Going Underground in DC

It seems appropriate that the drive to transform a unused underground trolley station into a venue "for presenting, producing, and promoting cutting-edge arts, architecture, design, and creative endeavors" should take place in Washington, DC. The city, after all, is home to Harry Weese's beloved METRO stations, which won last year's 25-Year Award from the AIA. And let's not forget that DC was home to one of the most important underground music scenes of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat and a DIY attitude that extended to the latter's Ian MacKaye's Dischord label. Dupont Underground, inadvertently perhaps, respectively embodies the desire to have something beautiful under the street level and a bottom-up means of accomplishing it.

[All images courtesy of Dupont Underground]

The non-profit Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground describes their mission as "working to transform the unused Dupont Circle trolley station into an institution highlighting the District’s rightful place on the cultural map." The choice to focus on a piece of unused (since the 1960s) piece of urban infrastructure puts it in line with projects like the High Line, which is primarily a park, but which also serves as a canvas for artworks and performances, stemming appropriately from its location cutting through Chelsea's gallery district. Of course, unlike the High Line that threads its way over streets and between buildings, the old trolley line sits below and around Dupont Circle, the park and traffic feature that gives the historic district its name. Further, unlike the Low Line, which proposes to transform the micro-climate and experience of an old underground trolley station in New York's Lower East Side via innovative light scoops, the DU players treat their station with reverence, like a found beauty. The preliminary, informational renderings show minimal changes to the underground spaces.

The non-profit's efforts have resulted in signing a 5.5-year lease on the 75,000-square-foot space with DC's Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. Although this is admittedly a step in securing a long-term lease, the widespread support of the project is visible in DU's surpassing of its $50,000 crowdfunding goal – with 56 days left; even this early, earning the long-terms lease looks promising. Their initial transformation of the station will focus on the eastern platform, which makes up about a third of the total square footage. Once the space is brought up to code, the "blank canvas" will serve as a host for exhibitions, installations, performances, all sorts of events as a means of exploring what works underground. If those events parallel what DU has envisioned remains to be seen, but organizations in DC needing a unique venue won't be at a loss for where to look.

One area where I see potential is architectural lighting. The renderings clearly show how the ambiance of the spaces will depend upon the lighting – the type, location, intensity, etc. Why not invite lighting designers and artists into the space to explore how to illuminate the underground spaces, both to exploit the qualities of the old station and take it in unexpected directions? Then the usual exhibitions, pop-up shops and the like can follow. However it plays out, it's clear the Dupont Underground offers lots of potential for creativity on the DC scene.


  1. I wouldn't say unused since 1960s... someone already tried to revitalize this space in the mid-1990s. There was a cafe and a laundry housed in spaces meant to resemble old subway cars. I like many went to check it out when it first opened and then never went down again. It closed in less than a year.

  2. If they are looking for underground creativity with lights, paint, and shapes, check out any of the Websites describing the Stockholm, Sweden, subway system. While I wouldn't go crazy like they have with the paint and lights, what the Swedes have done with these kinds of spaces is nothing short of astounding.

    Using that Google machine, I found an excellent BBC slideshow about some of the stations:



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