as well as the artist themselves. For example, Ellen Harvey’s Carpet installation represents the culturally diverse community around the Francisco Brown Line stop; Carla Arocha and Stéphane Schraenen’s 24/7 stainless steel sculpture captures the non-stop activity of the Howard Red Line Stop; Stephen Marc’s South Side Weave combines old and new visions of the South Side around the 79th Red Line stop; and located at the 18th Pink Line stop, Francisco Mendoza, the Mexican Museum of National Art, and Gallery 37 students incorporate Mexican history into several murals. Every piece is an opportunity to learn about the neighborhood, some explicitly and many others in a hidden way that needs to be revealed.

If you think about it, the train station is a perfect venue for art. You have to wait in a place for a certain amount of time until the next train arrives. While you wait, you have the chance (if you don’t have your face glued to your cellphone) to check out what’s around you and, in those forty stations, what you will find is art. It will catch your attention and, more likely than not, peak your curiosity. You will see that there is something intriguing about the proportion, the scale, the color, and the message. You will get close and you will begin to appreciate the details, start learning more about the neighborhood you are in, and even question what you thought you knew about it. You will also discover the Chicago-based artists whose work you might have not come across before but that now you want to know more about. Those few minutes, the ones that maybe you thought were an inconvenience, have now opened up a new window to Chicago and those who create art in the city. You see parts of the city through their art. The museum is not the only place to be exposed to art. Art is in your daily commute.

Beyond the L, there are other initiatives to bring art to public spaces tied to public transportation. Recently, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) partnered with the Chicago Design Museum to create a campaign for the Loop Link Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) called the “Great Ideas of Humanity.” The new series is inspired by the original “Great Series” initiated by Walter Paepcke, founder of Container Corporation of America, which ran from 1950 until 1975. With the pairing of contemporary artists with renowned thinkers, this new series aims to foster a sense of discovery. Here we have another unexpected encounter of art and daily life that can both inspire and challenge us.

Chicago is by no means the only city that includes art in public transportation. In Stockholm, Sweden, over ninety of their one hundred subway stations feature some form of art. Through its 70 mile-long system, the traveler encounters art that allows him or her to experience a literal and figural journey from the mid 20th century to the present. In some cases, the actual architecture of the station is shaped by the artist. For example, Swedish artist Ulrik Samuelson designed the Kungsträdgården station in the district of Norrmalm as a kind of archaeological excavation including the remains of the old Stockholm Makalös palace. A similar approach is found in the recently opened Wehrhahn metro line in Düsseldorf, Germany. There, architects, artists, and engineers worked collaboratively to shape the six new stations running beneath the city center. The result of a competition, they worked together from the beginning to create a cohesive architectural vision for the stations devoid of any advertising. In those cities, public transportation is a cultural destination. In Chicago, the two newest stations designed by Ross Barney Architects can be understood in similar terms. The Morgan Street Station located in the West Loop has become a gateway to the changing neighborhood, with two vertical volumes containing the stairs and cladded in perforated stainless steel reminding us about the industrial past of the area while acting as beacons of light at night. The Cermak-McCormick station, also intended as a gateway of another changing neighborhood on the Near South Side, employs a stainless steel horizontal tube to wrap the station to define its presence in the neighborhood. It is interesting that, in both cases, it is the architecture of the station that is the chosen symbol to represent the neighborhoods under transformation. A precedent for this is OMA’s McCormick Tribune Campus Center at IIT completed over a decade ago. While technically not a station, it makes the CTA an integral part of the project, with a steel tube that wraps the L that runs above the building, absorbing its noise while celebrating the continuous passing of the train and making it a new spectacle on campus.

As Chicago’s CTA system continues to evolve and grow, there will be new opportunities to incorporate art in new or renovated stations, and to build new stations that can be considered art. There is no lack of talent in the city so we should aim to make our public transportation not only practical but also a cultural destination. A place where daily riders, occasional visitors, international tourists, and art students can share the same space, generating conversations between these diverse and eclectic groups of people. We can consider interdisciplinary collaborations where architects, engineers, and citizens envision new types of stops. Could these stations enhance our experience of riding the L? Could the CTA become a must-see destination the same way people now flock to the Art Institute of Chicago to see a new exhibition? These are questions that we should not stop asking ourselves. In most cases, they require a bold vision, not a large budget.

The trains might not come soon enough when we are in a hurry or when we have to weather the harsh winters on an elevated platform but, for a few minutes, in one of those stations, we pay attention to its architecture or we come across an art installation that takes our mind away from our mundane preoccupations, transporting us into the mind of the artist and changing our notion of the city. If I can continue to get that feeling while I take the train to a destination in the city, I will have one less reason to buy a car for a very long time.

Type: Essay
Publisher: Chicago Transit Authority
Pages: 448
Design: JNL Graphic Design
Year: 2018
Status: Published


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