Creating the Washington Metro
The wishes of the NCTA were later echoed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a February 22, 1966, letter to then-NCTA administrator Walter J. McCarter in which the president characterized the Metro as an "opportunity to make our Capital a more attractive and inspiring place in which to live and work" and charged the agency to make the system attractive as well as useful and "an example for the Nation."
The NCTA considered only engineering firms with experience in underground construction for the position of general engineering consultant and awarded the contract to DeLeuw Cather & Company, a Chicago-based firm experienced in highway, railroad, tunnel, and bridge construction.
To choose the project's architect, John Rannells, NCTA director of architecture, and Kent Cooper, a Washington architect who had served as project manager on Eero Saarinen's Dulles Airport, drafted a request for proposals, which the agency sent to 30 architecture and planning firms. The deadline for responses was December 31, 1965, only a few weeks after the requests were mailed.
The request for proposals arrived at the office of Harry Weese & Associates on December 15, 1965. Weese spent the next two weeks collaborating with brother Ben and Jack Hartray on a response. The three completed the bulk of the work on the proposal between Christmas and New Year's, with Harry communicating daily by phone from Aspen, where he was vacationing with his family. Weese's secretary, Marilyn Levy, mailed the proposal on New Year's Eve.
The four-page, single-spaced letter emphasized the firm's experience in the design of prototypes, citing the systems developed for Purity supermarkets in California and for Cummins Engine Company dealerships nationwide and in Canada. The response also stressed previous collaborations with graphic designers, landscape architects, acoustics experts, and mechanical, structural, and electrical engineers, as well as the interest of Harry Weese & Associates in urban design, exemplified by projects such as the Hyde Park (Chicago) and Southwest Washington (D.C.) urban renewal work.
The letter concluded with a statement of the firm's commitment "to devote a considerable portion of our capacity to seeing it [the transit system] conceived, designed, detailed, and monitored over the years it will take to complete."
The letter was one of 17 responses received by the NCTA but, according to John Rannells, it was the only one that indicated "a seriously detailed understanding of the tasks at hand."
The NCTA scheduled interviews with Weese and four other architectural firms — Whittlesey & Conklin; Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon; John Carl Warnecke; and Cloetheil Woodard Smith. On February 6, 1966, Weese and Stanley Allan, who would become the project manager, met with the seven-member NCTA review board for what Allan later described as a two-hour "stimulating interactive brainstorming session."
What impressed the interviewers most about Weese was his interest in the people who would be riding the subway. His concern for comfort, safety, and ease of orientation and his vision of dignified urban structures, durable and handsome materials, and open attractive spaces led the NCTA to recommend Harry Weese & Associates as the architect for the system.
Negotiations were soon underway, and Weese signed a contract with the NCTA in March 1966. Under the conditions of the contract, Weese agreed to open a Washington office; coordinate his firm's work with the NCTA, DeLeuw Cather, and other agencies as required; visit subway systems throughout the world to investigate aspects of rail transit that might be applicable to the Washington subway; and obtain approval from the Commission of Fine Arts for a system-wide architectural design concept for the subway stations.
Weese and his associates opened an office on K Street and in late March, Weese, accompanied by his wife, Kitty, and Allan, traveling with Weese employee Bob Reynolds, embarked on around-the-world trips to survey other subway systems. During the 42-day, 16-city tour, they visited subways from Rome to Oslo and from Lisbon to Tokyo, making notes, collecting literature and maps, taking photographs, and sketching everything from stations and trains to signage and staff uniforms.
In every city they met with transit officials to learn about the characteristics of each system. Throughout the trip they recognized a sense of camaraderie and good will and a willingness to share information, what Stan Allan called "a brotherhood of transit enthusiasm."
An essay written by Weese following his return to Chicago in early May summed up his increasingly mature understanding of the nature and scope of the project that lay ahead. He recognized that nearly every station in the Washington system would be unique and that "despite the greatest desire for prototype, existing underground and surface conditions force the design result."
Based on his world tour, Weese recommended what he called the public approach to transit system design, which treated spaces "like public buildings" and sought "a certain dignity and even elegance."
During May and June of 1966, Weese and his colleagues began developing an architectural concept to be presented to the NCTA at a meeting scheduled for July 6, and finalized the sketches and statement for the presentation during a nonstop charrette held at the Weese Studio in Barrington over the July 4th holiday. Two days later Weese presented the NCTA with his concept for spacious, column-free, concrete vaults at least 21 feet (6.4 meters) high.
His presentation also included designs for aerial or above-ground stations and open-cut stations — that is, shallow stations that remained uncovered — and outlined key features unifying the design, what Weese would later refer to as elements of continuity.
These features included center platforms with entrances and exits on both ends, escalators running directly from the platforms to the street with no intervening mezzanines, indirect lighting on the vaults, entrances in public open spaces such as parks and squares, unified graphics, and the use of consistent materials — exposed structural concrete, granite, bronze, and glass — throughout the system.
The NCTA essentially adopted Weese's proposal, and the firm began applying the principles outlined in the presentation to specific stations. However, DeLeuw Cather was moving in a different direction. Based on stations visited during a trip to Montreal and Toronto with Weese, Reynolds, and NCTA officials, the engineers proposed a clear-span station with a box-shaped cross section supported by precast concrete girders. The economic advantages of this design, in large part owing to the simpler formwork required for construction, appealed to the NCTA.
In November 1966 Weese presented the NCTA with a "Synopsis of Concept Design and Policy" containing dozens of sketches of a variety of possible configurations for the underground subway stations. These designs included variations on the vaulted spaces similar to the original concept submitted in July as well as several options for rectangular train rooms, some column-free, others supported by columns.
During the winter, Weese refined the concepts, maximizing space by linking the configuration of the stations with the method of construction. Box-like, cut-and-cover stations had flat walls and ceilings and were supported by long, exposed concrete girders, whereas deeper stations constructed by tunneling through rock had pointed-arch vaults and exposed rock sidewalls, similar to the walls of stations Weese had seen in Stockholm.
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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.