DC Mud is pleased to announce it’s new architecture column, “L’Enfant Terrible” by Andrew Cocke. Though he left his urban heart in Manhattan years ago, Andrew is a Washington native, returning in 2007 after living and working in New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Shanghai and Hong Kong. He studied architecture and planning at Virginia and Yale, is LEED accredited, and teaches architecture at the Catholic University of America. He started his practice, HERE design in 2006 which specializes in high performance sustainable design.
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Could it get any worse for Michael McBride, manager of MetroArts, Metro’s Art in Transit program? After numerous snowmageddon delays and a derailment last month crowned Metro’s abysmal safety record, the agency cheerfully announced the latest acquisitions for their Art in Transit program, prompting many Washingtonians to ask why Metro is spending money on art when it can’t even keep its passengers and employees safe. And then came the insult to injury: McBride, along with dozens of other Metro employees, was laid off in an effort to close Metro’s forty million dollar budget gap.
To set the record straight, artwork in Metro is funded entirely by private donations, and McBride was promptly reinstated by Metro’s board. But McBride’s greatest challenge remains: how to place art in such an overbearing, dark, inhospitable place.
Don’t get me wrong. This critic, like most architects, loves Metro, but it is a decidedly difficult venue for art. If you ask architects to name their favorite architecture in Washington they will mention the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol; the usual suspects. In 2006 the American Institute of Architects asked their members (and civilians too) to name their favorite architecture in America and surprisingly Harry Weese’s brutalist design for the Metro system was ranked number 14 among buildings in Washington (and 106 nationally). And if the poll had been limited to architects, Metro might well have ranked higher.
Weese’s great innovation was to design the stations not as a series of ever deeper basements but as a single subterranean nave into which the mezzanine concourses are loosely inserted like ships in a bottle allowing fluorescent lamps at the base of each curved wall and between the tracks to wash the entire volume with light. Weese rejected the white-glazed ceramic tile that had been used in New York, Paris, and London subways in favor of raw concrete, dark bronze and dark red quarry tile. The advantage of these unfinished materials is that they hide the inevitable: the cracks, water leaks, discarded bubble gum, and subway grime all disappear against the rough textures in Weese’s rugged palate.
But as surfaces for displaying works of art, they are totally unsuitable which explains why much of the art in Metro is clustered around station entrances, before one descends into the totalizing aesthetic of Weese’s underworld. The only flat surfaces inside the cavernousstations are the end walls. But Metro trains are rarely as long as the platform so most riders never see the end walls of the station. It has probably been years since anyone looked at Constance Fleures’s, “The Yellow Line” which hangs forlorn on the south end wall of Gallery Place’s yellow line platform—its yellow neon unlit, its Miami Vice checkerboard and triangles hopelessly dated.
The biggest problem however is that much of the artwork chosen by MetroArts is merely decoration, intended to dress up a space that is utterly resistant to decoration; the visual equivalent of Vivaldi played in a steel mill. Hazel Rehold’s “Ribbons and Jewels” at Metro Center might be perfectly suited to a richly-appointed hotel lobby, bathed in the warm glow of their light, but the stained glass sconces are mounted too high on the wall to make out their intricate detail and are too small to have much impact on the cavernous Metro Center.
While size does matter, in the right places very small works can make a big impression. New York’s subway system boasts a better collection contemporary blue chip artists than most museums, but some of the most wonderful moments in New York’s subways are small, whimsical surprises by less well-known artists like Tom Otterness whose bronze alligator crawls out of a manhole on the platform to grab a hapless sculpture or this delightful installation in Stockholm’s art-rich subway encouraging riders to use the stairs instead of the escalator.
Artwork in Metro must be prepared to do battle with Weese’s design. Jorge Martin’s imposing marble piece at the entrance to the Archive-Navy Memorial station picks up and then warps the rhythm of Metro’s typical concrete panels as if Weese’s walls have been torn away to reveal some ancient boat hull entombed behind the concrete. There is an even better precedent in Washington: Leo Villareal’s wildly popular LED installation “Multiverse” which transformed the tunnel between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art. One hardly notices I.M. Pei’s signature P-shape passage because of Villareal’s leap into hyperspace. How many commuters would happily miss their trains to watch Villareal’s mesmerizing patterns wash across the Weese’s vaulted ceiling.Washington D.C. is not, let’s face it, an art town. There are many serious artists in Washington, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our Metro stations. Penguin Rush Hour at Silver Spring and other large-scale murals and mosaics are a perfectly pleasant relief from Metro’s waffled concrete monotony, but few if any will stand the test of time like the great WPA murals.
Just as Metro is taking a close look at its safety procedures, it might be time to reexamine MetroArts’s selection process to encourage works that stand up to and enhance the overwhelming aesthetic of Weese’s architectural vision. And its well past time to enact some procedure for decommissioning works that haven’t aged well. Most importantly, Metro should redouble its art acquisitions efforts. Not every piece must be a work of art so to speak, but each should at least be engaging and provocative because as much as we all love Weese’s stations, they need to lighten up.