DC Metro: The 25 Year Award Goes Underground

The DC Metro system, designed by Harry Weese, was awarded the 2014 AIA 25 Year Award.

Last week the American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced that this year’s coveted 25 Year Award would go to the Washington D.C. Metro Rail System, designed by Harry Weese. I think it’s a curious, but oddly inspired choice. The award itself is an altogether worthy one, since it honors projects that have, in the words of the AIA, “embodied architectural excellence” for 25 to 35 years—the ultimate test of great architecture.

For obvious reasons, the vast majority of previous winners (it’s an impressive list) are buildings, with a few notable and wholly deserving exceptions (Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch, for example, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial). And while two airport terminals have gotten the award, I would argue that this year really marks the first time the AIA has bestowed the 25 Year Award on a piece of civic infrastructure—one that has helped transform Washington from a parochial semi-southern town into a regionally-connected city.

The symbolic centerpieces of the system—and the reason it won the award—are Weese’s fantastic metro stations. Made of precast concrete, done in the Brutalist manner so often scorned by the public, the great vaulted ceilings feel both modern (in the use of an often unforgiving material) and classical (the spaces have a hushed, almost cathedral-like feel to them). Weese designed them to be the very antithesis of New York’s crumbling, cramped train stations. In New York, riders descend via tunnels into the urban equivalent of an extremely noisy and dirty basement. They’re squeezed onto platforms and, during rush hour, squeezed into trains. The experience is one of efficiency (on good days) and compression. In D.C. riders experience a strange and surprisingly pleasant spatial release.

The stations have a generosity and grandeur about them that was not generally associated with contemporary architecture in 1976, the year the Metro opened. I first rode it in the late 1970s. My only mass transit frame of reference then was New York’s loud, rude, brutally efficient system, which at that point was in a kind of graffiti-crazed death spiral. Washington’s Metro, on the other hand, was brand new and felt vaguely futuristic: quiet, well-behaved, underserved. For a New Yorker accustomed to abuse, this didn’t quite feel right. (Where were the hookers and transvestites? Where was my bracing dose of menace?) The D.C Metro felt like an amusement park ride, proto-Epcot at full scale. And since I hadn’t been to Moscow yet, it was the first civilized subway system I’d ever experienced.

In the ensuing three and a half decades, New York’s subway rebounded. The riding experience has unquestionably improved in the past fifteen years; the waiting experience on the platforms, however, remains as dreary as ever. Meanwhile, Washington’s Metro became the second busiest mass transit system in the country. That popularity has done nothing to diminish Weese’s achievement and in fact may have actually enhanced it, since ridership is the ultimate yardstick for measuring success. Given the Metro’s role in transforming Washington, Weese’s stations aren’t just as good as the day they opened, they’re better. How many previous 25 Year Award winners can boast that?

Categories: Arts + Culture, Transportation

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