The commission required the design of an attractive and functional subway system worthy of the nation's capital, based on a prototypical station design (above and below ground) in order to standardize maintenance issues.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) system designed by Harry Weese has eighty-seven stations and runs approximately 100 route miles. The plan for this system was the product of a year-long study of subway systems across the globe, discussions and political negotiations. The Metro plan contained three routes within central Washington which branched into eight major routes in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. The design established a sense of unity among the stations using the same four materials in the same ways: concrete for the vaults, white granite for platform edges, entrance paving and seats, hexagonal brown red pavers for flooring, and bronze metal handrails, graphics pylons and escalators. The uniformity was carried through the less significant details such as the colors and fonts used on signage and the design of seating.
December 9, 1969 - 1976
The Metro plan contained three routes within central Washington that branched into eight major routes in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. The northernmost "future" station was located at Germantown, Maryland, and the southernmost "future" station was Fairfield, Virginia. Most of the primary lines and stops were within the District of Columbia; the downtown area needed an efficient means of transportation, because the building height limitation resulted in an expansive downtown. A few of the stations exit right into office buildings, plazas, and food courts. However, access, when possible, was located in public places where people have the right of way, such as parks and squares. In this case, entry is accessed directly from the surface.
Construction of the downtown section tunnels involved the cut-and-cover method to avoid closing streets for extended periods. Other utilized methods included soft earth tunneling using a 150 ton machine to cut away cylindrical tunnels and the drill and blast method which required drilling a six to ten foot hole then loading it with explosives. The vast coffered vaults for which the system is known were structurally practical as well as aesthetically pleasing. The arched ceiling relieved any need for columns, consequently creating uninterrupted and expansive space. The vaults' coffers included acoustical batts to lessen the noise level and also to alleviate the weight of the ceiling. Perforated aluminum pans that contained two inches of sound absorbing fiberglass batts enclosed in plastic bags to protect against dirt and moisture were attached to the top of the coffers for sound proofing.
The need for the Washington Metrorail had been evident for years before the call for designs was sent out. Since the rail was opened, it has remained the busiest rapid transit system in the United States second only to New York City. Government officials had battled with the idea of creating a freeway system for years until John F. Kennedy endorsed the subway as suitable metropolitan transportation. The development of the subway system revitalized many parts of Washington that had become run down such as McPherson Square and Connecticut Avenue. The belief had spread that "where Metrorail goes, the money flows" (Urban Land, September 1999).
Harry Weese's design of the WMATA system used poured in place concrete vault to create a subway space unbroken by structural columns; the intention was to treat the design as a public space or building and grant riders that luxury. The use of concrete in this manner, combined with the bronze and granite detailing, created a public space that was not traditionally expressed in rapid transit. The curve of the vault continued through the wall and begins to curve under the floor offering the impression that the platforms are gently floating upon the support of the walls. The elevated stations above ground level continue the use of curved lines with slightly bowed canopies cantilevered from a central support system of columns. This use of arched forms creates an appropriate scale of space for handling large numbers of people in both the above ground and below ground stations. Weese had studied the movement of people and felt it necessary to outfit his buildings suitably. Two stations use groin vaults to connect the space where trains intersect perpendicularly. In this case, and in each where mezzanines were needed, escalators, mezzanines and platforms float amidst the space offering no hint to their support structures. The lighting in these systems was meant to illuminate the architecture, not the people; all light fixtures were hidden behind other structures to avoid vandalism. This thoughtful use of light adds to the sense of spaciousness, air and light. The concrete, bronze and granite connect the underground systems of Washington to its monumental above-ground counterparts. The way these materials have been utilized create the same sense of permanence and grandeur.
The MWATA system design exemplifies the modernist notion that architecture is expressed through structure alone -without additional decoration. It exhibits simplicity of form and clean lines that reveal the structure directly in the rectangular structural. The system's design was praised as helping break Washington free from the aesthetic dominance of Beaux-Arts style buildings and allow it to advance, symbolically and literally, into modernism while still reflecting the grandeur and monumentality of Washington's great buildings.
Schrag, Zachary M., Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
“Washington Metro,” Architectural Review,
“Washington Metro,” Process Architecture, 1977, pp.134-139
“The Washington, D.C. Metro,” Metropolitan, Jan-Feb 1970, pp. 24-29.
“Metro Makes its Mark,” Urban Land, Sept. 1999, pp.98-117