Creating the Washington Metro
by Kathleen Murphy Skolnik
The Washington, D.C., Metro project established Harry Weese & Associates as the country's foremost architectural designer of rail transit systems, and led to the firm's involvement in the planning and conceptual design of systems in cities in North America and overseas, including Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Buffalo, Toronto, and Singapore. Jack Hartray characterized the Metro as the "greatest architectural opportunity" of the 20th century, and Stanley Allan called it the "crown jewel" in the history of the Weese firm's commissions.
Planning for the Washington Metro began in the 1950s, but a pivotal event in its evolution was the establishment of the National Capital Transportation Agency (NCTA) by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in July 1960.
For the next five years the NCTA, under the direction of administrator Darwin Stolzenbach, worked to fulfill its mission — the formulation of a regional transit development program. In September 1965, the U.S. Congress approved the agency's plan for a 25-mile (40-kilometer), 25-station rapid rail system primarily within the District of Columbia.
Even before the proposed system received congressional approval, the NCTA made the unprecedented decision to appoint separate architectural and engineering consultants for the project. In most U.S. public work projects of that time, the architects were subcontracted by the engineers and their role was limited to providing aesthetic guidance. In the case of the Washington Metro, however, the architectural and engineering contractors were co-equals and each reported directly to the NCTA.
The rationale behind this decision was to assure high-quality design from both an engineering and an architectural perspective and to circumvent the conflict between architects and engineers that had plagued San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which was designed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
As Stolzenbach recognized in a 1965 letter to William Walton, chairman of the Washington, D.C., Commission of Fine Arts, "both engineering and architectural talents of a high order must cooperate in the design of this system if it is to be worthy of the Nation's Capital."
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
This article is excerpted from The Architecture of Harry Weese by Robert Bruegmann, with building entries by Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.