Creating the Washington Metro
Approval of the subway design by the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) was one of the provisions of Weese's contract. The CFA was an advisory body formed in 1910 on the recommendation of the McMillan Commission to advise the federal government on public buildings and monuments in the District of Columbia.
The commission members had seen Weese's initial vaulted design, and Chairman William Walton had declared the approach "thorough and above all imaginative." Prior to the commission's first meeting with Weese on April 18, 1967, members received sketches of several of the station types the Weese office had been working on.
The reaction of CFA members was not favorable. Gordon Bunshaft, a partner in the architecture and engineering firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Aline Saarinen, an art and architecture critic and the widow of architect Eero Saarinen, were especially critical of the exposed granite walls of the rock tunnel stations, which Bunshaft described as "a refined coal mine shaft" and "folk art" and Saarinen characterized as "Hansel and Gretel." In an April 27, 1967, letter to McCarter, CFA Chairman Walton expressed the commission's concern that "continuity of design," rather than variations, should be the overriding factor in the design of the stations — a single form with an emphasis on "simplicity and elegance of detailing."
The next meeting with the CFA occurred on June 20. Weese presented the box design for the rectangular cut-and-cover stations, explained the principle underlying the variations in station design, and introduced the commission to his elements of continuity. But the commissioners again argued for a consistent design for all stations regardless of their method of construction and voted to reject Weese's proposals.
A third meeting between Weese and the CFA on September 19 promised to be as contentious as the first two. Saarinen expressed the commission's wishes for a dignified design in the "spirit of the classical style," and members again voiced their dissatisfaction with the variations in designs for the cut-and-cover and rock tunnel stations.
Halfway through the two-hour meeting, Bunshaft, attempting to illustrate what the commission wanted, turned over one of Weese's presentation boards and sketched a vaulted design similar to the one initially submitted by Weese to the NCTA in July 1966 and shown to the CFA that October.
Weese refrained from pointing out the similarity between the two and instead praised Bunshaft's concept as "a pretty exciting thing." Former Weese employees involved in the project credit Bunshaft with saving Weese's vision for the grand vaulted spaces that are the dominant feature of the Washington Metro system.
After the meeting with the CFA, Weese, Allan, and Reynolds met for drinks at the Hay-Adams Hotel and then headed to the K Street office, where the three worked into the night converting box sections to vaults. The vaults featured rectangular coffers, which created a more efficient structural system by reducing the weight of the vaults, facilitated poured-in-place concrete construction, accommodated sound-absorbent panels, and reflected the monumentality characteristic of federal architecture.
Weese and his colleagues separated the platforms and mezzanines from the surface of the tunnel in order to prevent defacement of the subway walls, a suggestion offered by Bunshaft at the September meeting with the CFA. They also worked with lighting consultant William Lam to refine the indirect lighting of the vaults and with graphics consultant Massimo Vignelli to finalize the signage for the system.
Weese presented the new drawings and a plaster model of a cross section of the vault to the CFA on October 17, 1967. Walton lauded the design as a "magnificent new approach," and the CFA approved Weese's concept. The design also won the approval of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the agency formed in 1967 when the scope of the transit project was expanded to create a 98-mile (158-kilometer) regional plan with eighty-six stations in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
Prior to construction, the NCTA erected, on a site adjacent to the future Rhode Island Avenue station, a partial full-scale mock-up of a cross section of a typical below-grade vaulted train room, complete with a segment of a full-size train car. The model measured 64 feet (19.5 meters) in width, 30 feet (9.1 meters) in height, and 17 feet (5.2 meters) in length and was used to study and test various components of the design and construction of the system.
Groundbreaking for the Washington Metro took place in December 1969, and the initial segment of the rail system opened on March 27, 1976. Although there were minor differences among the stations, almost all of the below-grade stations had spacious, concrete vaults with a floating mezzanine that incorporated Weese's elements of continuity and fulfilled the wishes of the CFA for a unified form. The vaults of almost all of the cut-and-cover stations were poured in place, whereas precast concrete liners formed the vaults of almost all of the rock tunnel stations.
Approximately one-half of the stations in the system were above ground. Those completed in the early phase of construction had gull-wing canopies, but three or four other canopy types were subsequently adopted, and even more variations in the design of aerial stations appeared in later years.
For example, the city of Alexandria had its own "historic" canopy, and stations of the red line extensions and the orange and blue lines had flat canopies with triangular skylights. Nevertheless, Weese's elements of continuity — granite paving at the edge of the platform, red quarry tile, indirect lighting, consistent signage — remained a unifying feature.
Media reviews of the initial five-mile (eight-kilometer) segment of the Metro system were positive. In 1971, after viewing the drawings and models and getting a preliminary look at the Judiciary Square station then under construction, Washington Post writer Wolf von Eckardt described the Metro system as having "a serene kind of beauty" and a "noble spaciousness." New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger called the Metro "one of the best looking things in the capital" and "one of the few new places in Washington that has true grandeur architecturally."
Writing in Inland Architect, Nory Miller characterized the Metro as "serious civic architecture in the enduring tradition of grandeur, order, harmony, presence" and concluded, "It works, it's beautiful, and... they [the riders] like it," and Architectural Record stated that Weese had "restored to civil engineering the visual grandeur and might characteristic of the great Roman and Victorian engineering feats."
The lack of funding for maintenance of the Metro has created difficulties in recent years. Some stations have been painted gray, loud speakers have been installed in visible places rather than behind acoustic panels as in the original design, and additional graphics and lighting have been introduced.
The overall design, however, remains largely uncompromised and appears to have stood the test of time. In a 2000 article in Praxis, Megan Miller described the "lofty barrel-vaulted volumes" as "frankly magisterial for an American public works project" and called the Metro's effect "precise, immaculate and colossal" and its appearance "futuristic... even in the year 2000."
Kathleen Murphy Skolnik holds an MA in art history with a concentration in architectural history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and teaches art history at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
Robert Bruegmann, a historian of architecture, landscape, and the built environment, is University Distinguished Professor of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Sprawl: A Compact History.
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.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...