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D.C. Metro painting its stations white disrespects all that is Brutalism

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"Basically a crime against Brutalism"

Raw concrete—that’s what Brutalism is all about. The architectural style isn’t very popular, with some critics describing the buildings as eyesores and even atrocities, but it’s still a common and sometimes even beloved style in Washington, D.C. One Brutalist structure, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail system is getting a makeover, and not too many people are pleased by that.

Recently, the Union Station Metro station was covered with white paint, brightening up the space, but also going against the purpose of Brutalism, which is basically to gaze at blocky, not tampered with concrete.

In an email, the Director of Communications and Chief Spokesperson of WMATA Dan Stessel sent the following statement to Curbed DC:

Metro is in the process of painting the Union Station vault to create a lighter, brighter station environment for customers at our busiest station. Customer frequently comment about station lighting, asking Metro for brighter stations, which also helps them feel safer and more secure. While power washing was considered, 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. (Power washing occurs before painting, so if you’ve seen photos showing the partially painted vault at Union Station, you can see the difference paint makes.) And if you’ve been to Union Station today, you can see the difference firsthand.

Union Station is not the first ever Metro station whose vault is painted. There are at least seven other stations that were painted at least a decade ago, which include: Archives, Farragut North, Stadium-Armory, Potomac Avenue, Eastern Market, Capitol South, and Federal Center SW. The cost of painting Union Station was between $75,000 and $100,000, according to The Washington Post.

The responses

Despite this, this new paint job in Union Station caught the eyes of many, especially on Twitter. Below, see some of the comments made so far in response to the change.

While some were just plain outraged about the paint job, others were sometimes a little more skeptical, uninterested, or delighted.

Rebecca Miller, Executive Director of the D.C. Preservation League, told Curbed DC that the DC Preservation League does not approve of the Metro’s decision to paint Union Station. She said, “The system’s consistent design and materiality make it unique among urban rail networks and the paint is inconsistent with Harry Weese's original design intent. Metro could simply look at lighting to brighten the stations. Painting Midcentury concrete should never have been an option.”

Mary Fitch, the executive director of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects, also sent out a statement. In her letter to WMATA General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Paul Wiedefeld, she said, “This not only interferes with the design character of the stations, it creates an additional maintenance requirement that the system can ill afford.”

She further wrote that painting the stations is unnecessary as LED lighting is planned to be installed in the station. “Painting is not needed to raise light levels,” she wrote. “In fact, once the lights are installed, those stations that are painted may be uncomfortably bright.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Zachary M. Schrag, author of “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro,” said, “I feel that [Metro designer Harry Weese] would be dismayed. The raw concrete, which of course gave Brutalism its name, was a pretty significant feature.”

Not only was the public surprised, though, but also WMATA’s own design team. Neither Metro chief architect Ivailo Karadimov nor Metro architectural historian Jeff Winstel were involved in the decision, according to Citylab.

Citylab further reported that WMATA is preparing to submit a bid to add the Metro system to the National Register of Historic Places. According to Miller, the paint will not jeopardize WMATA’s efforts as “paint is reversible.”

In 1992, when the Farragut North station was painted at the cost of $15,000, there were critics who were similarly dismayed. At the time, Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey described the paint job as “aesthetic damage.”

So, what’s the big deal?

The J. Edgar Hoover building is a notable example of Brutalism in Washington, D.C.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Aude

Why is it such a crime to paint concrete? Well, first off, it goes against the whole point of the style. British architects Alison and Peter Smithson coined the term "Brutalism" in 1953, inspired by the French béton brut, which literally means, "raw concrete." In an interview with WAMU, Deane Madsen, an architect who created the Brutalist Washington Map, said, “Brutalism in its purist form is about celebrating the materiality of concrete; painting over it hides that materiality.”

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the architectural style flourished with angular, concrete buildings—often with an egg-crate appearance—found all over the world (and recently in Minecraft). What caused Brutalism to become so prevalent was the low cost of concrete, a factor that especially appealed to federal, state, and local governments. When the style flourished in Washington, D.C., that resulted in everything from libraries to museums to hotels becoming blockier and with more concrete.

Normally, there isn’t much favor given to the style. British author, physician, and political commentator Theodore Dalrymple has been known to describe Brutalist buildings as "cold-hearted," "inhuman," "monstrous," and a "spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity." Even so, Greater Greater Washington roots for the brutal behemoths, describing the style as "long misunderstood."

Furthermore, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded the Metro system the 2014 Twenty-Five Year Award, which is given to structures that have “stood the test of time” and “set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance.”

What now?

In an email to Curbed DC, Stessel said that Union Station is currently the only station getting a paint job, further adding, “Metro will determine next steps once Union Station is completed.”

Schrag told The Washington Post that while painting isn’t as destructive as demolition, it is still “irreversible.”

“It really deserves greater consideration,” he said.

[UPDATE: This article has been updated with a statement from the D.C. Preservation League.]

[UPDATE 4/3: This article has been updated with a statement from the Washington, D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects.]