What should a Metro station say? I mean, besides: “The escalators are out of order. Shuttle service is available.”
Dale Rose thinks a station should say something about the city it’s in.
Dale is a mechanical engineer who lives in College Park and works downtown, a regular rider on the Green and Red lines. He also travels for pleasure. “I notice the subway systems around the world really speak to the culture and soul of the cities they’re in,” Dale told me. “I’m wondering what kind of message we’re sending about what our soul is in D.C. with the look of ours. I think it’s lacking.”
Is it the District’s look or the District’s soul that’s lacking? Don’t answer that.
Dale sent me links to images of subway stations around the world, from the plaster filigree and grand chandeliers of Moscow to the decorative excess of Paris and the whimsy of Stockholm.
When I was in Athens, I was struck how the Acropolis station is a mini-museum, with lighted vitrines displaying pottery and sculpture. Compare that with the Smithsonian station, which looks like pretty much every other station in Washington.
Said Dale: “When I go to the stations here, all I can think of is, ‘Oh yeah, that looks like the FBI building.’ It’s terrible, in my opinion.”
I have my own beefs with the Metro stations — too dark, poor signage — but I respect their basic design.
The best examination of why the stations look as they do is in Zachary Schrag’s 2006 book, “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.” Schrag explains how in 1966, when Metro was being planned, there was great debate about what federal architecture should look like. Washington was thought by many to have exhausted the marble-facade-and-fluted-column look that characterized much of the city’s official architecture after the McMillan Plan of 1902.
But there was a bright spot 26 miles outside of town: Dulles International Airport. Eero Saarinen’s modern design received rave reviews from critics. It used a mundane material — concrete — in a soaring fashion. In a way, the Metro is an underground Dulles.
Every subway comes with engineering and design challenges. It would have been cheaper if the District’s below-ground stations had low ceilings and multiple columns — like those in New York and Boston — but that would have been cluttered and claustrophobic.
It was a conscious decision to have a uniform design rather than a different look for each station. Writes Schrag: “With a systemwide design, an architectural or construction problem (such as deterring graffiti or pouring concrete) once solved would largely stay solved, and maintenance would be vastly simplified.”
Harry Weese was the lead architect on the project. Before putting pencil to paper, he and his team embarked on a whirlwind tour of the world’s subway systems. He came up with several designs. One included leaving the rock walls of underground stations exposed and unfinished. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts hated that one. (It reminded me of the set for “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.”)
In the end, Weese created a rounded vault with a coffered ceiling and walls that curve under the level of the platform.
The stations are dramatic, almost like stage sets. Writes Schrag: “[Decades] after its design, Metro remains, in a word, stunning. Even those who call it inhuman acknowledge its power.”
One could argue that that’s exactly what government is — powerful, inhuman — and thus the Metro perfectly reflects what’s aboveground.
There is a well-intentioned if rather anemic effort to pretty up some of Washington’s stations, but I think Dale (remember him?) would like more. “It could be so much better,” he said of Metro’s design. He thinks Metro should have a contest inviting artists to redesign stations to reflect their neighborhoods.
What do you think? How would you redesign certain stations to make them symbols of the neighborhoods they serve?
Speaking of Metro, here’s an etiquette question for you: The Red Line’s Forest Glen station is served by elevators, not escalators. Should train-bound passengers hold the elevator door for someone sprinting from the fare gates? To do so when the next train is only a minute or two away might mean everyone on the elevator will miss the train.
Or should they hold the doors so the latecomer has a chance of making the train?
I’m sure there’s a Titanic-and-lifeboats analogy here somewhere.