A view of the Dupont Circle station on the Red Line of the Washington, D.C. Metro.
Stephen Voss A view of the Dupont Circle station on the Red Line of the Washington, D.C. Metro.

Earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) selected the Washington, D.C., Metro system as the recipient of 2014’s Twenty-Five Year Award. The organization will be presenting the honor at the 2014 AIA National Convention, which, fittingly, is being held in Chicago, the home of Metro’s architect, Harry Weese, who passed away in 1998. Less of a fit is the bestowing of a “Twenty-Five Year” honor on a project that was designed some 40 years ago and is still being constructed. But that is a small quibble. There can be no doubt that Metro embodies all of the award’s criteria: It has stood the test of time and demonstrates “excellence in function, in the distinguished execution of its original program, and in the creative aspects of its statement by today’s standards.”

There can also be no doubt that Weese himself would have been gratified by the recognition. In an interview with Betty J. Blum in Oral History of Harry Weese, which was compiled under the auspices of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project, Department of Architecture, the Art Institute of Chicago in 1991, he said: “Well, we can’t say that Metro isn’t our most important accomplishment. It’s not that somebody else couldn’t do it, but we stayed in there thick and thin with the Fine Arts Commission and all the agencies, the District and Virginia and all the counties around. And we held out for all stations being cast in the same mold, more or less, as much as possible.”

The fact that the entire system is so monolithically consistent in design and materiality (concrete, marble, bronze) is one of its most striking aspects, especially for straphangers more accustomed to the jumbled, utilitarian hodge-podge of older urban rail networks in cities such as those in New York and Chicago. That and, of course, the absolute breathtaking grandeur of its underground stations, with their stupendously cavernous volumes housed under massive coffered concrete arches—a uniquely successful amalgam of federalist Neo-Classicism and midcentury Brutalism that results in what might very well prove to be a truly timeless architecture.
Of course, being underground, the architecture of these stations would be invisible if it was not for the electric lighting scheme—and what a lighting scheme it is. Designed by William Lam (who died in 2012) in close collaboration with Weese and the other design consultants (graphic designers and engineers), the Metro still represents one of the finest examples of an integrated approach to lighting design. “I can say that one of Bill’s thrusts as a lighting designer was to think of all systems as integrated parts of architecture, rather than things that you just lay on,” says Robert Osten, one of the principals of Lam Partners who worked on the Metro system. “This project is just a wonderful example of that. The lighting is integrated with the mechanicals and enhances the appearance of the structure, so everything works together.”

Integrating the lighting for Lam did not just mean hiding the sources, it meant indirect lighting by way of illuminating architectural surfaces, and that called for uplights. We take this sort of thing for granted now, but at the time, in the U.S., it was an unusual concept. “No matter what the project, even an office space, Bill always pushed for a comfortable ambient light with added tasklighting where needed,” says Paul Zaferiou, another Lam Partners principal who worked on the Metro system. “He was one of the first manufacturers of indirect lighting. Back then, nobody was making those systems. He produced some of the first aluminum extruded systems for uplighting. He had to battle a lot of engineers who said that’s not efficient. One client said, ‘You can’t uplight a space, the light will go up and not come down again.’ ”

Lam’s objective was to create a warm, inviting glow and a sense of airiness in Metro’s underground stations (he and Weese also designed the surface and above-ground stations) that would reduce the chances of riders feeling claustrophobic. Fluorescent tubes concealed beneath grates in a central spine that runs between the tracks, and in coves that run along the outer edges of the platforms (both of which also carry other mechanical services) bathe the coffered concrete arches in light. On the mezzanine levels, where the central spine is covered, the uplighting is integrated into pylons that also hold signage and contain air circulation ducts. The band of pavement at the track edges of the platforms features recessed socket lights covered by cut glass lenses that blink when a train is arriving in the station. Coffee can–style pendants, about 18 inches in diameter with metal halide sources, supplement the indirect lighting on the mezzanines and near the ticketing booths and turnstiles.
The interplay between this rather simple lighting scheme and the monument-like architecture produces a moody, almost awe-inspiring, atmosphere, more akin to a Gothic cathedral than a piece of transportation infrastructure. That was Weese’s idea: To elevate public transit from a vexing necessity of urban life to an ennobling procession, not to mention a symbol of the power, prestige, and regulating influence of the federal government—a literally concretized expression of “Great Society” liberalism.
Lam Partners’ lighting scheme featured a couple of simple yet innovative maintenance solutions that merit attention. First, the braking action of trains coming into stations produces two troublesome conditions. One is a lot of brake dust, little iron filings that splinter off the rolling stock as it comes screeching to a halt. Two is that the braking action magnetizes metals in the station, including light fixtures, causing them to attract and collect quite a bit of the brake dust. Over time, the dust can obscure light sources, lowering the lumen levels. In the D.C. Metro, Lam left the fluorescent tubes bare, only concealed by grates. This way, no lenses would have to be cleaned on a regular basis, which is a job, one can only assume, that mightnot always have been executed with absolute diligence and the highest level of thoroughness. As it is, the tubes conveniently begin to get noticeably dimmed by dust at about the same time as their lifecycle runs out and they need to be replaced. Also, Lam laid the tubes in redundant, overlapping courses. This way, tubes could burn out without appreciably affecting the light levels or the feel of the space.
Metro is now in the midst of implementing a plan to update the lighting of its underground stations. The authority is switching out the bare T12 fixtures on the platform levels with T5 fixtures that are lens covered, encapsulated, and sealed tight enough to be power washed—part of its new maintenance strategy. While this may seem an abomination to some, according to Osten and Zaferiou, Lam himself had been petitioning the authority to update the lighting technology for some time before his death. And Metro is going to the trouble of restoring the warm color temperature of the original lamps. “During the course of maintaining and replacing lights, they have put some lights which are cooler, but we’re going back to the original warm light, between 3500K and 3000K,” says Ivalio Karadimov, manager of architecture for Metro.
More significantly, the authority is replacing the coffee-can metal halide pendants at the mezzanine levels with up–down linear fluorescent pendants that hang from the concrete arch. The effect here is a much brighter environment, probably much brighter than Lam would have liked, and certainly a detriment to the stage setting of the original scheme. It has a tacked on feel that alters the clear span of the structural envelope and some would argue, compromises the original architectural design intent . It might provide more light, but it does alter the mood considerably. On the other hand, the coffee-can fixtures were never that successful. Osten himself said, and Karadimov confirmed, that they created hot spots. The change is, in part, the result of lobbying from the Accessibility Advisory Committee and other special interest groups, including an organization called National Capital Citizens with Low Vision.
From a design point of view, whether or not this new lighting for Metro’s mezzanines is the best possible solution, it does reveal in architectural terms the course of our nation’s political sways, from the Great Society liberalism, which made this Metro system possible, to the partisan bickering and special interest lobbying that defines politics today.