The hundreds of thousands of commuters crowding the platforms of Metro stations around the nation’s capital today are no doubt celebrating the lack of service advisories rather than the system’s signature Brutalist vaults. But on this of all mornings, they should take a closer look around: The AIA announced today that the Washington, D.C., Metrorail transit system is the recipient of the 2014 25 Year Award for architecture.
Designed by noted Chicago architect Harry Weese in the 1960s, the first leg of the Metro’s red line opened on March 27, 1976, following more than six years of construction. That day, more than 50,000 people, some of whom had stood in line for as long as four hours rode the train from Farragut North station below Connecticut Avenue to the eastern terminus on an elevated, open-air platform at Rhode Island Avenue. The system only had five station stops and 4.6 miles of track. Today, the fully realized system comprises 86 stations in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland, and has a daily ridership second only to the New York City subway in the U.S.
Weese was no stranger to Washington when he began designs for the transit system: His first building for the (now conveniently Metro-accessible) Arena Stage theater was completed in 1960. But it was the Metro commission that served as what critic and Weese-biographer Robert Bruegmann has called "the apogee of his career." A 1966 tour of the world's mass transit systems convinced Weese that the stations in the system (which were designed as a whole) needed to be grand in scale and needed to invoke the monumental civic architecture of federal Washington.
The architect created a design kit-of-parts that has been implemented throughout all the stations in the system, even those completed after Weese's death in 1998. (The most recent station opened in 2004, and more on the new Silver line are slated to open this year.) The iconic concrete vaults of the subterranean stations are lined with coffered precast concrete panels, diffusely lit by recessed fixtures located behind and below the station platforms. Hexagonal terra-cotta floor tiles line the platforms, which are overlooked by concrete parapets that line the fare plazas above. The open-air platforms feature arched metal canopies that mimic the arc of the curvaceous vaults and the warm bronze tones of the fixtures in their below-grade counterparts.
This is not the first time that the D.C. Metro has received accolades from the AIA: Most recently, it was ranked 106 out of 150 in the Institute’s poll of America’s Favorite Architecture. But that doesn’t mean the design has been without its critics. In 2013, Ivailo Karadimov, AIA, the manager of architecture for Metro, devised a prototype plan to modernize the design of the stations—upping the light levels and introducing glass and stainless steel to the Weese’s iconic concrete-and-bronze-fixtured halls. Following a public outcry, the plan, and its interventions, were scaled-back.
The 25 Year Award is bestowed on a project that is between 25 and 35 years old, and has endured as an exemplar of good design in its community. (A quick calculation will reveal that the D.C. Metro actually debuted 38 years ago, but, according to the AIA, the phase that was submitted for consideration by the awards jury was substantially completed in 1986. The full 103.1-mile original design wasn’t completed until 2001.)
The winner of the 25 Year Award is selected by the same committee that selects the AIA Honor Awards in Architecture, which was chaired this year by Scott Wolf, FAIA, of the Miller Hull Partnership. Other jury members were Natalye Appel, FAIA, of Natalye Appel + Associates Architects; Mary Brush, AIA, of Brush Architects; Joy Coleman, AIA, of Treanor Architects; Robert M. Hon, an AIAS student representative; Brenda A. Levin, FAIA, of Levin & Associates Architects; Michael J. Mills, FAIA, of Mills + Schnoering Architects; G. Martin Moeller Jr., Assoc. AIA, of the National Building Museum; and Ed Soltero, AIA, from the Office of the University Architect at Arizona State University. The past three winners were the Menil Collection in Houston, designed by Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, the Gehry Residence in Santa Monica, Calif. by Gehry Partners; and Boston's John Hancock Tower by I.M. Pei & Partners.