A safe, clean, on-time ride. That's all most of us expect from the Chicago Transit Authority. But why not ask for something more? Station architecture that puts zing in the journey and elevates the city around it. That's what we get at the crisply modern new Morgan "L" station on Chicago's Near West Side.
The $38 million station, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel formally opened Thursday, serves the Pink and Green lines and can be found at Lake and Morgan streets, about half a mile west of the Ogilvie Transportation Center. But you're bound to see it before you get there.
The station's spectral stair towers and glass-sheathed transfer bridge rise airily above the hard-edged warehouses and cold meat lockers of the West Loop, also home to trendy restaurants and galleries. The area, it's been said, is in transition from slaughterhouses to art houses. The Oprah show may be gone, but the station is a new jewel in the West Loop's crown.
Indeed, it's so handsome that it's bound to spark debate about whether the money spent on it would have been put to better use fixing the CTA's creaking rails and maddening "slow zones." The construction was paid for by state and federal grants, as well tax increment financing funds meant to spur investment on the Near West Side. Yet as Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch noted in Friday's paper, the station followed, rather than fostered, the area's resurgence.
Designed by Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney, who has previously done fine renovations on the CTA's Fullerton, Belmont and Grand stations on the Red Line, Morgan is the first brand-new CTA elevated station in Chicago in 15 years.
The last one, which opened in 1997 at State and Van Buren streets, apes the heavy-handed, postmodern design of the Harold Washington Library Center. This one reflects a different time, technology and creative spirit. It is Barney's best transit project to date and sets a high bar for her next CTA project, a new $50 million Green Line station at Cermak Road that will serve people going to McCormick Place.
Barney's big move makes a virtue of a tightly constructed site along the Lake Street elevated line, portions of which had to be structurally reinforced to carry the loads from the station's 425-foot-long platforms.
A conventional mezzanine, where passengers would climb and pay fares before ascending to the platforms, was ruled out. It would have obstructed truck traffic. Instead, Barney and her project architect, Ryan Giblin, did something unconventional.
To the north and south of the elevated, they stacked a 40-foot-tall slab, sheathing it in glass and panels of perforated stainless steel. Each slab contains a ground-level station house, stairs leading to a platform and an elevator that takes riders to the platforms and a glass-enclosed bridge connecting them. The outcome succeeds as urban design and architecture.
There is no facile attempt here to mimic the muscular brick structures of nearby lofts and warehouses. The boxy slabs have the right toughness for the neighborhood, yet by virtue of their height, transparency and glinting presence, they give it something fresh. Large-scale stainless steel signs, proclaiming "CTA" atop the slabs and "Morgan Station" on the sides of the elevated structure, make the station easy to identify from afar.
The architecture follows in the Chicago tradition of elevating construction to art. Computer-etched patterns on the perforated steel panels suggest the shadows cast by the elevated structure on the street below. Inside, the station houses are pleasantly transparent. Above them, one encounters tall shafts of sky-lighted space, enlivened by structural columns and beams, stair railings and other features, even drain pipes, organized in a precisely honed machine aesthetic.
The platforms are also well-detailed. Translucent canopies admit natural light to the platforms while thin pairs of steel columns nicely culminate in fins — an improvement on the squarish canopy supports at the Belmont and Fullerton stations.
The glass-sheathed sky bridge isn't bad either, even though its structural members are too bulky. It's fully enclosed from the weather and offers drop-dead views of Willis Tower and the downtown skyline.
Tying all the elements together, a rounded, horizontal band of florescent lights runs from the station house to the sky bridge. Once it's working (only some of the lights are operating now), it should help riders to navigate the space intuitively.
All this would be meaningless if Barney had not managed to synthesize the essential demands of function with the station's forms. But she's done that, the result of years of experience — and frustration — with the transit bureaucracy.