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Eavesdropping on the design icons who made Washington’s Metro

Harry Weese and the Brutalist Metro System

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When the United States Congress set aside federal construction funds in 1965 for a new, underground transportation system for Washington D.C., President Lyndon B. Johnson decreed it “should be designed to set an example for the Nation, and to take its place among the most attractive in the world.”

“While we seek to resolve problems of moving people and goods within the congested National Capital area, our concerns must not be confined to the utilitarian requirements of transportation alone,” Johnson wrote to Walter J. McCarter, administrator of the National Capital Transportation Agency (NCTA, the forerunner of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) on February 22, 1966.

If you’ve been following D.C. transit news, it is hard to square LBJ’s lofty prose with the present-day reality of the Washington Metro: safety and reliability problems, dropping ridership, and budget problems have lead to renewed discussions about selling naming rights and real estate.

And D.C. is not alone: In July, the Washington Post cast its eye on New York City, calling it “subway schadenfreude” when New Yorkers swiped into derailments, delays, and track fires, not to mention Amtrak’s shutdown of multiple tracks at Penn Station for repair.

The problems facing the transit systems of the Northeast Corridor in recent months have more to do with “utilitarian requirements” than attractiveness—though the stations, too, could use an upgrade. Rather, they have to do with maintenance and technology upgrades which, because invisible, have proven convenient for successive generations of politicians and transit executives to ignore.

As Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel pointed out in a July New York Times op-ed titled “Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance!”: “Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”

But the original architects of the subways didn’t think that way. Americans (including, and especially, New York governor Andrew Cuomo) have an impoverished and immature conception of design, which focuses both on the latest and on the singular: a light show on the Kosciuszko Bridge, for example, or a light show at Penn Station.

What such photo-ops celebrate is design as an Instagram and a backdrop, static and photogenic, rather than as a system of moving parts and people. When architect Harry Weese and his firm designed the Washington Metro—what has grown to be a 118-mile system with 91 stations across two states and the District of Columbia— there was no either-or. He created a design that checks all the boxes: looks, use, and the future.

A rush of train riders during an early morning commute in Washington, DC’s Metro Center station.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

To honor the people who clean, upgrade, and augment, we have to see transit design as Weese did: distributed across the city, both as a network of connected stations, platforms, and trains, and as a network of connected tasks. Weese and his team identified the problem, but needed the sometimes harsh design critiques of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), “the only federal commission dedicated to design review and aesthetic excellence,” as it says on its website, to create a solution that spoke to place, operations and maintenance.

Stanley N. Allen, then chairman of Harry Weese Associates, compiled LBJ’s letter, meeting transcripts, and the architects’ itineraries and sketches into aself-published book, “For the Glory of Washington: A Chronicle of Events Leading to the Creation of the System-Wide Architectural Concept for the Design of the Washington Metro Stations, December 1965 – November 1967.”

Allen’s compendium is a fascinating document of how you do it right: a subway grand tour, CFA minutes with design advice from architect Gordon Bunshaft and art critic Aline Saarinen, rejected graphic designs that are the opposite of Unimark’s low-key Helvetica. At a time when public opinion of East Coast subways has reached a low, it is worth revisiting this high.

Weese and his associates’ Washington Metro received an American Institute of Architects 25-Year-Award in 2014, the profession’s highest (and most accurate) accolade, and a workhorse among more glamorous projects like Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica House, I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, and Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection.

In NCTA’s letter of invitation to selected architects, they wrote of contemporary airline terminals and public buildings, inspired by such recent infrastructural triumphs as the Tennessee Valley Authority power dams, and Eero Saarinen & Associates’ Dulles Airport, which combined soaring concrete architecture with a wholesale reassessment of how the passenger traveled from car to curb to terminal to plane:

“It is not appearance alone that makes them agreeable; it is the total experience of moving through them. This involves functions of both engineering and architecture – the speed and comfort of the ride itself with a sense of continuity from origin to destination; the appearance of convenience vehicles and stations; relatedness of the transit system to the entire urban fabric…”

Thousands of people press their way into the Smithsonian Subway station after Independence Day fireworks in Washington, DC.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

When Harry Weese responded to the call, he cited his Chicago-based firm’s experience designing dealerships for the Cummins engine company, as well as Purity Stores: distributed design across multiple locations, as well as design and branding at multiple scales, explored through prototypes.

After he got the job, beating out Whittlesey, Conklin & Rossant, planners and architects of the nearby new town of Reston, Virginia, and Chloethiel Woodard Smith, the (female) planner and architect of D.C.’s Southwest Urban Renewal Area, he and employees Allen and Robert Reynolds immediately embarked on worldwide subway study tours. Over a period of three weeks, Allen and Reynolds visited major cities in Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, England, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Japan, with Reynolds sketching all the way.

Reynolds’s detailed sketches provide a glimpse of the breadth of information the architects absorbed. In Lisbon, he noted the design of the ticket booth and the attendant’s uniform, as well as the minimal interruption of the subway stairs on a typical street, with that city’s distinctive patterned pavement and typographic awnings. In Moscow, the palatial glories of the underground stations, as well as their heavy use, are called out, from cut-glass lanterns to marble paneling to stray May Day balloons in the upper reaches.

In Milan, they breathed a sigh of relief at the stations’ modernism, with black rubber Pirelli floors, a Massimo Vignelli wayfinding system, a common structural system for each station, and supergraphic advertising.

“This system had all of the aspects of something planned, designed and built to be a distinguished addition to the fabric of the city,” Allen wrote in his notes, adding that the operations control center “was equipped with a large electronic monitoring display panel showing the location of each train along the lines at all times.” The running of the system was part of the architecture.

In Hamburg, by contrast, each station was by a different architect, a strategy shared by Stockholm, where, in one dramatic drawing, the craggy rock face of the Östermalmstorg station received detailed treatment.

When Cuomo launched the MTA Genius Transit Challenge in May, he created a $1 million prize competition for innovative ideas to fix the capacity and reliability of New York City’s subways. At a June conference for participants, they heard presentations from transit officials from Toronto, Paris, Tokyo—the very same cities that Weese & Co. visited long ago.

The symposium served as a sort of state-of-the-subways shorthand, but one hopes that their research also involves rides. While until recently Mayor Bill de Blasio derided questions about his own subway use as political theater, it is really the only way to see a transit system in all of its parts, as the D.C. Metro’s designers realized. Many of their notes from their globe-trotting trip frame their experience as “rendering versus reality,” contrasting the systems’ PR with a rush hour trip.

In Weese’s first presentations to the CFA during the spring and summer of 1967, you can see him attempting to assimilate those travels into something Washingtonian: When possible, stations are shallow, entered through cuts in the sidewalk, as in Lisbon, with minimal interruptions between street and platform. Each one is different, as in Hamburg, with exposed granite along the Connecticut Avenue line imitating the roughness of Stockholm. The stations made by cut-and-cover method are rectangular in section; those made by tunneling, oval.

Bunshaft, architect of the Hirshhorn Museum, and then on the CFA, took the lead on critiquing Weese’s plans. He hated the granite. “I think the idea of this folk art underground is for the birds, to me,” he said. Aline Saarinen, then working for NBC and widow of Eero Saarinen, agreed it shouldn’t be antiseptic, but it also shouldn’t be “Hansel & Gretel, as Eero would call it.” Bunshaft went on—architects can’t help but redesign other architects: “Why shouldn’t it be a real precision sort of well lighted place with nice places where you wait for things?”

The famous vaults designed by Harry Weese for the metro system in Washington, D.C.
jasonlingo/Getty Images

The commission and the architects went back and forth. In September, thoroughly frustrated, “Bunshaft compulsively seized one of our presentation boards,” Allen wrote, “and rapidly drew a sketch on the back,” creating a visual for a comment he had made in June, that “the stations should be shaped like the inside of a thermos bottle, one station after another.” To which landscape architect Hideo Sasaki, also on the commission, had added a call for unity and integration: “The people too will give it vitality and a sense of life.”

Weese took Bunshaft’s Thermos sketch, and the commissioners’ plea for uniformity, and by October he had built a model of an oval vault, with rectangular coffers with rounded corners, a platform in the middle and wayfinding on square pillars, that looks very much like Foggy Bottom today. “Systems of interior decorating look very dated and this thing has to look just as well a hundred years from now as it does now,” said Saarinen. Bunshaft: “It would be a relief to come into a place that is—and let’s use the word plainly—as elegant as this not full of billboards.”

It was for Weese to work out the structural system that would allow for the 600-foot-long vaulted train-rooms, with their crown 30 feet above the rails, to huddle with William Lam to light them, and Massimo Vignelli and Gerhart Doerrie of Unimark to create the graphics. Weese’s sketchbooks include a drawing of signs much more akin to the festival marketplaces of Ben Thompson & Associates: colorful, retro, each station with a different typeface and personality, but in the end, Sasaki was right. The uniformity is not deadly, but, when the system works, reassuring: You know simultaneously that you are in the Metro as a whole and your location along its tendrils.

This was the background for one of this spring’s transit tempests: the application of white paint to Weese’s concrete coffers, which caused consternation earlier this spring. If WMATA had consulted with the CFA or historians, they might have learned that the concrete, if cleaned, with the lighting maintained as Lam intended, would solve the very brightness problems the paint (three coats, easily soiled) provided a short-term solution for. The minutes of the commission also include discussions of glass railings—now so popular among Apple-obsessed transit designers—and the difficulty of cleaning them.

The paint offers a momentary ‘Ah!’ but the money would be better spent on soap and replacing the lightbulbs with new LEDs—work less likely to be noticed because it’s maintenance. The MTA’s I Heart NY train wraps, with Cuomo’s name prominently placed, trumpeting the Wi-Fi now available in all stations, are similarly a Band-Aid over dirty skin, especially in a summer of mordant, Wi-Fi assisted tweets about fires, floods, and fears of being stuck in the subway forever. These are truly cosmetic fixes, while Weese’s design, while spectacular, involved skin, bones, and muscles.

The crisis that has come to the aging subway requires a similarly holistic design strategy, touching on all aspects of the transit experience but without (necessarily) constructing anything. The current political wrangling between Cuomo, the MTA (which he does, in fact, control), and the city of New York about responsibility and money, seems likely to put the focus on stemming the delays, rather than laying out a Vignelli-style map for how, line by line, signals will be updated, countdown clocks installed, tracks cleaned and checked, air-conditioning fixed. Merely presenting a list in the form of New York City subway map graphic, as the MTA Moving Forward site does, doesn’t really cut it. Visual communication, like that of Weese’s station designs, is not merely cosmetic. It’s essential to the smooth movement of people through the system.

The Commission of Fine Arts of 1967, stacked with heavyweights of postwar American design, got that. No detail was too small. Bunshaft said the handrails should be all of a piece, like a Henry Moore sculpture (he would know, since he owned one). Sasaki wanted to protect the people from the cacophony of roadway advertising. The smoothness of the surfaces was a manifestation of the thoughtful design aboveground, below, and behind the scenes. The lights were for lighting. Inspiration came from ease, not flash.

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