How Brutalist is Metro?

Lance Hosey has published an essay questioning whether the label “Brutalist” describes Harry Weese’s design for the Washington Metro. The essay usefully complicates the term, but I think it underplays Weese’s commitment to the materials and forms he used.

[Lance Hosey, “Is the Washington Metro ‘Brutalist’?,” Huffington Post, July 5, 2017.]

As Hosey writes, I did not come across the term “brutalism” in the discussions of Metro’s architectural design in the 1960s, ‘70s, or even into the 1990s, and for that reason I’ve avoided it in my own writings. And Hosey usefully notes that Metro’s vaults share more with classical precedents and industrial-era trainsheds than with such Brutalist monuments as the Yale Art and Architecture Building and Boston City Hall, where “space continually pivots, forcing diagonal views and paths, shifting perspectives to create a sense of movement and mystery.” As I wrote to Hosey while he was writing the piece, I think that Metro’s mezzanines should be considered along with the vaults, but he’s right to emphasize the classicism of those coffers.

I am less persuaded by Hosey’s claim, based on his discussion with Robert Bruegmann, that Weese was unconcerned with exposing concrete as a structural material.

Here’s Hosey:

While the brut root of Brutalism expressed the “raw” state of materials, whether concrete or otherwise, this was not necessarily Harry Weese’s motivation. Robert Bruegmann, author of The Architecture of Harry Weese (2010), tells me that “during the tortuous process of getting all necessary approvals” and containing the costs, Weese studied many possibilities, including a more inconspicuous girder structure and even leaving the bedrock uncovered after tunneling. Choosing concrete had virtually nothing to do with the supposed ethics of materials, says Bruegmann. “Far from trying to highlight its raw and industrial character, Weese’s coffers were a direct reference to the great concrete vaulted and domed spaces of ancient Rome, to the baths, basilicas, and the Pantheon.” While Hurley contends that the Pantheon’s “two-thousand-year-old concrete dome is brut (raw),” in fact it originally was stuccoed and gilded to evoke an ethereal, heavenly atmosphere. Brutalist gold, indeed.

Weese chose concrete, bronze, and granite for the Metro stations because he considered them “noble materials with an ancient pedigree,” according to Bruegmann. “I’m not even sure Harry would have objected if the Fine Arts Commission had insisted on covering the vaulting with travertine, as the Romans did in many public buildings.” No “purist” motives there.

Compare this to Weese’s statement before the Commission of Fine Arts in June 1967:

“We have chosen concrete as the basic material because there is so much of it, and we felt it could be the background material, whether bush-hammered or metal form or whatever, and that the foreground material, so to speak, would be the bronze and granite. These are things that take the gaff and things that should look permanent forever, and if we go that far that everything is bronze and granite and only the surroundings are concrete washed with light, not needing advertising, then I think we’re telling the structural truth about the thing, not having veneers. We adopted hopefully the idea we don’t have to hang any finishes in there.”

[Harry Weese comments, U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, General Records. Microfilm Copy of Minutes of the Commission, 1910–1990. (National Archives, Record Group 66. Box 5), 21 June 1967, p. 164. Emphasis added]

And his 1975 comment to Beth Dunlap of AIA Journal:

”We gave them three alternatives, cheap, expensive, and imperial, and the Fine Arts Commission chose the one that belong to all the people—imperial. But these things are forever, and that does make a difference, I suppose … At least they didn’t make us put marble on the walls.”

Interestingly, Hosey describes “the exterior of Gordon Bunshaft’s Hirsshorn [sic] Museum” as a “noted example of Brutalism.” But it was the Hirshhorn, not Metro, that was supposed to be sheathed in travertine.

Hosey may be right to argue that “Brutalism” is not that informative a term. But at the very least, I think it fair to say that Weese cared more about the ethics of exposed concrete than did Bunshaft.

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About Zachary Schrag
Zachary M. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University. The views expressed here are my own and may not reflect those of George Mason University.

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