The Washington Post

American Institute of Architects honors D.C. Metro

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.


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.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
In defense of dads
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
How to keep your child safe in the water
How your online data can get hijacked
Play Videos
How to avoid harmful chemicals in school supplies
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
How much can one woman eat?
Play Videos
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to get organized for back to school
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Next Story
Peter Marks · January 15, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.