Best known as "Bunk" from the TV series "The Wire," Wendell Pierce is now working to rebuild his old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park, one of New Orleans' first middle-class African American communities.
The Washington Metro system was conceived four decades ago as an expression of “Great Society” — an ambitious, government-funded rail system and civic space that would connect a growing capital region. The Modernist design elements, including underground stations with vaulted, concrete roofs and indirect lighting, were a significant departure from the prevailing architectural conventions seen in D.C. at the time. Kojo examines the architecture of Metro, and considers how its design conventions affect the system today.
- G. Martin Moeller, Jr Senior Vice President and Curator, National Building Museum
- Zachary Schrag Professor of History, George Mason University; author, “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro” (Johns Hopkins University Press)
Iconic Washington Metro Architecture
All photos © Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we remember poet Amiri Baraka who died last week. But first, the architecture of Metro. It's one of the most iconic designs of Washington, but most riders are too busy going from point A to point B to notice, much less to ponder the architecture of the Metro system's 86 stations. How underground stations echo the monuments and public buildings above ground with vaulted ceilings, repetitive pattern and indirect lighting.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMetro was first conceived in the 1960s as an expression of Great Society liberalism, but it was built and expanded during the heyday of the suburbs, the automobile and white flight. One historian called it a bold act of dissent. Over the years, Metro has mostly stayed true to the vision of architect Harry Weese, but the system has recently made moves to amend some of Weece's designs. Today, the American Institute of Architects announced that it is recognizing the system's architectural design of enduring influence with its prestigious 25 Years Award.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd joining us in studio to talk about this is Martin Moeller Jr. He is Senior Vice President and Curator at the National Building Museum. He's a member of the jury of the American Institute of Architects 25 Year Award. Martin Moeller, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
MR. G. MARTIN MOELLER JRGood to see you. My pleasure.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Zachary Schrag. He is a Professor of History at George Mason University and author of "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." Zachary, good to see you again.
MR. ZACHARY SCHRAGDelighted to be back. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd interested to have you join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you consider the Metro system and designs of Harry Weese to be award worthy or not? Give us a call. 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Martin, many, if not most, Metro riders probably never give a great deal of thought to the architecture of our rail system. We might be immersed in a book or listening to music or, let's be honest, we might be angry about some kind of service disruption. But the architecture of the system does have a profound influence on everyone who rides it.
NNAMDIWhat do you see when you walk into a Metro station?
MOELLER JREven after nearly 30 years of living in Washington, and taking the Metro countless times, every so often when I am not preoccupied with something else, going down into one of those original underground stations, I'm struck by the fact that this is a grand public space. And every so often, when you really think about that, you think that's extraordinary. If you've been on subway systems in other cities, which most everyone has, New York, even some of the ones in Europe, you don't have that same kind of experience. They're often very rude, stingy in kinds of places that don't look like they'd be fun places to hang out.
MOELLER JRBut there's a certain elegance to the Washington Metro system's stations. And the message of this award, and the reason that the jury recognized the project with this award, is that it's held up, even after more than a generation.
NNAMDIZach, I eluded to one historian who described the system as an act of defiance. That would be, well, you. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a very real possibility that entire neighborhoods around D.C. would be bulldozed to create a freeway system that would make this place much more car centric. How did the idea of this heavy rail system and the ambitious architectural plans take hold?
SCHRAGWell, there are two parts to that story. The first one is that some neighborhoods were completely leveled to make room for freeways, particularly Southwest, which was obviously a massive renewal project. But, not at all coincidentally, there is a huge freeway running through what used to be neighborhoods of townhouses. And a lot of people regret it. So, there was a concern that not only that Southwest would be the first, that Dupont Circle would be wiped out, that Cleveland Park, that Brookland, that other neighborhoods, both in D.C. and also in some of the suburbs, would be wiped out for these highways.
SCHRAGAnd that created a ground swell of opposition throughout the region that really had the opportunity to do something because of the election of John F. Kennedy. And John F. Kennedy is absolutely central to this story. If Nixon had squeezed out those extra votes in Chicago, we wouldn't be having this conversation. So, Kennedy brings in people who are not only skeptical of highways, but also people who care a lot about architecture. Daniel Patrick Moynihan very prominent among them. And in 1962, Moynihan persuades Kennedy to say that federal architecture should be good, should be vigorous is his term.
SCHRAGAnd, suddenly, rather than just building the cheapest, most utilitarian subway system, that could be an alternative to freeways, people say, why don't we do a search for the very best architect we could find?
NNAMDISo, it was not only an act of dissent by people who opposed the building of numerous freeways around the city. It was also an act of, well, very ungovernment-like approach to architecture.
SCHRAGWell, it depends what you think government does. I mean, this is it. Today, in 2013, 2014 rather, we think of government as being stingy, as being under attack. We do have, certainly, a Congress that does not think that government does great things. But that was not the case in 1962 when Kennedy authored these guiding principles for federal architecture. That was not the case in 1965 and 1966 when, what was then a federal agency, started searching for an architect. And that was not a case in 1966 and 1967 when Harry Weese was asked to build, not the cheapest, but the best plan that he could devise.
NNAMDIMartin, that was then. This is now. Why is the American Institute of Architects recognizing this system now?
MOELLER JRThis award is intended to recognize outstanding projects that were completed, substantially completed, between 25 and 35 years ago. And it's an important point, that term substantial completion. That actually has a particular meaning in the architectural realm. And some people would ask about the timing of this, but this project counts in terms of the substantial completion of that first main section of it. And the idea behind this award is to recognize projects that, after a generation, still really are extraordinary as works of architecture. That are still used, essentially, for the same purpose, or where the use hasn't changed so much to really interfere with the architecture.
MOELLER JRBut you can really look at it with fresh eyes and see that this is still a great design. And I think that this does hold up completely in that regard. I'm constantly amused to have friends come visit from out of town. The first time they ride the Metro, they are amazed in some cases. Especially, I remember one case of a friend from New York, years ago.
NNAMDIThat was my experience.
MOELLER JRYeah. He took the Metro from Union Station to our apartment building, and when I opened the door to greet him, he had this kind of bemused look on his face. And he said, Mr. Moeller, your subway is romantically lit. And I said, yes with a smile. I was proud of that. And he was joking that it just isn't what you're used to in New York. This sort of rough and grubby environment there. But the point was, this is an environment that has been very carefully thought out.
MOELLER JRAnd a lot of aspects of her -- things that people don't really realize, that are helping them move through the subways. For example, the tandem orientation of the escalators in most of the linear stations. Something people would never think about, but next time you go in one of those stations, pay attention to this. You automatically go to the escalator that's taking you in the direction you're going in. Rather than having that confusing moment, like you might have in certain department stores, where you don't know which way to go. Is it up or down?
MOELLER JRThe simple, it's a simple act of design, but very clever design, that puts you in the right direction to go where you want to go. And coming the opposite direction, it's the same thing. It's very clever. And that coffered ceiling that not only -- is sort of an allusion to the kind of classical architecture for which Washington is famous, but also creates these wonderful shadows across the elliptical vault that give it a sense of scale. Something that otherwise is missing from a lot of the architecture of that era, with these sort of grand expanses of concrete that are undifferentiated.
NNAMDIDo you notice the architecture of Metro? We're talking with Martin Moeller Jr. He is Senior Vice President and Curator with the National Building Museum and a member of the Jury of the American Institute of Architects 25 Year Award, which was just given to Metro. Zachary Schrag also joins us in studio. He is a Professor of History at George Mason University and author of the book, "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." In your view, can architecture and public infrastructure, like a rail system, reflect the values and politics of its time?
NNAMDIGive us a call. 800-433-8850. What values and ideas do you perceive when you travel through the Metro system? You can also send email to email@example.com. Let us hear what Diane in Greenbelt, Maryland has to say. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEYes. Hello. Great program, and we have a great subway when it's working. It does work most of the time. The architecture inside is always -- I've always liked that. But my issue is with the signage, which has been the case from the beginning. I don't see the point or purpose of the vertical style of signage. Why did they do it that way and it's neither uplifting nor inspiring like the rest of the system is, the structure inside. So, I'm hoping that will be changed with Metro's refurbishing over time and updating. Can you comment on that?
NNAMDIBoth gentlemen. First you Zach.
DIANEJust this one more thing. When you ride the London Underground, which is really good, the signs of the names, the place names, are -- you read from left to right. But the way our signage is, that's not so. You have these ugly vertical posts.
NNAMDIOh, I know exactly what you're talking about. We'll have both of our guests comment on it. First, Zach Schrag.
SCHRAGOkay, so a few things going on there. Great question, by the way. First of all...
SCHRAGIt is important to think about Metro's design as a kind of combination of different systems. So, Martin mentioned the lighting, which is its own design system, and something that is underappreciated in architecture. But, Metro's a great example to understand how important lighting can be to the experience of place. That was done by William Lam. You have the map done by Lance Wyman. You have the graphic design by Massimo Vignelli. And all of these systems were trying to work together.
SCHRAGOne of the things they were trying to do in the original system was to minimize clutter. So, if you look at the original designs, and I believe that's a system open in '76, there were no signs on the vault itself. The idea was to have all the signs on the platform. How do you have the fewest number of signs? Well, you already have these pylons for lighting and for ventilation. What if you painted the station name on it for that? Likewise, they -- pylons in the stations, of course, matched the pylons on the street. And on the street, you're gonna have a vertical pylon, so, to be seen from far away.
SCHRAGSo, you have that continuity from the street to the underground level. That said, people did complain about the signs early on. Another problem matching up systems is that they were hard to see through tinted windows. And I really think the best place to put a station sign is inside the car with an electronic display. And finally, that's gonna happen, I think, with the new series of cars. But, Metro has adapted. And now you've got lots of stations that have horizontal signs on the vaults. And now we have the risk, I would think, too much clutter.
SCHRAGWe have clutter in station names that are too long. We have clutter in too many signs. And it can actually be overwhelming to have too much signage. So, both in transit and in a lot of other applications, you're walking a very fine line between having too few signs and too many.
MOELLER JRIt's always important to remember that there are certain trends in attitudes about design. Graphic design, architecture, et cetera. And I think, to some extent, the original graphic scheme for Metro was very typical of the era. There was a move away from kind of traditional signage in broad senses. And the idea of conveying information in a new way, in and of itself, was attractive to many of the designers of that period. And, as we've seen, sometimes that doesn't work out, but as Professor Schrag mentioned, there's been an adaptation already, and I think you're going to see that continuing. More and more electronic displays, which are dynamic and allow the Metro system to respond to particular circumstances on a given day or a given moment.
MOELLER JRIn addition to being able to provide more information more clearly. So, anything, any sort of public infrastructure like this has to be able to adapt. And we're seeing that and we'll continue to see that with Metro.
NNAMDIHow did Harry Weese come to design the system?
MOELLER JRWell, the -- he was selected by a commission, a federally appointed commission to design this. And the interesting this about the design process that is often overlooked and it goes back to something that Professor Schrag mentioned earlier. The role of the federal government, it was an interesting partnership, in effect, between Harry Weese and Associates and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts that ultimately yielded this design.
MOELLER JRThe commission, which at the time in the early 1960s was, for the first time really, completely controlled by very progressive architects and designers. People like Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Aline Saarinen, the widow of the great architect Eero Saarinen. These were people who were actively pushing for a progressive and innovative approach to architecture in federal design and in all aspects of the design of public and major buildings in the District of Columbia.
MOELLER JRSo they were pushing Harry Weese at every step of the way to look forward and to really do something exemplary. And, in fact, it was Weese -- Weese began fairly early on with this idea of kind of an elliptical cross-section with the train platforms removed, pulled up a little bit. So, sort of taking you away from the sides of the structure and then he explored a variety of other ideas. And eventually, the Commission of Fine Arts said, let's just go back to that first idea.
MOELLER JRThat was a really good one, and let's keep with it. And let's make all of the stations consistent and let's try to avoid the cacophony that is so characteristic of many transit systems. And ultimately, he came back to the sketch that is remarkably similar to what we see today.
NNAMDIThere's also another aspect of that, an anecdote that indicates that Weese -- Harry Weese was reprimanded for not spending enough money for trying to do this on the cheap, which underscores the point that you were making earlier, Zack Schrag.
SCHRAGYeah. Again, it's an ideology that is quite foreign to the 1950s. If you think about the great infrastructure of the 1950s, you got the New Jersey Turnpike, which was cost effective and I don't think is going to win any 25-year or 50 or 100-year award from AIA. You know, the interstates, for the most part, are pretty ugly. If you think about, again, the period we are in now of this kind of new austerity, we don't think that public architecture as being a place to spend a lot of money.
SCHRAGThe exceptions were, there were some before, you have the great architecture of the New Deal era. Some of which is still quite inspiring. The dams and the public schools and lots of that. And then the 1960s, again, it's not just Metro. If you look at some of its cousins, interestingly Dulles Airport, which also won a 25-Year Award was a little bit before Kennedy's policy but helped inspire it because it showed people what federal architecture could be.
SCHRAGYou have the chapel of the Air Force Academy, you have the East Wing, which opened the same year as Metro. So there was this moment when people believed that federal architecture was public architecture and the public deserved only the best. And I don't know what it's going to take to get us back to that.
MOELLER JRAnd I would argue, it was more than a moment. That if anything, that has been the norm throughout history. I found a great quotation from, I believe it was Senator Heyburn of Idaho, if I'm correct. This was early 20th century. And I'm a little fuzzy on the details now. But I remember very distinctly the discussion about some plans for the revamping of Washington, D.C.
MOELLER JRAnd this was a very conservative western state senator who said to the designers and planners who were behind this proposal, you should have all the money you need. Because the capital of the United States should be the greatest capital in the world. And there were simply no question about the value of spending money, appropriately of course, to produce outstanding works of public architecture and infrastructure.
NNAMDIBut up until the 1960s, it was nevertheless virtually impossible to build outside a very conservative architectural styles, correct?
MOELLER JRI would say -- I wouldn't go so far as to say that.
MOELLER JRThere were -- at many points in the history of Washington, even in the 19th century, there were, you know, great works of progressive architecture. Adolf Cluss, a local architect in the 19th century did some really extraordinary works for the D.C. government and the federal government, including the Franklin School downtown, which won an international award for its progressive school design.
MOELLER JRSo, yes, things got a bit tighter and more conservative in the earlier 20th century. But, again, during the post-war period, there was a real interest in and a push for creative, inventive and outstanding, you know, world class architecture. If I recall correctly, Professor Schrag, Lyndon Johnson himself also weighed in during the design of the Metro and said that it should an exemplar for the world in terms of mass transit systems.
SCHRAGThat's quite true. There had been the stodginess and we mentioned Saarinen before. He and his father Eliel Saarinen were not able to build a Smithsonian Museum that would have been a much bolder design than what ultimately ended up on a lot at the Mall. And you also have in Washington, from the 1930s on, a deference to classism even not very good classism. So the Rayburn Building is particular example of that classism.
SCHRAGA lot of people would say that World War II Memorial is another case where the sort of stodginess of Washington classical architecture really crowded out what could have been a much more interesting memorial that I think would have better reflected the 1940s. On the other hand, we have some really innovative memorial architecture such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and now the Air Force Memorial, which have much slicker forms than the World War II Memorial and I think more effective as well.
MOELLER JRYeah, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial also won a 25-Year Award from the AIA.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation about the architecture of Metro. Inviting your calls, 800-433-8850. How far should Metro go to preserve Weese's original vision? Do you think it should be updated? 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing the architecture of Metro with Zachary Schrag. He's a professor of history at George Mason University and author of the book, "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." And Martin Moeller, Jr. He is senior vice president and curator with the National Building Museum and a member of the jury of the American Institute of Architects 25-Year Award, which this year went to Metro.
NNAMDIIt was announced today. We got an email from Richard who says "I frequently note the beauty of the stations. When I visit my native San Francisco, I'm always struck at how bland and unappealing the BART stations are by comparison." And then, of course, one person's romantic lighting could be another person's -- well, let's hear from Lisa who says, "I do look at the vaulted ceilings and admire them from time to time.
NNAMDIBut generally, I find that the Metro lighting is so dark that it's hard to really appreciate the look. I haven't ridden the Metro often over the past few years. But whenever I need to ride it, I always feel a little bummed out after the trip because the dark gloominess brings me down." Your friend thought it was romantic.
MOELLER JRRight. Well, there's a range of views about that. And I do know that there has been some criticism that, just from a safety standpoint, that it's not as bright as it could be. And that's something that they've been working on. And I think you'll see -- I'm optimistic that it can be dealt with without, in any way, harming the basic appreciation of an approach to the design of the stations.
MOELLER JRYou know, there are cases now where they're adding some supplemental lighting. They're beefing up the lighting. We're going to be moving, I'm sure, towards LEDs and more energy efficient lighting in time. So it's going to change. But I don't think any of that needs affect the basic architecture of the spaces.
NNAMDIAnd here is Dwayne in Fairfax, VA. Dwayne, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
DWAYNEHello. I'd like to offer a counterargument on the great architecture of the Washington Metro. I've ridden Metro, I've also ridden the New York transit system extensively. And you built a single track system. Single track means that you have no trackage for express trains. It also means you have very, very limited capability for maintenance as we're discovering these days.
DWAYNEYou do not want to ride Metro from Vienna to the terminus of the Orange line or switch to the red line and go to end, because you better pack your lunch. It's going to take a while.
NNAMDIWell, Dwayne, the Washington region has undergone profound changes since the system first opened, exponential population growth but also major changes in the local economy. Today, this system has to serve literally millions more users than originally conceived. Is it possible, Zach, to serve all of those users and a lot of them, like Dwayne, complain about low lighting, broken escalator, not staying true to the original design?
SCHRAGA couple of things going on there. So first of all, actually Vienna to downtown is not that far in terms of minutes. If you want slow, it's the local lines in New York City, the Broadway local, which I know well as a Columbia alumnus. That's where stopping every three blocks. That's where you go slow. I used to do Friendship Heights, I think Friendship Heights to Union Station is 18 minutes. That's really quick.
SCHRAGSo basically what you have in Metro is you have the express lines, you don't have the very slow local lines that you have in New York City. I don't know of any system, underground system, that could afford to build extra tracks simply for maintenance purposes. You can put an extra escalators as we just did so some of them could be down.
SCHRAGBut there really aren't very many systems, San Francisco is another one that is a two-track system where, except extraordinarily dense circumstances, as you have in Manhattan, it would really be better to build another line so we have blue lines and red lines rather than trying to do those with three tracks. So I don't think that was a bad decision to make a two-track system rather than a three or four-track system.
MOELLER JRIt's also important to remember that the difference in the role of the architect versus the client here. You know, the client was the one dictating this is what our expectations are in terms of ridership. This is what we expect in terms of track miles, area we want to cover, et cetera. And all of that, even there, I think we have to be forgiving. I looked up last night just out of curiosity. In 1960, the Metro population of Washington, D.C. according to the Census was under 2 million people.
MOELLER JRAnd now we're pushing 6 million. And imagine again, think back to the 1960s and '70s as all of this was under construction. Remember attitudes towards urban life versus suburban life in that period. I can't -- I think people who were involved in that project could not fathom now how many people are just dying to get back downtown. And look at 14th Street with the explosion of restaurants there, it would just be mind-blowing to people from that era.
MOELLER JRThey never thought it would happen. And Washington, D.C.'s Metro now has the second highest ridership of any mass transit system in the country after New York. That means bigger than Chicago, bigger than Los Angeles, bigger than San Francisco, all cities, metropolitan areas that are generally larger than ours. So it's a workhorse system that is working very hard. And I think all things considered, is holding up quite well.
NNAMDIAnd when, Zach, you think that this area was not very dense back then, it was really a radical idea to build this thing in the first place.
SCHRAGAbsolutely. And it could have been a very different kind of city. I think Atlanta is probably the best counterfactual I can offer that is much more highway based, where a lot more wealth has flown out of the city and now they're losing their baseball team, too, I guess. Whereas the only way baseball was going to come back to Washington was if you could build it on top of the Metro station.
SCHRAGAnd you have a lot more parking in downtown Atlanta. It's amazing how much land in downtown Atlanta, including right around the capitol is devoted to storage of cars and SUVs. So to have the kind of city that we are now rebuilding with a thriving downtown and people moving back in, I think you really did need a heave rail transit system. It did not have to be as beautiful as Metro.
SCHRAGThat is something of a luxury. We could have had a system that looked like Toronto's. But the fact that it's beautiful is something to celebrate.
NNAMDIWell, this past spring Metro unveiled some controversial plans to update the Bethesda Metro station as a prototype for new architectural designs. The new plan addresses some of the concerns expressed by riders for years, namely the low lighting levels in the station. But it also breaks with the design conventions it would appear and introduce a stainless steel and glass. What would this plan look like? And do you think it's a threat to Weese's vision?
MOELLER JRI am concerned about it. I do think that the adaptation of the design as we've embarked on new lines. For example, it's going on the silver line now, I think that's fine. These are things that are being conceived as new pieces, new elements and that are, in some cases, inspired by the original architecture. I can see a certain inspiration of the Weese design in the new stations for the silver line.
MOELLER JRFor example, the certain, you know, the kind of vaulted space now, more out of steel and glass, more of them are aboveground of course. But there's a certain connection. But I do think that a radical departure from the kind of architectural vocabulary of the existing stations in any redo would be unfortunate. And I also don't think it's necessary. As I said, you can bump up the lighting. You can improve the signage.
MOELLER JRThey've already made great strides in the signage, I think, in many of the old stations and make another -- a number of other adaptations without really sacrificing the original architectural quality.
SCHRAGI share the concern. It seems to me, from both reading the public announcements and talking to some folks down at WMATA that while they are aware of the value of Weese's design, they are not committed to it as a value in itself. That is one can say that's very nice but we're done with it, we're going to move on to something else. Or we can say what we are holding on to is an asset of national and international significance.
SCHRAGAnd just as it is part of our mission to move people efficiently and safely, it is also part of our mission to care for that asset. And so far, I have not seen any official WMATA policy to say the Weese design -- preserving Weese's design is something that we care strongly about.
MOELLER JRI'd also like to go back a moment to something that Zach said and if I may just take partial exception with the idea of the design being a luxury. It's hard to prove what I'm about to say, but I really do honestly believe that much of the renaissance of central Washington is due to the quality of the Metro system, architecturally and otherwise. And I think it's -- think back to the period in the '70s and '80s when so many people were skeptical about cities.
MOELLER JRAnd there was a lot of -- there are prejudices of variety of kinds about urban life and the urban experience. And to come in and see something that was architecturally so beautiful, that was so clean and graffiti free, again, something that I don't think is an accident. The design that pulls those walls away from the platforms actually actively discourages graffiti because you can't really reach those surfaces that would be likely to be the victims of graffiti.
MOELLER JRNow all of those things contributed to a sense, even at a time when many people were skeptical about urban life, a sense that Washington, D.C. was still a clean and grand and elegant place. And I think that that laid the groundwork for the redevelopment we're seeing now.
NNAMDIAll of which just pose more challenges for cool, disco then. But when we look back at what the city and many urban centers look like in the late '70s and early '80s, many people believe the cities were destined to be hallowed out wastelands. How did Metro influenced the national conversation about urban planning and about transit policy?
SCHRAGWell, partly it was a leap into the dark. It was a gamble. And it wasn't until 1978 really, a couple years after the system opened, that you started seeing not only rail ridership obviously increase but total transit ridership increase that Metro proved that some people would make the willing choice to take transit rather than drive if it was efficient enough and beautiful enough. So you see this curve of transit ridership that had dropped down suddenly come back up.
SCHRAGQuite to the contrary to some of the predictions that had been put in place by many economists. And we see that continuing obviously with transit ridership being essential to not only to D.C. itself, but also Arlington. I saw the news today that Arlington has something like 40 percent of the transit trips in the state of Virginia, middle Arlington and, you know, Bethesda as well.
SCHRAGSo we have demonstrable proof in this region that transit with appropriate land use policy can really make a difference in how Americans choose to live. It's not forcing people onto transit. It is giving them choices and allowing to do something other than have a single passenger automobile as the only means to get around.
NNAMDIMartin, was it one of the forces driving the national conversation on this issue?
MOELLER JRAbsolutely. Yes, there were many subsequent Metro systems, a terms that's kind of become kind of generic, really going back to the Paris Metro of course that looked to Washington, D.C. as a model, not just in the United States but elsewhere. There's been a huge number of systems around the world, in Asia, back in Europe, elsewhere in the U.S. being built. I mean, no one ever thought, I think, that Los Angeles was going to have a subway system.
MOELLER JRAnd it's pretty clear to me that most of those systems have drawn some lessons from Washington Metro.
NNAMDIHere's Perry, in Brunswick, Md. Perry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Perry. Are you there?
PERRYCan you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
PERRYOkay. Well, I just want to second what the gentleman just said about the example that we set for the nation and the world, and the other gentleman, about the architecture. I want to endorse 100 percent both points. I lived here in the 1960s and remembered seeing the traffic jams, thinking how wonderful it would be if we had a Metro. But there was a congressman from Kentucky by the name of Natcher, I think. Richard Natcher.
PERRYWilliam Natcher, who stood in the funding door and refused to approve funding year after year and finally they got the approval for the Washington Metro. So if we had tried to build a larger system back then, that never would have gotten through. This really was a landmark system. And what they were afraid of -- the highway lobby, which funded him for years. They were afraid that this would set an example for the other cities and that they would follow. And that has proven to be true. Their fears were warranted, but I'm really glad that we got the system we go.
PERRYAnd I think the design is just excellent. So thank you for letting me talk, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for sharing your comments. I'd like to go to the opposite end of that spectrum by way of two emails we got. One from Sarah, in Alexandria, who said, "I will take consistent service and reasonable cost over a good architecture any day." And another slightly longer that we got from Judith, who says, "While I love Metro and have taken advantage of it since its beginning, I have never warmed to its interior design. It's too vaulting, impersonal and dark. There must be a way to keep its modern future look and make it more inviting to wait in. Having just returned from Europe -- Brussels this time, but I've spent time in other cities -- I disagree with the negative comment made about European stations.
NNAMDI"Their stations celebrate art, all kinds, pop, classic, sculpture, etcetera. What I most dislike are the low-lighting, the absence of shops where one can get drink, snack, flowers and the like and there are no bathroom facilities. One can ride for over an hour, including transfers for example, from beginning on the bus in Reston and taking Metro from Falls Church, changing at Rosslyn to Reagan Airport and have no chance to take a break. Keep the grand award-winning architecture, but add some essential amenities for those of us who want to use it more."
NNAMDII'd like to hear both of your comments on this.
MOELLER JRI actually would agree with the part about shops. I do love the retail in many European metro systems, elsewhere -- Canada and so on and so forth. You know, again, it was a different time when this system was being considered. And it would be difficult to go back and add that sort of thing now. But I do miss that. And yeah, a lot of the European systems have a beauty in their own way. The Paris Metro, with the various stations that have incorporated art. I'd love to see some artworks added, perhaps as little elements in some of our current Metro stations. I could imagine that happening.
MOELLER JRThings that would add a little bit of identity to each individual station, without sacrificing the cohesiveness of the whole, sure. With regard to the other comment, though, I would just point out that it's not an either/or proposition. It's not like, oh, well, we've got great architecture so we don't have good service and good maintenance. Every work of architecture, every work of infrastructure requires management and maintenance. And those are things that could be poor or excellent, that are completely independent of the quality of the architecture. And Metro has been struggling of late, but as I think it was said earlier, generally in my experience it's worked pretty well. And I've always been pretty happy with the service when I've been using it.
SCHRAGCertainly the New York City Subway, which, for the most part, does not have distinguished architecture -- some exceptions -- has had its own maintenance issues and problems in building new lines. So certainly you can have the worst of both worlds. So I quite agree that these are not a dichotomy. The bathrooms and the shops are tough. Again, we had the negative example of New York City, which is a very sticky place for many reasons, but partly because people sell gum and people buy the gum and then they spit the gum onto the platform and I've had coats ruined that way.
SCHRAGSo it's very nice to want your gum and pistachio nuts and all the rest, but then when you're sitting on other people's shells and used gum that's a problem. The bathrooms, obviously, a concern about crime anytime that you don't have spaces where people can see in. And one of the reasons behind Metro's architecture was to have really good sightlines to avoid not only crime -- and statistics suggest that it is a not-perfectly safe, but quite safe place to be -- but also to reassure people that they are safe, that someone can see them.
SCHRAGAnd the more little rooms you put in, the harder it is to maintain that. So there are really tough trade-offs there. Art has been an addition. Weese did not foresee a place for art in the stations. He thought that advertising would actually provide the needed color. But since the opening, but more recently in the last 15 years or so there's been more public art installed, many of it lit. So you've got in Gallery Place, for example, Foon Sham's big fan that brightens up the space, adds some connection to the neighborhood and adds some color that would otherwise be absent.
NNAMDIWe retrieved a tweet from @elizdunn who appended a picture of an advertisement wrapped around a pillar, which appears to be pro-Keystone Pipeline ad. And she writes, "Please discuss the AIA award in the context of advertisements. Why allow ugly ads?" And obviously she doesn't like this particular ad or this particular lobbying effort, but I guess I would expand it to say, why allow ads at all?
MOELLER JRYeah, well, that is another issue. And I'm not a fan of advertising. I guess that's why I like public radio. But yeah, again, that's a management question. That's a finance question. Other factors are coming into play there and there's pressure on Metro, of course, to raise money without raising its fares. And I understand that. I do find the proliferation of advertisements in the Metro systems disappointing, though.
NNAMDIHere now is Brian, in Eldersburg, Md. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHi. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to make a couple of comments, counterpoints to some of the other opinions of I've heard. One of which was about the vertical signs. I actually really like the vertical signs. I think they do a great job of standing out. And I think that's exactly what a navigational tool for the public should do. So I like those. The lighting, I think with the deep dimensional concrete tiles in the underground stations, I think the lighting can really cast some kind of sinister-looking shadows. But for the most part, because it's on the dimmer side, I think it makes the stations feel very calm, which I think is very different from other stations I've been in, which are very busy and everything feel urgent and hurried and hustle and bustle.
BRIANSo I sort of like that calm feeling that's projected in the underground stations. That's all.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Brian. You know, here in the District, Zach, we sometimes have the sense that we are put upon by the suburbs, that they have somehow have seeped resources and people, but you argue that the evolution of the Metro system is evidence of enlightened self-interest across the system and of cooperation between jurisdictions.
SCHRAGAbsolutely. So the system was financed by a combination of federal and local funds. And the local funds were divvied up in a complex formula that, among other things, said that jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia would contribute to the core lines going through downtown D.C. on the grounds that a lot of Marylanders and Virginians would be riding those lines. And so instead of money being sucked out of the District, suburban money was flowing in.
SCHRAGAnd the architecture, to some degree, expresses that as well. The original plan that Weese was asked to do was to design stations for the District. And then people looked at them and then said, why not build those out? And so if you go the Orange Line into Arlington, in Clarendon -- I think that's one of the stations that I think is one of the most beautiful of the original designs. You know, there it is in Virginia.
SCHRAGAnd as soon as people from Virginia enter that space, they're not really Virginians, they're not really Washingtonians. They are members of this region in a way that it's really hard to identify in many other contexts. So I think the unity of the architecture does create a kind of regional identity that is otherwise hard to achieve.
MOELLER JRI'd also like to comment. You mention Arlington. The extraordinary success story that is Arlington, largely because of the decision in the emphasis that Arlington placed on the location of the Metro stations within those boundaries. The original ideas were to -- as was typical for mass transit systems of that period -- to put it along the interstate, you know, along I-66. So people would then still be essentially on this big regional arterial and have to get from there somehow to their neighborhoods and so on. But if you look at one of those satellite maps of Arlington -- of the Washington area, in Arlington you can see the nodes that are around the Metro stations.
MOELLER JRI'm convinced the Metro system in northern Virginia has paid for itself many, many times over in terms of tax revenue from the development that's been made possible around those stations.
NNAMDIOne of the perennial grievances of Metro riders involves the escalators, which seem to break down like clockwork around the system and can wreak major havoc on communities. Is that a design flaw? Did the creator of the system place too much emphasis on a technology that clearly has major problems?
MOELLER JRWell, look at it the other way. I was just in New York a few days ago, and with a suitcase, trudging up those stairs to get to the street in freezing weather, in slippery conditions. You know, the escalators are a real godsend in many ways, shapes and forms, when they're working, of course. I think they might have been a little bit optimistic about the performance of escalators, especially the ones that are exposed to the weather, but I've had people say in the past, "Oh, what were they thinking? Putting an escalator outside where it's going to be rained on."
MOELLER JRThere are actually plenty of exterior escalators. I can think of some in Barcelona, there are elaborate ones in Hong Kong. So that, in and of itself, is not the problem. As with any mechanical thing, it needs maintenance and eventually they're going to need to be replaced. And I think we're just at that point in history where a lot of those things are groaning and getting frail.
NNAMDIIn the 30 seconds we have left, Zach, you know, Weese designed a place where people could interact and aggregate. Did he not realize the iPhone was coming, that the original concept of a meeting place might no longer be feasible?
SCHRAGWell, I'll have to go back to the archives, but I think he must have known, which explains the lighting. Because it's actually perfect for an iPhone or an iPad. You can see where you're going, but it doesn't block the screen. So I think he knew exactly what he was doing.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Zachary Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University, and author of "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro." Zach, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMartin Moeller, Jr. is senior vice president and curator with the National Building Museum, a member of the jury of the American Institute of Architects 25-Year Award. Thank you for joining us.
MOELLER JRThank you very much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back remember we'll remember poet Amiri Baraka. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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