D.C. Metro Designer Harry Weese Gets His Due

At the National Building Museum, Robert Bruegmann, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, made some progress in restoring the reputation of Harry Weese, one of the great, but nearly totally forgotten, masters of modern American architecture. Designer of the Washington, D.C. Metro system, Arena Stage, and range of other residential and large-scale government projects, Weese was a man of many talents. However, his true capabilities can only be understood if we actually look beyond his architectural work, and his role as a developer, writer, and “nag, gadfly.”

In his later years, Weese took to financing architectural journals, acting as a developer of major residential projects, and writing many “letters to the editor”, making the case for preserving some great American buildings and infrastructure. He helped make sure Chicago kept its historic elevated “L” subway in the inner loop when the city wanted to tear it down and replace it with a subway line. Bruegmann says the enormous expense involved in replacing the surface rail line kept that project from moving forward, but Weese definitely crafted the case for the L that eventually won wide public support.

While his earlier residential projects have merit and show the impact Alvar Aalto had on his design approach, his work in D.C. didn’t take off until he created the original Arena Stage (Fichhandler Stage and then the Kreeger Theatre buildings) in southwest. The buildings have since been subsumed by Bing Thom’s masterful canopy-like building, but back then, they had a huge impact on that neighborhood (see earlier post on Bing Thom’s building).  

Winning the D.C. Metro contract was “the apogee of his career,” said Bruegmann. Starting the project in 1966, Weese and his compatriot designers took a tour of the world’s subways systems. Weese was clearly influenced by the monumental underground stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In fact, six months after the tour, he already had the basic design scheme in place that mimiced the awesome nature of those stations.

Creating a range of options for the “bureaucracy” deciding on the design, he devised one initial design option that allowed for variations on the main Metro design theme. For example, in one option, some stations would have had “natural rock poking through into the stations.”

Despite his abhorrence for bureaucracy, it was actually the Fine Arts Commission that helped him perservere with this original vision. Two members of the Commission, Gordon Bunschaft and Aline Saarinen, argued that the Metro definitely needed one look “to maintain the integrity of the system.” The idea of a Metro made up of a hodge-podge of different stations was nixed, and ten years later, the system opened to acclaim.

Bruegmann believes the Washington, D.C. Metro is “one of the grandest examples of public space in American architecture” and “seems inevitable.” It may even be one of the greatest works of American architecture ever, he says.

Roger Lewis, an architect who writes for The Washington Post and has also worked on Metro design projects, says Weese would be displeased with the current state of the Metro. “Weese would say WMATA is mistreating this architecture.” He pointed to the many lights that have been allowed to permanently go out.

“Remedying the lighting problems” isn’t just needed so transit users can see the great architecture more clearly, but also to ensure the safety of everyday passengers. WMATA has told Lewis that a lack of funds is preventing a revamp of the outdated lighting systems.

Check out Bruegmann’s book on Harry Weese, an architect, Lewis said, who may not have gotten his due because his “style was so eclectic.”

Image credit: Metro Center Station, Washington D.C. Metro / Photo.net, (2) Dark Metro Station / Travel pod

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