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Brutal: Architects Plea for DC Paint Project's End

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

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A white paint job at an historic, brutalist metro vault in Washington D.C. is causing some to see red.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is slapping a few coats of paint on the Harry Weese-designed metro vault at the city’s Union Station, inciting harsh criticism and outrage from architects and preservationists alike.

What’s Happening

D.C.’s WAMU 88.5 first reported on the project on Wednesday (March 29) and Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel confirmed that the station—one of the five originals from the service’s 1976 inception—is getting several coats of bright white paint at riders’ requests for brighter stations, which “helps them feel safer and more secure.”

The paint job is estimated to cost between $75,000 and $100,000. The Union Station is the only one of the system’s 91 stations that is slated to be painted, though the vaults are now on a stricter maintenance schedule with the effort of Metro’s Back2Good campaign.

Part of the campaign calls for the stations to be “power-washed, scrubbed, and polished annually,” according to WAMU.

Stressel said simple power-washing was considered, but that “years of dust, dirt and grime coating the vault cannot effectively be cleaned and does little to move the needle when it comes to brightness.”

Details about whether the painting is being performed by an outside firm or in house were not immediately available Monday afternoon.

Those in opposition are pulling from multiple facets, expressing discontent not only in how the paint will impact the brutalist architecture, but also that Metro seemingly didn’t consult with anyone—allegedly not even its own chief architect or architectural historian. Others are immediately jumping to the long-term impact of the paint, from costs to what it will eventually look like.

Brutal Opposition

The architectural concern focuses on Weese’s brutalist design of the station’s vault. Derived from the French béton brut, the style literally stands for “raw concrete,” so painting it would be contrary to the whole point of the design, the architects say. The vault's design garnered national recognition in 2014 with the American Institute of Architects’ “Twenty-five Year Award,” which is given to architecture that has “stood the test of time.”

The raw concrete has coffers that run between the ribs of the vaults—a shape mirrored by the older style of train windows. The palette was originally rounded out with warm, durable materials like granite, bronze and brown paint.

Brian Gallagher, a metro station designer who worked under Weese, called the paint job “absolutely shocking,” and notes that the palette, though dark as it may be, was designed for the wear and tear of a train tunnel. The raw concrete is more forgiving to the brake dust that will assuredly accumulate on the walls, he said, and were not meant to be painted, let alone painted white.

“You’re going to see every little problem in the future,” Gallagher warns. “Especially this station. It’s going to be filthy within weeks.”

AIA executive director Mary Fitch penned a letter to WMATA and noted the continuing cost of maintenance that paint demands, saying it “not only interferes with the design character of the stations, it creates an additional maintenance requirement that the system can ill afford.”

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts—the federal agency that oversees architectural development of the city—called the paint job an “alteration to an essential characteristic” of the station’s design and noted that Metro did not follow the procedural protocol of a public review process for a decision this significant.

“We are concerned that the work, however well-intentioned, creates a substantial change to the architectural character of this exemplary transit system,” wrote commission secretary Thomas Luebke. “We request that the work be suspended in order to assess its technical rationale, its aesthetic impact, and its long-term effect on the station,” he added.

A Bright Welcome

Many commuters, however, are welcoming the paint, according to The Washington Post, which interviewed several people on Thursday (March 30), all of whom praised the paint.

One rider, Penelope Saltzman, noted the bright impact the paint had on the aesthetic. “I can live with Brutalist architecture, but to me the light is more important than preserving it,” she said.

This Seems Familiar

An uproar of this nature has happened before—in 1992—when Metro painted the interior of Farragut North station. Those Roman barrel vaults were painted a light gray and cost the commission about $15,000.

At that time, however, it was argued that the tunnel needed a sealant because the concrete poured at that location had been of poor quality, resulting in unsightly stains from water leakage.

The Metro’s architect at the time, John J. Corely, wasn’t consulted then, either. He told The Post in 1992, “I don't think you'd go into the cathedral at Notre Dame and paint the stonework. … That's the question here. Is it appropriate to paint concrete? The issue is still out for further evaluation."

Editor's note: This story was one of our most popular of 2017, and appeared in our Readers' Choice issue on Dec. 28.


Tagged categories: Architecture; Color + Design; Maintenance + Renovation; Maintenance coating work; Mass transit; North America; Paint; Paint application; Public Transit; Renovation

Comment from Jesse Melton, (4/4/2017, 8:09 AM)

There's exactly nothing special about Union Station stop. It's not an outstanding example of Brutalist design and it's terribly unattractive as it is. It's kind of like the floor of a puppy mill was used to make the ceiling.

Instead of architects whining now, why don't they get involved before things have deteriorated so much they need to be razed? Hobo Colostomy Bag wasn't in the color palette of Brutalist design and it didn't happen overnight at Union Station. I used to go through there every day and you could watch as it got worse. Decades of opportunity came and went with no outcry for improvements from the architecture community. They missed their window.

Comment from Gregory Stoner, (4/4/2017, 9:23 AM)

Art is in the eye of the beholder. If brighter was what was needed, lighting might have been the answer.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (5/2/2017, 9:20 AM)

Union Station is incredibly gloomy and poorly lit. If the crazy architects want to preserve the Brutalist aesthetic, let them come up with the $1,000,000+ required to sufficiently light one station, plus the ongoing costs (electricity, bulbs). Paint the rest.

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