2014 Twenty-five Year Award

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Washington Metropolitan Area Transit - METRO | Notes of Interest

By Zach Mortice, Managing Editor, AIArchitect

The Washington, D.C., Metro rail transit system was selected for the 2014 AIA Twenty-five Year Award. Designed by Harry Weese, FAIA with the matching ideals of “Great Society” liberalism and Mid-Century Modernism, the Washington Metro gives monumental civic space to the humble task of public transit, gravitas fit for the nation’s capital.

Recognizing architectural design of enduring significance, the Twenty-five Year Award is conferred on a building project that has stood the test of time by embodying architectural excellence for 25 to 35 years. Projects must demonstrate excellence in function, in the distinguished execution of its original program, and in the creative aspects of its statement by today’s standards. The award will be presented this June at the AIA National Convention in Chicago, the home of Metro’s architect, Harry Weese, who died in 1998.

"All the money there is"

Throughout the long, arduous process of federal approvals, perhaps the most auspicious event in Metro’s development was when Weese was called before a government review board and harangued for not spending enough money.

That board, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, advised the president and Congress on matters of design and aesthetics in the national capital. Securing its approval was key to pushing Metro ahead. Previously a bastion of conservative Beaux-Arts partisans, the commission had by the mid-‘60s received an infusion of new blood amenable to Modernism, including critic and author Aline Saarinen, wife of Eero, and Pritzker Prize laureate Gordon Bunshaft of SOM. Bunshaft was concerned that Weese was bowing to cost and value engineering pressure from engineers and his clients, stripping away the dignity and prestige required for a state-of-the-art mass transit system in the most powerful city in the world. “Are you happy, or are you doing the best you can?” Bunshaft asked, according to Zachary Schrag’s The Great Society Subway. “I could spend all the money there is,” Weese shot back. “Well, then why the hell don’t you try?” Bunshaft said.

Such an exchange is nearly unthinkable in today’s political and economic climate. And in the end, “all the money” wasn’t necessary: $10 billion would do. But these lofty standards and confidence in the ability of government to meet them speak to the power of “Great Society” liberalism and the belief that investment in infrastructure is what makes nations great and serves its people best.

"Maximize the volume"

With this kind of mandate, it’s no surprise that the design and construction of Metro created a totally singular mass transit experience, incomparable to any other American system. Station to station and line to line, its unity and coherence is immutable. Across 86 stations—underground, at-grade, and elevated—spread over five lines covering 106 miles, the design identity of each station shines through. If a commute begins at a ground-level suburban fringe station next to a parking lot and ends at a hub of crisscrossing train tracks deep below downtown D.C., the common design elements and shared materials make each space navigable and understandable.

It’s an intensely formalist experience as mass transit goes; colossal concrete vaults, granite, and bronze are combined in an unmistakably monumental mid-century modernist manner. These design elements created by Weese more than 40 years ago still define Metro, as stations on its new Silver Line—set to open later this year—march further into the Virginia suburbs.

Weese’s overarching influence put him in a privileged position. Each day, over 700,000 people experience his architecture, either in stations he designed or ones derived from his common design kit-of-parts. This makes Washington Metro (opened in 1976) second only to New York City’s subway in daily ridership. How many architects can say so many people experience their work?

From 1960 to 1970, the population of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region exploded, adding nearly a million people even as the population of the District of Columbia shrank. The logical endpoints for these demographic shifts were unacceptable: A national capital that’s a hollowed-out urban husk populated by those too poor to leave, suburban commuters from the hours of 9 to 5, and tourists. Thus Metro would better connect the city and suburbs, and make urban living more convenient and vibrant.

The builders of Metro would have to contend with a transportation economy completely unlike the one that existed when the pre–World War II transit systems (as in Chicago, Boston, and New York) were built: Namely, Metro didn’t have a captive audience. As Schrag points out, a commuter in 1920s Chicago had little choice but to take the train. Fifty years later, a federal bureaucrat in suburban Bethesda, Md., bound for a government office downtown had a car sitting in her driveway.

Enticing these potential riders would require an experience radically different from pre-WWII transit systems, an experience largely fulfilled by station design. From the outset, Weese and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority knew exactly what they did not want: the New York City subway system. Metro was defined in total opposition to the most successful urban rail transit system in North America. Despite its status as an iconic set piece for the cultural capital of the nation, the New York subway is largely a haphazard assembly of rabbit warren tunnels dug out with an industrial utilitarianism that stops long before self-aware references to New York’s heavy-industry past. Instead, Metro would be airy, spacious, and ennobling, and it would accomplish this through size and scale. As Weese explained in The Great Society Subway, “Our whole thrust is to maximize the volume.” It would use the formal language of monumental civic architecture, seen so often in Washington’s federal buildings, and watch it seep into the earth, below ground, for the yeoman’s task of public transit.

Nave, transept, trains, transcendence

These aesthetic and experiential goals could have been accomplished with classical Beaux-Arts architecture which, as late as the 1930s and ’40s, was still a stubborn D.C. tradition. While other cities were experimenting with Art Deco and proto-Modern styles, federal institutions in the late 1930s such as Cass Gilbert’s Supreme Court and John Russell Pope’s National Gallery were nearly as Neo-Classical as the White House, which predated them by 130 years.

But by the 1960s, new design ideas were finally gaining traction in Washington. President Kennedy, an architecture enthusiast and reader of Architectural Forum (according to The Great Society Subway), understood the role design could play in communicating the power, prestige, and gravitas of Washington. Both his appointees to the Commission of Fine Arts and his aide Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” made room for contemporary architecture that sought to express the spirit of its age.

This desire was eventually translated into a substantial collection of Mid-Century Modernist architecture in Washington, D.C., of which Metro is probably the most well-regarded and successful. In a prototypical underground station, Metro begins with a long descent via escalator into a circular tunnel, its concrete contours matching walls that curve out of the floor at the mezzanine level. This curvilinear Corbusian platform leads to fare gates and another escalator down to the train platform. And here something unexpected happens: Counter-intuitively, the deeper into the earth riders go, the more spacious the experience becomes. A 600-foot platform (nearly long enough to accommodate the Washington Monument laying on its side) sits at the bottom of a colossal circular tunnel topped by a vaulted roof, left unblemished from light fixtures by prevalent up-lighting. It’s a monumental space that has more in common with the atrium of an art museum or the lobby of a government office than with most other transit stations.

These stations combine Modernist forms with subtly classical elements to create an experience that speaks to the contemporary power and complexity of the federal government, along with bedrock democratic design traditions. The massive rectangular coffers in the vaulted ceilings provide a place for sound-dampening panels and lighten the load of the vault without lessening its strength. But most importantly, their exacting repetition from station to station speaks to a particular High Modernist omnipresence and technocratic efficiency—an ideal for the federal government, if not always a reality. However, these rectangular tessellations also make warmer references to the coffers seen in Daniel Burnham’s Union Station and the U.S. Capitol dome, Neo-Classical buildings that point to Greek and Roman architecture as precedents to contemporary American democracy.

These wholly immersive and meditative environments use their strong design identity as a buffer between the bustling city above in ways most mass transit stations can’t manage. In stations where subway lines cross perpendicularly, intersecting tunnels create arching vaults that resemble nothing less than a cathedral at the meeting place of a nave and transept.

Preserving the capitol

There are no great cities without great public transit, and this is something Weese and his team understood well. “The Metro changed Washington, D.C., from a sleepy Southern town into a world-class capital city,” said Jack Hartray, FAIA, who worked for Weese on Metro.

Washington’s recent ascendance beyond the national political capital into an emerging cultural and artistic creative-class destination probably couldn’t have happened without Metro. It’s radically reshaped D.C., enabling the redevelopment of long-suffering neighborhoods into magnets for the young, highly educated, and affluent knowledge economy workers who drive its booming economy. But Metro is most notable for what it allowed the city to avoid doing, rather than what its construction enabled.

A comprehensive heavy rail system for the entire Washington, D.C., region was perhaps the most progressive solution to the city’s transportation challenges, but early on it was only one of many options, not all of which took rail transit seriously. One particularly invasive plan involved building an “inner loop” of freeways through the heart of the city, tearing apart the historic neighborhoods that have powered D.C.’s rebirth in the decades after Metro’s construction. By instead building Metro, Washington gave itself more than a subway system; it committed to an exceptionally gracious act of urban historic preservation.

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Additional Credit

  • Graphic Design/Signage: Vignelli Associates
  • Lighting Design: William Lam Associates

Photo Credit

© Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit - METRO

  • Architect: Harry Weese & Associates
  • Owner: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
  • Location: Washington D.C.
(Photo credits at bottom of page)

Jury Comments

The striking design of the prototypical Washington Metro station revolutionized public perceptions of mass transit in the mid-to-late 20th century. The station designs have held up remarkably well despite the phenomenal population growth of the Washington region and accelerating pressures on the system.

The stations are airy and spacious, avoiding the claustrophobic qualities of so many older subway facilities in other cities. They are quintessentially modern while maintaining a certain grandeur befitting the nation's capital. The original stations are now -- and have always been -- largely free of graffiti and litter, thanks in part to thoughtful planning on the part of the original architects -- the designs actively discourage the sort of degradations that plague many other mass transit systems.

The original Metro stations have become icons of Washington architecture, and the entire system -- despite recent controversies about safety and management that are unrelated to matters of architectural design -- remains a point of pride for Washingtonians.

More about Washington Metropolitan Area Transit - METRO

2014 Twenty-five Year Award Jury

  • Scott Wolf, FAIA (Chair)
  • The Miller Hull Partnership LLP
  • Seattle
  • Natalye Appel, FAIA
  • Natalye Appel + Associates Architects
  • Houston
  • Mary Brush, AIA
  • Brush Architects, LLC
  • Chicago
  • Joy Coleman, AIA
  • Treanor Architects
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Robert M. Hon
  • AIAS Student Representative
  • Savannah
  • Brenda A. Levin, FAIA
  • Levin & Associates Architects
  • Los Angeles
  • Michael J. Mills, FAIA
  • Mills + Schnoering Architects, LLC
  • Princeton, New Jersey
  • G. Martin Moeller, Assoc. AIA
  • National Building Museum
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Ed Soltero, AIA
  • Office of the University Architect - Arizona State University
  • Tempe, Arizona

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