Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

In the Second Avenue Subway, art and architecture are at odds

Vik Muniz’s “Perfect Strangers” at the 72nd Street station. Photo by Max Touhey.

Architect Harry Weese’s first Metro design presentation to the Washington, D.C., Commission of Fine Arts in April 1967 did not go well. Commission member Eero Saarinen called the exposed granite sidewalls of Weese’s design for the system’s deepest stations—rumpled and craggy, inspired by several in Stockholm—“Hansel and Gretel.” Commission member Gordon Bunshaft described them as “folk art” and the overall look as “a refined coal mine shaft.”

At subsequent meetings, the commission pushed back on Weese’s desire to express the different station configurations (exposed, tunnel, cut-and-cover) through varied interior design. Rather than fairy tales, they wanted something in the “spirit of the classical style,” as Saarinen put it. According to historian Kathleen Murphy Skolnik:

Halfway through the two-hour meeting, Bunshaft, attempting to illustrate what the commission wanted, turned over one of Weese’s presentation boards and sketched a vaulted design similar to one initially submitted by Weese… Weese refrained from pointing out the similarity between the two and instead praised Bunshaft’s concept as “a pretty exciting thing.” Former Weese employees involved in the project credit Bunshaft with saving Weese’s vision for the grand vaulted spaces that are the dominant feature of the Washington Metro system.

I had cause to reflect on the D.C. Metro—and look up its origin story—after two visits to the first four stations of the Second Avenue Subway, which opened January 1, 2017. The extension of the Q line is already popular, the stations are spacious and clean, and the MTA is justifiably proud of public art installations by Jean Shin, Vik Muniz, Chuck Close, and Sarah Sze in each of the new stations. But I could tell, just by looking at it, that the process had been very different from that of the Metro, just as the photos one takes in the Metro are very different from the snippets of Second Avenue showing up on Instagram.