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Metro didn’t have to be this way. Just ask the people who designed it.

In the past year, I have spent approximately 200 hours on Metro. That’s not much time commuting compared with daily travel to the deep suburbs, but it’s plenty of time to ponder the system’s mysteries. Of all the possible Metro designs, how did we end up with this one? Why so deep? Why so dim? Why so orange?

Metro’s relative youth—it turns 25 this year—means that some of its designers are still around to answer such questions. John Corley, an architect who designed for Metro from 1974 until 1999, is one of them.

Corley is a short, bespectacled man, and on the 90-degree day when I meet him at Gallery Place for a Metro tour, he’s dressed improbably in a navy blazer. His heartfelt enthusiasm for the system is combined with an understated demeanor and graciousness.

Gallery Place is a prime example of Metro’s early station design, and after only a cursory exchange of greetings, Corley launches into a detailed description of its features—from the floor tiles to the concrete ceiling.

“What I like best is the consistency through the whole system,” Corley observes. “We referred to the design elements, the materials, the details, and equipment as working as a system—the system’s system,” he says. “There are only three [original] crossing stations: Gallery Place, L’Enfant Plaza, and Metro Center. Each is slightly different in the configuration of the crossing. But in the consistency of materials and elements, all [are] perceived as a family of stations.”

These characteristics—the grand concrete arches with no columns or other visible means of support, the diffuse lighting from below, the earth-toned palette—are visible to anyone who boards Metro. These design elements may seem to belong to an obvious, homogenous family. But Metro’s 103 miles of track are the product of thousands of individual aesthetic and practical decisions—and years of political wrangling.

In short, Metro didn’t have to look like this.

The Metro that might have existed had some fabulous elements. The Red Line’s path between Dupont Circle and Woodley Park, for example, was originally conceived with trains dangling from the sides of the Taft Bridge, high above the treetops in Rock Creek Park. The National Park Service warned that the 19th-century span couldn’t handle it, and the Park Service also nixed a new bridge for Metro. The only way to get across Rock Creek was to dig—thus the creation of extra-deep stations at Dupont Circle and Woodley Park.

Even well-known elements of the system, such as its arched stations, are departures from early plans. Engineers and architects drew up initial station designs as thoroughly conventional, brightly lit rectangular boxes, but that vision didn’t satisfy the members of the District’s Commission on Fine Arts, who took to heart President Lyndon B. Johnson’s urgings for Metro to be “designed so as to set an example for the Nation, and to take its place among the most attractive in the world.”

In a now-legendary meeting in the fall of 1967, Fine Arts Commissioner Gordon Bunshaft, frustrated with the preponderance of rectangles, seized a pen and scribbled an arc on the back of a presentation board. That scribble inspired Metro’s arched ceilings—the prospect of creating massive vaulted stations excited the architects on the project.

The system’s engineers, meanwhile, continued to advocate box-shaped stations, fueling an already simmering rivalry between the two camps. “It was a traditional battle of wits, I suppose, one profession against another,” says Stanley Allan, a project manager in Metro architect Harry Weese & Associates’ Washington office from 1966 until 1978. “The engineers were traditionally looking for an economical solution, and the architects were looking for a humanist solution. There was a competition from the beginning in that respect.”

Ultimately, the dispute was settled by Jackson Graham, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s first general manager. A retired major general who had served with the Army Corps of Engineers, Graham was a shrewd politician whom both architects and engineers credit with getting Metro into the ground. Eventually, he decided that the vault designs were economical enough, and the arched Metro stations were born.

At Gallery Place, Corley rushes to and fro, pointing out little details. We spend some time pondering the famous concrete ceilings. The architects chose to leave the concrete arches exposed to let “the structure become the architecture,” as Allan describes it. The coffered (or waffled) design conserved material while still providing a stable structure. It also conveniently provided spaces for soundproofing material.

The pattern also makes for interesting lighting. “With indirect lighting coming from below, we end up with a shadow of the horizontal [on the ceiling],” says Corley. “The brightness of the wall surfaces gives you a feeling of space, and that shadow becomes an element of the station.”

The system’s dim lighting arose from an array of practical and aesthetic concerns. Designers were influenced partly by the energy crunch of the ’70s and partly by more mundane issues. “You didn’t need a lot of light. If you wanted to read a newspaper, you could do it. It’s not dim, but subdued. If you did overlight the stations, you would highlight the imperfections inherent in poured-in-place concrete,” says Dave Munson, another Harry Weese & Associates architect.

Try to touch one of the arches and you’ll find they’re hard to reach—a deliberate effort to protect the walls from graffiti and dirty fingers. It hasn’t been a wholly successful ploy; the walls have become darker and dirtier as years pass. More than one designer blames poor upkeep by Metro for the faint lighting. Corley, however, thinks maintenance has gotten better. “The basic cleaning is a full improvement from earlier days,” he argues. “Notice how nice the lighting is because of the clean walls.”

Corley and I take the Red Line out toward Glenmont, heading for Fort Totten. On the way, he regales me with anecdotes about train design. The architects originally wanted the exteriors of the cars to be a spiffy lipstick red, but keeping them painted in that color was deemed too expensive. As for the interiors’ rhapsody in orange, Corley explains: “The colors were simply to have some variety, to make the interior more interesting and friendly. They were picked as being the compatible colors to the stations. And, of course, it happened to be very popular at the time.” (According to a Metro spokesperson, the subway’s new cars will feature a palette of “Chesapeake Sand,” “Colonial Burgundy,” and the wildly optimistic “Potomac Blue.”)

Corley wants to show me the Fort Totten station because of its blend of above- and below-ground prototypes. Standing on the upper Red Line platform, he points out the double-arched, “gull-wing” canopies that typify Metro’s outdoor stations. The canopies span just half the length of the platform; it’s something Corley says he might change if he were planning the station again.

The Green Line addition to Fort Totten came about 15 years after the Red Line, and the extra platform and tracks posed numerous difficulties. Neighbors objected to situating the Green Line platform in adjacent Fort Totten Park, but designers did not want to disturb the top of historic Fort Totten Hill. The solution was a marriage of the models for exterior and interior stations, with the new platform being placed halfway under the hill and then jutting out into an adjacent valley. The platform’s gull-wing canopy leads directly into a vaulted tunnel whose lines follow the gull-wing shape. “It’s very complicated, but it ended up being very simple in form when the whole thing was completed,” says Corley.

We head back downtown along the Green Line. At Georgia Avenue, we go upstairs to examine the canopies at the station’s entrance. I find them particularly ugly. They look as if they should be covering a gas station.

This may be changing soon, however. In July, Metro announced the results of a contest to design new canopies to shelter outdoor subway entrances. The winning design, by the Silver Spring firm Lourie & Chenoweth/ Houghton, echoes the waffled patterns in the stations’ ceilings.

Metro officials commissioned the new canopies to shield outdoor escalators from wear and tear, but several original designers aren’t impressed. “We wanted it to be open to the sky,” Munson complains.

Though he doesn’t believe that the new canopies will help the escalator problems, Corley seems resigned to the new additions. “It’s very fortunate that the design that was solicited is in conformity with the original design [of the stations],” observes. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Ask original designers such as Corley and Allan what they like best about Metro, and they don’t mention particular design elements. Rather, they point to the system’s popularity. But Metro’s expanding ridership has posed a difficult new design challenge: How exactly does the system adapt to record numbers of passengers traveling in patterns that the original planners never envisioned?

In 1969, planners projected that the subway would carry 292.6 million people in 1990, but ridership has never reached that original estimate. (In 2000, the system carried just over 163 million riders.)

These high original projections also assumed that the system would deploy eight-car trains every two minutes. That’s also a goal that Metro has not achieved. Consequently, the shortage of working cars and other factors can make Metro seem overcrowded, even with lower-than-projected numbers of riders. Recent spikes in ridership figures, and projections of doubled patronage by 2025, have made finding a solution to the crowding problem more urgent.

Most of those who built the system argue that Metro could effectively ease crowding by sticking to the original idea: more cars, more often. Two weeks ago, Metro unveiled the first of a fleet of 192 cars to ease congestion on the Green Line, but even with these new cars, the system will still be using shorter trains than it can accommodate.

Corley and Allan are advocates of the so-called Purple Line—a circular route that would trace the path of the Beltway, connecting the spokes of the current lines. It was conceived as a response to a phenomenon that Metro’s original planners didn’t see coming: the suburbanization of jobs as well as residences.

“The original plans for Metro saw the predominant ridership as workers coming from home to jobs,” says Corley. “The jobs were downtown, and residences radiated in all directions from downtown. Over the last few decades, there’s been development away from downtown….Suburban office centers] have grown up in part because of the availability of Metro in places like Crystal City.”

If Metro may be to some extent responsible for creating such sprawl, Corley argues that without it the situation would be far worse. “Metro does not promote sprawl,” he says, “but rather higher-density development at Metro stations, leaving green space between the lines….Without the system, we would not have seen the economic expansion that we have seen over the last decades. There would be more road building, more gridlock, and a weaker economy because of it—and, for that matter, more sprawl.”

In response to the region’s increased suburbanization, Metro officials have initiated changes, including a planned expansion of the Orange Line to reach Dulles International Airport. But some of the designers see it as too little, too late. “There was a time when we thought that we would solve [these issues with the subway alone],” observes Jerry Karns, who designed stations from 1969 through the mid-’80s. “Today’s problem is much more difficult. We’ve made such terrible decisions over the years in terms of land planning. What we’ve designed is a low-density sprawl that is very hard to solve from a transit perspective. Some kind of a bus or light-rail system might be better. [The long-term solution] is not going to be a heavy-rail system [like Metro]. The costs are too great, and the density is not there.”

At Gallery Place, Corley keeps pointing out interesting tidbits about the system he helped create: “If there’s anything I would do, it would be to resist well-intentioned additions that have from come from time to time, like the newspaper receptacles, [the advertisements], and additional signage,” he comments. “But the strength of the design is that somehow it’s accommodated these changes and has its original integrity.”

We continue walking for a bit, until Corley stops midsentence and wheels around to stare at an escalator. Near the handrail are a bunch of warning signs that no one ever reads—exactly the sort of visual clutter he hates. But emblazoned on every few steps of the escalator are other simple messages: “No Strollers.” “Hold Handrail.” “Avoid Sides.”

Corley stares, transfixed. “Maybe it works,” he says, after staring at them for a moment. “There’s always something new coming up.” CP