The architecture of the subterranean stations of the DC Metro system.

I. Station types: single line.
II. Station types: transfer stations.
III. The architecture and the beauty of the stations.
IV. The DC Metro station as a secular cathedral.

I. Station types: single line.

The majority of stations are these workhorses which serve the trains of one line; they are built on two levels and serve their trains either by guiding passengers from an upper fare-paying area down onto a central red-tiled island having tracks on either side, or down onto twin red-tiled landings on either side of tracks in the center, each landing serving one direction of travel. (In the interest of economy, some portions of track are used by two lines at once. The stations serving these portions differ from strictly single-line stations only in the degree of care needed to get on a train of the correct line.)

Stations generally need to do three things: get passengers down from street level, collect fares expeditiously, and get them to the proper track.

Getting down to station level can be a short drop (zero, in the lower level of Union Station, which is the last underground station of the red line heading toward Glenmont), or a descent deep enough to rival Project Mohole, as at the red line's Dupont Circle or Woodley Park.

At the bottom of the descent into the station there are machines which sell farecards, the currency of the Metro system. Farecards are disposable paper debit cards with a magnetic stripe to track their value not unlike NYC MetroCards. (Frequent users can get automated passes requiring only a wave of the pass over a sensor.) Payment is secured through controlling traffic and making passengers pass through fare-collecting booths before reaching escalators which drop them down on the waiting areas. Banks of booths (obeying the same right hand rule the trains do (and American automobiles) permit entry on the right, and exit on the left, with a controller's kiosk between the banks. The station manager and staff observe the station through video, and are able to visually inspect the lawful use of the fare-collection booths. The kiosks each have a giant list of fare costs for all destinations on the metro system as well as important data on first and last trains and rates of increased service at peak hours.

Once you have passed your farecard through the entrance booth and the gates have pulled back into the booth walls permitting your passage, you will be faced with one of two layouts, depending upon how the passenger landings are handled: traffic will either be funneled into a central escalator/stairway which drops you onto a central-island waiting area serving passengers going in both directions (as at Union Station, for example), or traffic must bifurcate, with passengers dropping down to landings serving only the direction of travel they want. Bus transfers are dispensed freely (and mechanically) to passengers at the top of the escalators in both types of station.

Exiting passengers must swim like salmon against the stream of boarding passengers (though in fact, a surprising amount of deferential courtesy prevails in the offloading and boarding process except for the few inevitable type A personalities). At the exit (usually up an escalator and on the right of the kiosk) you insert your farecard again, and the cost of your fare, calculated by endpoints of your travel, is deducted. "Addfare" machines inside the exit gates enable the unwary to add to a farecard which has dropped too low to permit exit.

II. Station types: transfer stations.

Transfer stations are designed to facilitate the changing of subway lines. In Metro terminology, these stations include the endpoint stations on those portions of track which serve two lines, but functionally those are indistinguishable from the type I stations above, and will not be covered here. Transfer stations are built on three levels, one for fare collection, and then two below, one for each of the two tracks served by the station. For the sake of maximizing efficiency and economy, transfer stations often link portions of track which simultaneously serve two lines; so, for example, L'Enfant Plaza links a track serving both the orange and blue lines with a track serving both the green and yellow lines.

Transfer stations are conceptually simple. The track levels consist of two "single line" stations which cross orthogonally, one some meters above the other. The only user difficulty comes when transferring from a line served by an island platform to a line served by landings; two sets of escalators will take you up to two landings which do not otherwise connect, and if you do not attend to which is which, you may have to retrace your steps (I confess this has happened to me, especially when reading a book in the station). But despite these dead-end limits of travel, all train levels and platforms freely intercommunicate, which is of course the point of the whole affair.

III. The architecture and the beauty of the stations.

If you know my writeups, you will know that this is why I love the DC Metro! The AIA Guide to Washington quotes Fortune Magazine as calling the DC Metro a "solid gold Cadillac for the masses," and while the pattern of Metro coverage and urban demographics quickly undermine the assertion implicit in "masses," it is as high a quality system, from an aesthetic and ergonomic point of view, as you are likely to get.

In 1966, Lyndon Johnson wrote a letter to Walter J. McCarter, administrator of the National Capital Transportation Agency (see the link below) concerning the new capital area rail rapid transit system:

. . . In designing the system for the Nation's Capital, I want you to search worldwide for concepts and ideas that can be used to make this system attractive as well as useful. It should be designed so as to set an example for the Nation, and to take its place among the most attractive in the world. In selecting the architects for this system, you must seek those who can best combine utility with good urban design.

Every underground station is constructed primarily of concrete. In single-line stations, this concrete is formed into a vast barrel vault forming the walls and ceiling of the hollow in the earth serving as the station. But whereas many urban rail systems were limited by economies during construction or by the technology of their day to the smallest underground spaces possible, the DC Metro stations are without exception vast, liberating underground spaces, defined by the gentle arc of the overhanging vault.

Because the vault has to contain the fare-collecting apparatus and kiosks at a level above the trains, the vaults have been constructed two-stories tall; the upper level rises suspended above the tracks, either centrally (if a station has one entrance from the surface), or at each end of the vault (if the station has two exits, as at Dupont Circle and many other locations). The scale is vast horizontally, too; the exits in a two-exit station can be on the scale of a hundred meters apart.

This scale of building explains a bit about the "solid gold" claim in Fortune Magazine. But each station's barrel vault pattern is unique, in that they were each cast around freshly designed forms. The effect is a little like a rectilinear honeycomb in all the walls and ceiling (which are all part of an unbroken curved surface, after all). This has two planned effects. First, it deadens sound. These are the quietest stations I have ever been in, partly because of their size, and partly for their acoustic design. Secondly, lighting, always from below and the sides, plays off the unique patterns in the coffers with an astonishing play of light and shadow. (The trains are not silent by any means, but their electric engines have a soft whine which is deadened as much as voices in the space.)

The stations are well lit and dark, which adds an unexpected twist to the atmosphere within. This is achieved with indirect lighting: there is never a light shining in your eye, which means that the DC Metro absolutely sidesteps the "bare lightbulb hanging in the basement" effect one sometimes gets in other systems. The architects managed this in two ways, first by placing bright lights below ground level between the tracks in stations with landings which, by illuminating the length of the vault along its center, throw a diffuse light everywhere in the station; second, by throwing light up from the island, achieving the same effect. In addition, both types of station splash light up from the bottom of the sides against the walls (there is a physical gap between the landings and the vault which allows room for lights and discourages graffiti--there is very little graffiti in the stations, though an increasing amount in the cars over time).

Temperatures can vary. In Dupont Circle, the depth of the station makes it (like most caves) about the same temperature all year round, and that is cool (I've never measured it). Near-surface stations at rush hours in well-traveled places like the Mall can get fairly hot and muggy, however, especially in the summer. There is advertising in the stations, but at track level, these are limited to discrete flat poster displays (with their own indirect lighting) no larger than a large plasma screen TV. None of that horrible 50-overlapping-Benetton-ads-in-a-row stuff.

A gray granite strip about a foot wide edges the red-tiled areas of both island and landing loading zones. These contain embedded lights that flash (behind thick, diffusive lenses) to announce the imminent arrival of a train and to warn passengers away from the edge. The unsighted are now protected from the edge of the platform by a thin strip of knobby tiles running between the granite strip and the normal flat tiles. All stations have directional guides on pillars with diamond cross sections. Here and there vandalism has rendered these unhelpful. The escalators, when working properly, add their whisper of white noise. The smell, when brakes aren't burning, is a not unpleasant "fresh electrical"--the air circulates pretty well.

The transfer stations differ mainly by having a more cramped feeling on the lower level right around the intersection and in having glorious cross-vaults overhead instead of longitudinal barrel vaults. In these stations, especially because they can service multiple lines on each track, there is always more sound, and the continual rush of people up, down, and across; on each level trains you cannot see can nevertheless be heard, not only maintaining the feel of vigorous life, but also in a way contributing to the intuitive sense of the largeness of these places. These stations are visible signs of the pulsing heart of a city--something you don't get so much in Washington with its flatness and and diffuse public areas like the Mall.

IV. The DC Metro station as a secular cathedral.

The effect of being in one of the larger single-line stations is not unlike being in a secular cathedral. In size and rough shape, as well as in lighting, sound levels, and temperature, they ape their religious counterparts. I have rarely felt peaceful moments as tranquil as those while sitting in the dark on the cool stone benches of one of these stations when there are few people about. The inducement to contemplation and simple joy of being in a (secularly) numinous place is one of the more humanizing benefits of living in D.C. (N.B.: photos of the stations are almost always overexposed to bring out detail, making the interiors look brighter than they really are.)


Links to all stations with (small) photos of each: (
LBJ letter: (
Gordon Bunshaft (SOM) vault sketch, 1967: (
Stations, including Dupont Circle north entrance: (
Construction: (


Kousoulas, Claudia, and Kousoulas, George. 1995. Contemporary Architecture in Washington, D.C. (See pp. 52-53 for Metro Center Station.)
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. 1991. All About the Metro System. (Doubtlessly an updated brochure has been published--but for its map, station and fare list, and instructions for using station equipment this brochure or its descendant is excellent.)
Weeks, Christopher. 1994. AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C., third edition. (See p. 73 for Judiciary Square Station.)