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The Vaulted Architecture of the Metro That Almost Wasn't

Docomomo DC hosted a lecture by Zachary Schrag last week at the West End Library. Following introductions by Docomomo DC chair Tom Jester and former Harry Weese & Associates architect William J. Gallagher, Jr., Dr. Schrag led attendees through the contentious and sometimes surprising history of the D.C. Metro system. Schrag, who is the author of Metro’s definitive history, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), spoke of the Metro’s evolution as a concept that grew out of the Great Society movement, with oversight from the Commission of Fine Arts.

Schrag’s lecture, which largely followed the structure of his book, discussed the origins of Metro within the context of Modernist architecture in Washington, D.C. as well as more general debates over public works arising from Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” era. Policy makers, Schrag noted, were not looking for the cheapest option when it came to Metro, but rather the best option for public works, as evidenced by the enduring architecture of the Metro system with its granite platform edges, bronze handrails, and signature concrete vaults with coffers that echo the Pantheon in Rome as well as Washington’s Union Station.

Those monumental vaults, which are now one of the most recognizable features of the Washington landscape, arose, according to Schrag, out of a contentious design phase during which several alternative schemes were presented. Architect Harry Weese and his cohort had traveled abroad to view precedents in other countries first-hand, and thus had plenty of design inspirations to choose from; engineers would have preferred a more rectilinear station shape more reminiscent of Toronto’s system, which, having been completed in 1954, was considered to be a clean, modern expression of subway architecture that ought to be emulated. Ultimately Weese landed upon the vault as being the most monumental form—one that eliminated the cramped spaces and columns found in systems like that of New York—as well as the most spacious.

The Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), which during the creation of Metro included Gordon Bunshaft, Aline Saarinen, and John Carl Warnecke, among others, played an outsized role in shaping the Metro system. However, as Schrag noted, the vaulted form of the stations we have today was actually one of Harry Weese’s earliest concepts; it was after discussions with the CFA that he and his team began to explore alternative schemes—including a few with exposed rock in stations. Interestingly, Warnecke had also competed for the Metro job, as had Bunshaft’s firm, SOM. Bunshaft had also been Weese’s boss at one point. Both of their critiques of Weese’s proposals were harsh. Schrag described a dramatic turn at one CFA meeting, in which Bunshaft flipped over a presentation board showing a more rectilinear scheme and drew a rough sketch of a vaulted solution—one which mirrored Weese’s own, presented to the CFA more than a year prior.

The vaulted solution endures, despite WMATA’s ill-conceived concept to improve lighting in the stations by painting the concrete, and some criticism of the design’s functionality. Schrag earned a few laughs when he cited historian Carl Condit as describing the system as one “designed by a demented neo-Platonist looking for a pure form to express the inhumanity of government.” Although service has seen its share of tumult over the years, riders who enjoy the system, now more than 40 years old and acclaimed as an exemplar in transit architecture, would disagree: Metro, parts of which are slated to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, stands as a lasting testament to an era in which Washington embraced architecture that was conceived as a public benefit to the population it continues to serve.

Thank you to everyone who attended last week’s lecture on the D.C. Metro system. For those who were unable to attend, watch for audio and video clips to land on this site shortly.




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