The Washington, D.C. Metro

The underground architecture of Harry Weese

Photograph: Clarence Holmes

Photograph: Clarence Holmes

Beneath Washington, D.C.’s famed Neo-Classical carapace lies an uncelebrated Modernist masterpiece. Designed in 1966 by Chicago architect Harry Weese, the Washington Metro’s name may not hold the Plutonian connotations of the London Underground, or even the New York Subway, but the descent down its vertiginous escalators into the giant concrete vaults below will convince anyone that if there is a Hades on earth, this is it.

The lighting – indirect and underpowered – is Stygian. The ambience is that of a cocktail bar without the booze. The mezzanines and platforms float apart from the tunnel’s coffered surface: an anti-graffiti measure, but one that lends these fathomless spaces an impalpable quality. When a train approaches – its noise softened by the acoustic tiles – the lights embedded in the platform emit a crepuscular red glow that acts less as a warning than an entreaty. Step onto the train and you’ll find the next stop seems to be exactly the same, a feature heightened by the system’s notoriously hard-to-read station names. This is an endless and seemingly uniform underworld, in which the workers in this company town – soldiers, spooks, senators – travel wraith-like to their final destinations.

Weese was a champion of urban living. A close friend of Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames, he challenged the Chicago predominance of Mies van der Rohe with a host of stylistically adventurous office blocks, churches and university buildings. Most notable was his design for the city’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, a triangular skyscraper prison that famously had no bars on its cell windows (which were 2.3 metres long by only 13 centimetres wide).

While the buildings at ground level in D.C. ape an ancient Roman world (albeit one on steroids), so Weese’s subway seems to mimic an equally classical vision of the future. This is a world in which all superfluous ornamentation has been stripped away, leaving simple clean forms and monolithic scale. It even has the same slightly chilling quality as many of the city’s giant Neo-Classical structures, for how can anything reach towards the eternal if it admits to the flesh and blood? The D.C. Metro is where classicism meets brutalism, where the catacomb meets the nuclear bunker.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA. 

Issue 157

First published in Issue 157

September 2013

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