Well, I took several weeks off due to family birthdays and holiday madness, but happy New Year! As we all contemplate going back to work tomorrow, Metro is inevitably part of most of our commutes. But during those bleary — and packed — early-morning rides, have you ever considered the beauty of it? Probably not.
A book has just come out on the architect who designed those iconic vaulted and coffered stations: Chicago native Harry Weese. The L’Enfant Plaza station graces the cover of this book, which catalogs his life’s work.
The story behind the Metro design in this book (W.W. Norton, $59.95), is fascinating. Apparently, it was one of the first instances where a transportation authority made the decision to appoint separate architectural and engineering consultants for a public works project. In most projects, according to the book, the architecture was subbed out by the engineers and took a back-seat role. Here, the architects would have roles equal to the engineers.
Here is where government actually gets something right — when National Capital Transportation Agency Administrator Darwin Stolzenbach writes this explanation to the DC Commission of Fine Arts in 1965: “Both engineering and architectural talents of a high order must cooperate in the design of this system if it is to be worthy of the Nation’s Capital.”
Weese’s design was the product of a 42-day, 16-city trip around the world to study other subway systems, “from Rome to Oslo and from Lisbon to Tokyo,” according to the book.
The vaults, which equally distribute the weight above, negate the need for a box structure with columns, creating a much more open and spacious feel. The coffers are actually a method to reduce the weight load of the concrete, and they contain sound-absorbing panels. The floating mezzanines above the platforms are not only elegant — they are a clever way of keeping vandals and spray paint away from the coffered walls.
To demonstrate how it would look, Weese built a life size model where the Rhode Island Ave. station currently sits.
March 27 this year will mark the 35th anniversary of the initial segment opening. At the time, Architectural Record reported that Weese had “restored to civil engineering the visual grandeur and might characteristic of the great Roman and Victorian engineering feats.”
Wow. Think about THAT the next time you are competing with packs of strangers to crowd onto a rush-hour train!
The book is worth reading for any architecture buff who is not only intrigued with large public projects (including many notable structures in Chicago and the midwest), but also with innovative modern residential design.
In addition to Metro, there are chapters devoted to Weese’s role in the Federal Triangle:
and for the original Arena Stage (yes, it seems quaint now in comparison to the recent grand renovation, but still…)
Best of luck to you all in the new year, and here’s to another year of exploring glorious design in our home town.