In new Silver Line stations, an emphasis on the functional

The architectural design of the new Silver Line stations won’t make your heart sing. They are functional, and there are signs of value engineering throughout. All of the new stations are aboveground, so none of them have the spatial drama of the great, vaulted stations the system’s original architect, Harry Weese, created in downtown Washington.

And yet, there is something exhilarating about standing on their platforms and looking at the steel-and-concrete tracks threading off with serpentine elegance into the distance. The Silver Line pushes the transit frontiers of Washington west, onto an undulating landscape that is surprisingly green. Yes, almost everything that can go wrong from an urban design standpoint has gone wrong here: The roads are too wide and inhospitable to bikers and pedestrians, parking lots smother the earth, the corporate architecture is dispiriting and the commercial landscape is an endless tape loop of burger joints, big-box retail and auto lots.

But the mere fact of the Silver Line being built, and now being extended, is one of the most promising signs of healthy civic life in our region. As Metro officials hasten to point out, the five-station spur of the Silver Line that opened Saturday connects the two most important regional economic hubs, Washington, D.C., and Tysons Corner. The potential change to our urban fabric could be enormous. The new stations pierce through clusters of major corporate employment and connect to shopping malls that were once only car-accessible. They have been designed so that as new urban plazas and mixed-use developments are completed, they will connect directly to the new stations.

That connectivity, obviously, flows in two directions. Commuters from the suburbs now have a superior option to traffic-clogged highways. But it’s likely Washingtonians will also start commuting the opposite direction, accessing new stores and restaurants and, perhaps someday, green space, and many of those corporate office parks will provide employment to reverse commuters who are following the most exciting and transformative demographic trend today: the rush to urban density. And when the Silver Line is completed, and the city is finally connected to Dulles International Airport (in 2018), one of the most egregiously neglected pieces of our urban infrastructure will finally be in place.

So it would be churlish to complain about things like walls of exposed concrete block, the dreary, dun-colored brick facing on the entry pavilions that looks like it belongs on a strip mall, or the use of open metal grill on the pedestrian bridges that does nothing to mitigate the traffic noise from below or the extremes of our intemperate climate. At best, the new stations feel invisible, like airport architecture is invisible.

A reasonable effort has been made to reference details of the existing Metro architecture: pre-formed ceramic panels recall the hexagonal, terra-cotta-colored flooring of Weese’s original stations; concrete parapet guard walls belong to the same vocabulary; signage is similar; and the platform edges have the same appealing line of round warning lights, and a granite strip at the lip.

Some of the stations are also covered by a glass-and-metal “vault” that recalls the dimensions and basic shape of the coffered concrete tubes that made the original, downtown Metro stations instantly recognizable. They feel a little overbuilt and a bit confused in the way they connect to the base of the stations, but at least they give the new spaces a measure of design continuity with the best of the old ones.

But functionality is the main design principle at work, and many visual details — a recurring “branch” pattern molded into the concrete and echoed in the metal framing — feel like an earnest but vain effort to accommodate aesthetics on a tight budget. The psychological effect of these rather bland suburban stations, compared with the stern, dignified modernism of the older ones, will likely be subconscious: As you travel into the city, the system becomes more inspiring; as you travel out, the sense of an intentional, aestheticized design will trail off, as you surrender urbanity for a more generic, commercialized landscape.

We don’t really know what the impact — the emotional, cultural, ethical impact — of the new landscape that is forming around the Silver Line stations will be. Fairfax County’s plan for Tysons checks all the right boxes: Officials hope that by 2050, Tysons will be “a walkable, sustainable, urban center,” a desirable place “where people live, work and play.” They are implementing well-established and generally progressive urban design principles to get there. But they aren’t working on a blank canvas; this is an urban retrofit of a suburban landscape, and already you can see small, troubling signs that what will emerge may feel like an overlay, a landscape of livability imposed in a slightly surreal, almost futuristic way, onto a decaying concrete jungle.

The decision to elevate the stations — a far less expensive approach than burying them — may well presage this sleek new world of elevated plazas and public areas, disconnected from the ground. A new office building across from the Tysons Corner station is built atop a parking garage, so that at ground level one faces a seemingly impenetrable plinth. Already, a web of pedestrian bridges — some built by Metro, others by private developers — is emerging, keeping us safely above the world of machines and hydrocarbons and asphalt.

The goal is a more functional and sustainable urban environment, but there’s no organic sense of beauty in these plans. To the extent that anyone can articulate a sense of aesthetics for this new landscape, it’s all very superficial: It should twinkle at night, bustle by day, have some nice green things here and there, and mainly not impose very much on our eyes or mind. The new Silver Line stations do all of that, and they do it well. Their most attractive elements are essentially aerial, the views from above, the sense that one is flying just above the trees; a pane of glass at the top of ground-level escalator at the McLean station gives you a pleasant view to a nearby green hillside, but again, it is a view from above, a perfectly framed, disconnected and deracinated view.

But stand here, and look out and try to imagine the future. It is both exciting and troubling at the same time. The land rush created by the new Silver Line stations is already spurring millions of square feet of new construction. Much of what gets built will embody the best intentions of architects and designers to meet laudable design criteria. But one wonders if anything built over the next decade will have the same impact as Weese’s tenebrous tubes of coffered concrete, which still feel genuinely monumental, imposing and modern even decades after they opened. One wonders if you will emerge from these stations with the same sense of pleasant surprise and rootedness in the urban landscape one has coming out of the Metro at Dupont Circle, Smithsonian or U Street.

Likely not. Rather, you will emerge, slightly disoriented by the ever sameness of the commercial and physical space around you, wondering for a moment if you have arrived at the right station, before your basic sense of purpose — to get home, to find a restaurant, to locate a shop — kicks in, and you begin to move by habit and instinct through a pleasantly unobtrusive world of concrete and glass that could be anywhere. Washington will be far away and quickly out of mind as you exchange the city lovable for the city livable.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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