The American Institute of Architects 25 Year Award is essentially a marker of freshness: Is yesterday’s new architecture still vibrant, viable and lovely after 25 (and up to 35) years? This year, the award was given to the Washington’s own Metro rail transit system, that lofty modern marvel of public transit which opened in 1976. The AIA chose the Metro system for this honor because: “These stations combine Modernist forms with subtly classical elements to create an experience that speaks to the contemporary power and complexity of the federal government, along with bedrock democratic design traditions.”


L’Enfant Plaza Metro station (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The entire citation, which delves into the history of Metro and its impact on the urban fabric, is worth reading, especially in light of plans to renovate the system’s 86 stations with more modern fixtures and lighting. The Post reported last April that this makeover could substantially change the rider experience:


The iconic design of Metro’s rail stations, intended to echo the monuments that make up the capital landscape, is going to be given a very modern makeover, officials said Thursday.

Stainless steel, bright lights and clear glass would supplant the soft lighting and dark colors that were defining elements of the subway system when it was designed and built in the 1960s and 1970s.


But one senses in the background of the AIA award some substantial resistance to those plans. The AIA cited in particular the lighting, and muted austerity of architect Harry Weese’s original design, which is “unblemished from light fixtures,” and more subtle for the use of “prevalent up-lighting.” Renovation plans would change that, brighten things up, and give it a more superficially modern sense of design. Here’s the implicit message in the AIA award: “Don’t mess up a good thing.” Here’s my explicit addition: “If you have money to improve things, fix the broken lighting, escalators and decay on the surface of the vaults, but don’t change the design.”

Expect the AIA’s award to be cited in what will likely be contentious debates about the purity of design as these dubious plans for updating Metro stations go forward.