Utilitarian Infrastructure and The Art of Design Merge to Create Beautiful and Functional Transit Station

LMN Architects developed an eye-catching design for a much needed transit station on the University of Washington Campus

By Howard Fitzpatrick

Located in the heart of Seattle, WA, on the University Washington (UW) campus, the Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, also known as Sound Transit, worked closely with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and King County Metro transit (buses) to debut the UW Transit Station. LMN Architects created a seamlessly integrated and beautiful design for the station.

The design team realized early in the project that the proximity of the station to the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium would require a sensitive design response. Instead of competing with this much larger structure, the design sought to complement it at an appropriate scale. The station headhouse was conceived as a simple glass structure, elegantly detailed and transparent. Anchored by concrete bents reflecting the substantial station box below, the headhouse is part of a composition that includes the pedestrian bridge curving onto the campus, as well as two elliptical vent structures clad in ribbed precast concrete and shimmering stainless steel bar grating. The above-ground portion of the station is a study in purposeful, clean design that is perfectly suited to its task, without unnecessary embellishment.

Throughout the design process, numerous meetings were held with the city and state stakeholders, and the multimodal interface between light rail, buses, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians had to be worked out in great detail.

Given the station’s prominent location on the UW campus, the University’s Architectural Commission and Campus Architect played a central role in the review and approval of the design, as well as its integration into the campus master plan.

The primary architectural challenge of the project was the weaving together of the light rail station—over 100 feet underground—with the street level and University campus in a way that would integrate the station seamlessly into the campus and urban fabric.

Vertical transportation had to be designed to carry patrons from the pedestrian bridge and plaza levels down to the platform quickly and efficiently. This was achieved through a combination of elevators and escalators. The elevators travel directly between the three levels, while the escalators go from the pedestrian bridge level to grade, then from grade to two intervening mezzanines before reaching the platform. This route takes the user through a large volume in the middle of the station, which is required for smoke compartmentalization in case of emergency. The design team utilized this code-required space to create the signature heart of the station, an art piece called “Subterraneum,” created by Seattle artist Leo Saul Berk which features several hundred backlit aluminum panels that envelop the user in a mesmerizing environment for the trip down the station’s longest escalators. This immersive experience was inspired by the geology of the site, and the actual strata of soil excavated to build the station.

Another design challenge involved the construction of the pedestrian bridge. LMN’s vision for the bridge required a curved bridge deck with a tight radius, to be realized in post-tensioned concrete. To achieve the goal of an effortless transition across Montlake Boulevard, LMN’s team worked hard to perfect the complex curved geometry of the bridge. With its curves both in plan and section, and multiple connecting stairs and ramps, the elegantly simple appearance of the bridge belies its architectural and engineering complexity.

Structurally, the station box—measuring 60 feet wide by 100 feet deep and 800 feet long—was a major engineering triumph. Close to Lake Washington, and extending well below its water table, the station box was built using slurry wall technology and a modified top-down method. Immediately to the south of the station, the twin tunnels connecting to downtown Seattle were bored below the bed of the Montlake Cut, a water body connecting Lake Washington with Portage Bay.

Within hours of its opening, the University of Washington Station garnered enthusiastic reviews from users and the local and national press. Apart from its unique and thoughtful design, it was instrumental in increasing ridership on Sound Transit’s system by a much greater percentage than predicted and has made an enormous difference in the lives of its users. The station immediately saw 15 percent more riders than projected, and additional train cars had to be added to the line in order to meet public demand. Designed to accommodate boarding 24,000 passengers per day by 2030, the UW Station is currently the second most used station in the entire light rail network, after the existing Downtown Seattle / Westlake stop, and represented a key component of the 65.8 percent rise in light rail ridership in 2016. By end of 2017, ridership again rose, almost 25 percent over 2016’s record-breaking numbers.

Not only the University, but also the University of Washington Medical Center, Children’s Hospital, and other northeast Seattle institutions are now accessible from points south without adding to highway congestion, saving thousands of commute hours and reducing carbon emissions significantly. Once the system expands further north in 2021, it will have affected a major transformation in the commuting and living patterns of the city of Seattle.

The UW Station also serves as a critical connecting hub for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The bridge over Montlake Boulevard not only allows unimpeded bicycle and pedestrian passage through campus and over the notoriously congested 4-lane road for the first time, but also connects the 27-mile Burke-Gilman Trail with a new bike lane on the State Route 520’s floating bridge.

The station continues to receive rave reviews and is regularly cited as one of the best stations in the Sound Transit system, and has since been recognized with a 2018 National Honor Award for Interior Architecture from the American Institute of Architects.

Howard Fitzpatrick, AIA, is a Principal for LMN Architects. He may be reached at hfitzpatrick@lmnarchitects.com

Photo Credits: Kevin Scott