Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Designers Peter Chermayeff and Tom Geismar talk about how they gave the MBTA an enduring makeover.
The history of mass transit in the United States begins in Boston, when, in 1631, a chartered ferry service began taking passengers between Charlestown and the Shawmut Peninsula. Two and half centuries and many horse-driven carriages later, Boston had the nation’s first underground rail system.
By the 1960s, when architect and designer Peter Chermayeff and his team of designers were asked to come up with a simple set of design rules for the region’s subways, streetcars, and buses, even more had changed. The state government took over the the city’s mass transit services in 1947, establishing the Metropolitan Transit Authority. And in 1963, regional services for 78 municipalities were all placed under one umbrella, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA).
During that decade, Boston was beginning to shed its reputation as a stifling backwater. Bold, modern buildings by contemporary architects sprouted up throughout the city, including the New England Aquarium. Chermayeff and his group, CambridgeSeven Associates, started work on the design for the major harbor attraction in 1962. Three years later, they were asked by the MBTA to help make their service more attractive and easier to navigate.
There were layers of history to wade through. The stations were dirty, the maps were hard to read, and only the most seasoned local could navigate it all with confidence.
While the work required many hands, Chermayeff led the charge, coming up with the idea to simply call the service “The T.” Tom Geismar, another CambridgeSeven partner (and a partner of the C&G&H design firm he founded with Peter’s brother, Ivan) created the lollipop logo for it. An exhaustive set of new rules for every last detail of the MBTA’s appearance followed.
Boston-area straphangers don’t have much reason to love their underfunded and often frustrating public transit experience lately. But in the background remains a visual identity from the transit authority’s most optimistic (and well-funded) days that helps riders navigate the region with relative ease.
CityLab caught up with Chermayeff and Geismar separately over the phone to take a closer look at how the MBTA’s current look came to be—and what it could have been had they truly had their way.
How did you get the commission?
Peter Chermayeff: The authority interviewed us to do the environmental design work back in 1965. Ridership was going to be affected by information orientation and graphics were going to play a major role. We were excited to work on it—Boston’s subway is a major enterprise of civic importance, not so much with architecture as environmental design.
Their general manager, Rush Lincoln, was an Army guy who came from the Corps of Engineers. He ran the MBTA with military discipline. They had also retained Bob Keith, who was very enlightened planner. He had a background in transportation and an understanding that ridership depended on quality of experience, how people were treated, and how they felt on the system. I remember us all hitting it off and feeling like we were on the path to something extremely exciting.
We did a reconnaissance of every station. We came up with a methodology and an analysis method to address the user experience. We took thousands of photographs, we went through the rolling stock, the stations, the buses, the streetcars, the signage. Bob and Rush were encouraging us while we gained the respect of skeptical engineers who thought we were too young and knew nothing about transportation.
We were immensely excited by the possibilities emerging from the project—to not only change experience of the rider, but to impact the whole city through it. When it was all said and done, we had produced six or seven massive books that were standards manuals for all of it: the station design, stairways, lighting, markings, signage, typography, arrows, map placement, endless series of diagrams, and details of materials to use.
Looking back on my career, I would say what we did in those few years between ‘65 and ‘70 was one of the most gratifying assignments I ever took on.
What was your assessment of the system?
Chermayeff: It had a terrific infrastructure. The service was effective and good in many ways. I was impressed by its organization but troubled by how it looked and felt. We found that the information people were given from station to station was very confusing. It was all out of date and the maps were illegible. It was poorly lit and dirty. There was a litter of confusing signage and if you weren’t a local you’d likely get lost trying to find your way into or out of a station.
So what did you come up with?
Chermayeff: One common ground in our analysis was that we could transform the entire system by simply helping people figure out where they were and where they were going. Orientation became a driving concept and a guiding principle. We gave structure to the information system and how it would apply, architecturally.
We also wanted to establish the identity of the system and flag it in the streetscape. People had an affinity for the song “Charlie on the MTA” and the name change to “MBTA” was too long. Our core team started thinking about different ways to make something work and eventually came up with simple “T.” It made sense as a name and image that would apply and be understandable at a distance or in conversation. It connects with all the words associated with the service: “transit,” “transportation,” “tunnel,” “tube,” and so on. It made all the sense in the world to go with “T” and have it displayed in a lollipop logo on trains, buildings, and streets.
Tom worked the logo out in great detail. We were unflinching in our recognition that this was not a truly original idea. Stockholm had already had a black “T” in a white circle for the Tunnelbana. It wasn’t necessary for us to be original, just to be right.
The lines themselves lacked identity, so we thought that color coding them would make huge difference. We applied the same process to all four lines. They had been identified by terminus, but most of those names were unclear to non-locals. I remember sitting in my Cambridge office preparing for a meeting with the MBTA in which I would be proposing colored lines. I had markers in front of me and I chose red for the line that went to Harvard since it’s a well-known institution whose main color is crimson. One line went up the North Shore of Boston up to the coastal areas, so it seemed obvious to call that the Blue Line. The line that serves Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace was an obvious choice for green. And then the fourth line ended up being orange for no particular reason beyond color balance. This was 20 years before the Silver Line was added.
That allowed us to give lines understood names. Instead of Harvard-Ashmont—no one visiting Boston knows what Ashmont is—now you have the Red Line. The presence of color reinforces that identity to help people find their way around.
It became clear that the most important thing to have as a governing component of a station is an identification with its color and name seen at all times. When you look out the window from the train and see a green band through each station you’re reminded you’re on the Green Line. That band of green at the top of the wall along platform would be seen from a train and we thought that should be dominant component. But if you’re a standee, your eye level is likely too high to see the band at the top of the station nameplate. So we put another band down low about a foot off the floor with the station name repeated. By adding a white band with the station name band we could provide information for street exits with arrows. And we could provide further info to passengers on the platform by putting maps in between those bands.
Were you able to do anything about the architecture of the old stations?
Chermayeff: A lot of them were dreary. Most of the them were underground, so if we lit them well the architecture would be palpable again. We could give them particular identification by relating the walls to the outside.
Arlington station was a pilot modernization. We asked a friend, Len Gittleman, who was a designer and an architectural photographer, to make high-contrast photos of the area above that could be made into silkscreen murals on indestructible porcelain panels. He worked out many images that conjured up place-specific imagery for riders. So you might not be able to actually see these places from the platform but the images make it felt. If you’re riding on the train, you don’t even have to look for the station name—you just see the images go by and you know where you are.
We wanted to get natural light into the stations and urged in our guidelines to do that wherever possible in order to make the city feel like a part of each station. We also liked the idea that the skeleton of the city could become legible through its subway. Most people tended to not know where the subway was as they drove or even walked around. But by making station entrances with bands of color, you see a reminder that the system is underneath. At stations like Washington and at Park Street, where the Red and Green lines intersect, you feel it, you know where the line is going. That, along with the lollipop, were continuous, subtle reminders. The legibility added to an urban identity any Bostonians now thinks of almost subconsciously.
In our reconnaissance, we’d watch people go up to the old turnstiles, put a coin in the wrong one and run into the bar. We solved that problem by having the MBTA purchase ones with [a clear difference between] each one’s left and right side. People were also running into the one-way gate, so we redesigned it to make them more transparent and obvious to operate.
All the maps and station orientation signage we did became good architecture through clarity of movement. Orientation was everything. It wasn’t about being pretty, or just interesting for architecture’s sake. It was about clarity, history, and place.
What was the most innovative or unique solution you came up with?
Tom Geismar: I think it was the whole package. The system map we developed was quite different from the old one—stylized and choosing clarity over geographic accuracy, like London’s. The maps relate to the signage with regards to lettering, colors, and symbols. I liked the “T” symbol because of its simplicity and the words it plays off of. It was all part of a clear system down to the smallest detail.
Chermayeff: The map became quite iconic and it has been interesting to see it change and evolve over time. It’s become a bit more complex with the additions of a Silver and a Purple line. But it’s still holding on to its early beginnings which I think speaks to strength of what Tom and I—and their office—came up with.
There were quite a few notable environmental design projects around this time for mass transit. Were you in touch with people like Lance Wyman, Bob Noorda, or Massimo Vignelli about their own, similar work?
Chermayeff: There was a little bit of awareness between all of us, I suppose. Pentagram in London was developing similar typography for signage projects and at one point we were comparing our arrow designs with each other. Vignelli was using color and typography in a similar way at the time. But we weren’t influencing each other.
What were some unrealized ideas for the system that you’re still proud of?
Chermayeff: We had the idea of emphasizing “inbound” versus “outbound” at every station platform in order to prevent people from going the wrong way. We wanted to have orange and red stripes on the end walls to indicate inbound and blue and green end walls for outbound. I thought that would have added nicely to our standards for typography, line colors, and signage.
At one point we were also asked to come up with a way of visually unifying the entire fleet. We thought it would make sense to make all of the buses and trains be neutral in color—to have silver, gray, black, and white be the overall scheme but then make the doors bright yellow, which would help guide people to the right spot to board in poor visibility. The idea actually was applied for five, maybe 10 years, but some people didn’t like it. They eventually color coordinated their rail cars with the lines they serviced.
Between 1975 and 1980 we were asked to come up with a design for new rail cars and we came up with something that was timeless. Lou Bakanowsky, who led the effort, worked out a round, almost loaf-of-bread-like approach. It was very elegant and disciplined, from the windows to the seating to the advertising. When the bids came in, ours was found to cost about 10 percent more than the MBTA just doing it same old way as before. They decided they couldn’t justify that 10 percent. It was a huge disappointment but I’d like to think that at some point in the future that they might revisit our design in some way.
How has the MBTA treated your vision since?
Geismar: There were discussions between the MBTA and CambridgeSeven as recently as 10 years ago about various aspects. But the MBTA subsequently developed their own design department, which has been carrying it out since. People in the department were concerned that too many things were being let go or not done correctly.
We’ve had discussions with them over the years, but the general responsibility of the program became an internal matter. They’ve continued working with different architects on different projects and generally adhere to the basic standards. There’s a lot of good stuff there. But I do think it’s starting to lose some of its consistency and there’s a lack of maintenance.
I’ve never been happy with the way they implemented the “T” symbol on things. I always felt the black ring around it was an integral part of it, so if you put it out on a sign on the street there should be white around the whole thing—the black ring shouldn’t be the frame of the design.
Chermayeff: Some of the strong guidelines we advocated for got lost a bit. I feel disappointed that the administrators running it over the years have allowed the rolling stock to be given colors of the lines—it diminishes the impact of the line color system. More important than that, I’m disappointed most by how they’ve allowed architects to deviate from our approach to the station architecture and start using materials, color, architectural form in arbitrary ways that have nothing to do with our notion of urban place, of reinforcing a sense of where you are where you’re going.
Park Street was done in a confusing way that deviated from our guidelines with regards to tiles and colors. Other stations follow the guidelines, but Park Street is one of the system’s most important ones. The design guidelines, when followed, give a sense of unity and diversity. It’s important that not everything look the same but it should not be arbitrarily idiosyncratic. That being said, I think it has held together well overall.
Do you contact the MBTA to help them correct a misinterpretation of your system?
Chermayeff: We have done that a bit. I remember complaining about how one of the T’s was being applied and so they redid it. But in other cases, we’ve just let it be. I’d love to see the public doing more of that, though.
What lessons did you take from the MBTA project that helped out with other work?
Geismar: We never worked on another transit project. We were just trying to do things that were logical, informative, and interactive. We’ve done for other clients, but nothing quite as complex. A lot of people contributed ideas but what was interesting to me was the clarification of the underground passages that make the experience easier. Peter was the one with the big ideas for it, especially in terms of communications.
Chermayeff: My signage and graphics have been hugely influenced by what we did there. Also in architecture, where information is clearly developed as part of a building system. The approach to graphics, the usage of light, the volume of space, the reinforcement of place, and the creation of a special identity in buildings are all critical. That desire to make each place resonate or be rewarding is something I’ve been perusing for decades, and a lot of it started with the MBTA.