The first time I entered the newest light rail stations, it genuinely blew my mind. I know that’s a common expression these days, used to explain things that are clearly undeserving of the term “mind-blowing”—like BBQ and wedding dress photos. It’s easy to forget that sometimes your mind can actually be blown for real. Case in point: travelling from the University District to 3rd and Pike in just eight minutes. When the robot voice announced that we were “now entering Westlake Station,” my first reaction was “wait, that can’t be right.” I looked around, and sure enough, I’d executed a commute time that had once only been attainable for particularly speedy birds. I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck.
“Damn,” I thought, “This must be what it’s like to live in a real city.”
I’m something of a nerd for public transportation. I love the complex systems of routes and conveyances that shuttle dense populations of irritable human beings day in and day out. Plus, I don’t own a car. Nevertheless, I think these new stations and the ones slated to open in the future (Roosevelt in 2020, Lynnwood in 2023, Magnolia in 4056) are an unequivocal good for this town, bringing more of the city within reach to more of its people.
In honor of Seattle finally (sort of) getting its act together, transportation-wise, I am going to rank the light rail stations. Well, not all of them. About half of them are fairly nondescript and utilitarian (I’m looking at you, Othello station). But there are a handful that are truly impressive pieces of architecture, garnished with nifty and often enormous art installations. It’s because of the care put into the design of these stations that I’m totally okay with not having a car about 73% of the time.
HONORABLE MENTION: International District/Chinatown Station
The ID/C Station could definitely use a bit of Windex and maybe a new coat of paint. It’s one of the original downtown stations that opened in 1990, so the bloom has come off the rose to some degree. Despite the modest griminess, this depot has a partially open-air thing going on, coupled with a pleasing green/red color scheme that makes the space quite cozy. Oh, and more importantly, there is giant origami on the wall! Anyone who knows me will tell you that Travis Vogt has a weakness for giant wall origami.
#5: University of Washington Station
I should mention that this list will be rating the rail stations on an aesthetic level only. The relative convenience or logic of each station’s geographical location has been omitted from my metrics. Because if location were a factor, the UW Station would probably be pulling dead last. They put the damn thing next to Husky Stadium, thereby rerouting a bunch of buses and eliminating others in order to centralize all transportation around the farthest reaches of the neighborhood. It’s annoying as hell to almost everyone who works in the U-District, but THAT’S NOT WHAT THIS LIST IS ABOUT!
The UWS is conspicuously lacking in art installations, but it almost makes up for it with the lovely metallic/bioluminescent patterns that adorn the walls and ceilings. It makes you feel like an extra in the movie Tron. What I find most amazing about the UWS, however, is the spectacular depth. In order to dig a tunnel underneath the Montlake Cut, they had to go really far underground to avoid, you know, drowning. I made the mistake of taking the escalators instead of the elevator the first time I used the station, and it took over a week to get to the bottom. Fortunately, due to the proximity to the earth’s molten core, it’s always toasty warm at train level. You probably think I’m exaggerating—and I am. But not by much.
#4: Westlake Station
Ahhh…swanky, cosmopolitan Westlake Station. With elegant tiles and light fixtures, easy access to Nordstrom Rack and the finest buskers in town, Westlake Station is the distinguished gentleperson’s bus/train station. But I’m not into it for the gaudy trappings of luxury. I’m into it for the kooky murals. If there’s one thing I love more than giant wall origami, it’s kooky murals. There are three kooky murals in Westlake station and each one is as massive as it is baffling. Artists Roger Shimomura, Gene Gentry McMahon and Faye Jones deserve credit for not simply scrapping together some blandly pretty, anodyne landscapes. These murals are strange and mysterious. My personal favorite is Shimomura’s massive pop culture collage. It’s got it all: Donald Duck painting Marilyn Monroe, a geisha, Alice in Wonderland, a rice cooker and a crayon. I could stare at that thing for hours, which is fortunate because I catch my train in Westlake so that’s pretty much exactly what I’ll have to do, in the aggregate.
#3: Tukwila Station
Roughly the size of pre-eruption Mt. St. Helens, the Tukwila station looms large on the horizon. If you’re not impressed by the size or the lovely view of the countryside, perhaps I can interest you in some super cool sculptures? I’m going to briefly rank the Tukwila Station sculptures, because I clearly can’t get enough of ranking things.
#3: Giant milk droplet suspended in time. I thought it was a light bulb floating over a white crown at first, but after staring at it for just half an hour I figured it out.
#2: Giant lute and other thing. It’s a 20 foot-high metal lute! If you put your head in the sound hole, you’ll be treated to the sound of pre-recorded trickling water. Why? Why not? Plus there’s another, similar-looking thing next to it; I’m not sure what it is.
#1: Giant Tukwila aphorism molecule. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a huge molecule model with nice things about Tukwila (“I love the days when Mt. Rainier shows up.”) written on the atoms. My personal favorite: “I wish it snowed more in Tukwila.” Hey, keep it positive!
#2: Capitol Hill Station
The Capitol Hill station is slick as hell. I enjoy the green tiling and the big red murals by Ellen Forney. I like the sleek walkways and even the somewhat disorienting layout. The reason CHS gets the number two spot, however, is “Jet Kiss” by Mike Ross. “Jet Kiss” is two Navy A4 Skyhawk jets that have been repurposed into some kind of pink dragon thing and hoisted up into the rafters. If there’s one thing I like more than giant wall origami and kooky murals, it is weapons of war that have been converted into fanciful art projects. Make a tank into a flower and you’ll automatically have my respect. Turn an aircraft carrier into a water fountain and I’ll happily buy you a beer. I’m easy to please.
#1: Beacon Hill Station
I’m secretly glad that rent prices are driving my friends to Beacon Hill, because I get to spend more time in my favorite light rail station in town. Top to bottom, the BHS is a pure delight. On the surface level, you have the gleaming, old fashioned, can-do elevator station. I don’t know how it’s possible, but this plucky little building has a spring in its step, and it makes me smile. At train level, however, there is a totally different vibe. A darker, weirder vibe.
At first, I thought they were going for an “under the sea” motif. Upon further examination, however, I think the sculptures hanging from the ceiling are intended to be microorganisms. That theme seems to be confirmed in the foyer, where there is a video installation featuring a couple dozen crystal balls of various sizes, each portraying some kind of microscopic creature action. What does this microbial theme have to do with public transportation? Is the Beacon Hill Station trying to point out that even the smallest of things have beauty? Or is it trying to remind us that we are constantly surrounded by deadly, invisible pathogens, from which there is no escape, especially when you’re trapped a hundred feet below ground in a dark chamber surrounded by strangers? I like to think it’s the same reason that the elevator has an English accent: just because thousands of people have to be briefly trapped in a place every day, there’s no reason that place has to be boring.