LONG GONE ARE THE gee-whiz days of early Metrorail, when the grand opening of subway service drew cooing crowds to admire everything from the smoothness of the ride to the spaciousness of the stations. Today commuters whistle up and down escalators routinely, barely noticing the design of Metro's stations. But what beauty there is below ground here has just been noticed in a rather big way--cited as examples for other large cities to follow--by the American Institute of Architects.

True, we have cited a number of station shortcomings over the years. There are times and places that try lost souls, with too-tiny lettering, confusing train markers and bill-spitting Farecard machines. And face it, graffiti-free or not, those underground stations are hardly great reading rooms; either the lights are dim or some hordes need glasses.

Still, you need only try some other city's system to appreciate the functional sleekness of Metro's cavernous, uncluttered stations below ground, and the spaciousness of its slick stops topside. In presenting the AIA's 1983 Institute Honor to Metro, the architects' group praised both station design and system equipment; and great credit goes to Harry M. Weese, whose design firm has collaborated exceptionally well over the last 17 years or more with the engineering firm of DeLeuw, Cather and Co. The challenge, designers and engineers recall, was to build something neither too cute nor too hideously monumental.

There is more that may not meet the eye, but that works: by and large, there is a general atmosphere of comfort and personal security along the platforms, and they are clean.

New York, please copy.