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The courts, above Vanderbilt Hall on the third floor of the terminal, are in a once-unoccupied attic area that allegedly served as a ballroom until it was converted to CBS broadcast facilities in the late 1930s. (The first episodes of “What’s My Line?” and Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” were broadcast there.) In 1965, Hungarian immigrant Geza A. Gazdag founded Vanderbilt Athletic Club in the space, building two courts on the former soundstage and converting the broadcast studio to a lounge. A year later, he put in a 65-foot indoor ski slope next to the courts.
After it changed owners in 1970, the club underwent a $100,000 Dorothy Draper redecoration. Though some reports indicate the commuter railroad could open a new tennis club that would earn several times what Trump has paid, it remains to be seen if the new employee lounge, to be equipped with bunk beds, lockers and showers, will retain any of Draper’s modern baroque stylings.
In December, when President Elect Barack Obama called his economic stimulus plan “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since President Eisenhower established the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s,” the media was abuzz with hopes that cities strained by decades of underinvestment would become better places to live. There were even suggestions that building high-design infrastructure would serve as an inspiration to a gloomy nation. Calatrava everywhere! OMA-designed windmills! The possibilities were delirious.
So there has been much hand-wringing that as signed into law, the plan allocates only $48 billion to highways, rail, and mass transit. That’s a mere 6 percent of the plan’s budget. Sure, architects and the building sector will stand to benefit from more money allocated for improving public housing, federal agency buildings, and the like, but the point is clear: Instead of a vigorously rebuilt future, we are treading water at best.
We should view this not as another professional snub, but as a major opportunity to get our priorities straight. We all know that infrastructural investment is necessary. But the way architects were talking about their hopes for a bailout made them sound as bad as the banks. So let me make a modest proposal. To paraphrase another president, think not what infrastructure spending can do for you; think what you can do to reinvent infrastructure.
Here’s the real problem: Our models for supporting cities have grown as decrepit as the bridges and highways around us. This I learned between 2004 and 2008, when I led a team of researchers investigating the changing conditions of infrastructure in Los Angeles, and producing the book The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. For us, Los Angeles was a case study: A particularly interesting city, but one that proved the rule regarding infrastructure, rather than the exception.
Our conclusions were, first and foremost, that a WPA-style infrastructural push is impossible today. In part, this is because infrastructure tends to conform to an S-curve during its growth. As money is invested in infrastructure, its efficiency leaps ahead, but due to rising complexity, the S-curve eventually flattens and returns-per-dollar invested diminish greatly. Most of our systems are now at this stage: highly complex and very expensive to invest in. Moreover, costs for infrastructural improvements are vastly greater today than in the past. Thus, even if economist Paul Krugman observes that infrastructure funding generates a greater benefit for the economy than tax cuts, the improvement to urban life we would see from even $200 billion in infrastructure spending would be minor. As the American Society of Civil Engineers has suggested in its appraisal of our failing infrastructure, we don’t need $200 billion—we need $2.2 trillion.
And that’s just to shore up the existing hardware. If we’re talking about rolling out new rail lines and green power grids, there are still other problems at hand. The public building boom of the 1960s and ’70s—which was mainly a vast expansion of highways—devastated many communities and drove down their property values. Since then, homeowners have defended their back yards like medieval barons defending their castles, effectively mobilizing to question, forestall, and generally thwart the construction of new infrastructural systems that would theoretically benefit everyone. To think that opposition to vast new projects will evaporate at a time when home values are in free fall is ludicrous.
As society has become more complex and interconnected, so should our ideas about how we build and service cities. As a case in point, new “soft” technologies are already transforming hard infrastructure. Commuter train ridership, for instance, is more attractive when you can log onto a laptop and get in two more hours of work while you ride. Similarly, mobile phones have made hours stuck in traffic more palatable (even as they’ve made traffic more dangerous by distracting drivers). We could build on such practices, subsidizing fiber-optic communications lines to Main Street to encourage the growth of offices in downtowns that languish half-empty while peripheral suburbs boom. Or we could add wi-fi to all forms of public transit, encouraging commuters to get out of their cars and into existing buses and trains. But this is only a start, and we need to be daring. We need to reinvent infrastructure with new technologies.
I’d like to suggest that we embrace a cultural practice that is about as far from Congress and the White House as can be imagined: hacking. In the post-9/11 culture of government paranoia, hacking is tantamount to terrorism, but in the best sense of the word, hacking sets out not to harm other people but to expand our horizons, using systems in ways they were not intended as a means to free information. This is amply shown by the internet’s rapid growth, which stems from its status as an ideal environment for hackers. Anyone with a small investment in access can build new applications and interfaces. Why not open up infrastructure in a similar way? Legislating open access to data in new and existing infrastructure would allow developers to build applications—many of them as yet unforeseen—that would exploit that data to expand our infrastructural possibilities.
Take Google Maps on the iPhone. This service delivers up-to-date information about traffic speeds. Granted, it’s not perfect. Not all routes are covered, the data is too coarse, and sometimes it is unavailable, making real-time routing tricky. Still, I have a good sense of whether I should take the George Washington Bridge or the Holland Tunnel on the odd occasion when I have to drive into the city. With technology like this, there’s no reason why New York’s subway riders can’t be equally enlightened. If the MTA knows where its trains are, we should know too. It’s preposterous to wait forever to get on a local train only to find out—once the doors have closed—that the train is inexplicably going express, right past your stop. Government agencies have such information at their disposal, yet we, the users, don’t. Incredibly, forms of data as basic as subway schedules can still be hard to obtain, often requiring either Google’s muscle or a canny lawyer and a Freedom of Information Act request.
As last year’s Design and the Elastic Mind show at MoMA demonstrated, user interface designers and software engineers in urban informatics are already working on these challenges, but should the architectural profession cede the city to them? Leaving such work in the hands of individuals whose primary site of experience is the computer display shortchanges the city. Architects need to find ways to engage with such technology, to make it part of the lived experience of the city, and not just something that happens on a screen.
This may not be what architects who long for construction want to hear about, but it’s the sort of thinking that led to the transformations in everyday life that digital technology has enabled over the last generation. The result was a major economic stimulus from the resulting rise in productivity. Architects should not feel left out. Their imaginations are second to none. It’s time to use them again, and to truly rethink what architecture and infrastructure might be.
After a brief uptick in December, the AIA’s Architecture Billings Index slipped again in January, settling in at a new record low and continuing a larger six-month decline that began in September. Inquiries showed a marked improvement, however, possibly in concert with discussions of infrastructure spending generated by the stimulus bill, though of course that was not finalized—with somewhat unimpressive construction spending—until this week.
AIA chief economist Kermit Baker suggested as much in a press release accompanying the billings numbers on Wednesday, though he also saw a far greater problem constraining the industry: the continued freeze within the credit markets. “Now that the stimulus bill has passed and includes funding for construction projects, as well as for municipalities to raise bonds, business conditions could improve,” he said. “That said, until we can get a clearer sense of credit lines being made available by banks, it will be hard to gauge when a lot of projects that have been put on hold can get back online.”
In other words, for all the attention architects and the architectural media (AN included) have paid to the stimulus bill the president signed on Monday, the real salvation will most likely come from TARP, and its big brother, the Financial Stability and Recovery Plan.
(For the record, billings fell to 33.3 from 36.4 while inquiries rose to 43.5 from 37.7. Regionally, the Northeast shed 4.6 points to hit 29.8, the Midwest and South each lost about one to 34.6 and 34.4, respectively, and the West gain 1.5 points to 38.3. For the sectors, multi-family residential work held roughly stable, losing half-a-point to hit 29.5, commercial/industrial gained 5.7 to 33.8, while institutional fell 2.2 to 37.1, mixed use 5.5 to 39.6.)
“There are large parts of the stimulus that will go to public works that won’t be going to architects necessarily, like road and water treatment facilities and the so-called smart grid,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America. “Transportation and high-speed rail will provide some work, but for architects, the real recovery will come from the financial markets.” (A prime example of the former is the MTA’s commitment to build the Grimshaw- and James Carpenter-designed aboveground portion of the Fulton Street Transit Center.)
Simonson said that the part of the stimulus bill that will benefit architects is not the part that they think—the brick-and-mortar projects—but softer measures like tax breaks that may help restore consumer demand and lead to new projects. “The emphasis on stimulus is probably right in the sense that it will help the economy weather this downturn,” Simonson said. “But not in the sense that it will put money into the hands of architects, at least not in the way it will for construction workers.”
But this also means that other measures, like the $275 billion foreclosure package, could have an impact beyond the one architects might think. Given that most designers do not work on tract homes in suburban Phoenix, the program would seem to have little effect. But Richard Rosan, president of the Urban Land Institute, said the money is more far-reaching than that. “If you don’t get the lending back, the real estate development business is done,” he said. “If you can’t borrow, you can’t build, and if you can’t refinance, then you’re in terrible trouble with your existing buildings. Both TARP and the foreclosure plan will help fix these problems, albeit slowly.”
And financing has been a problem for some time already. The AIA, in preparing the billings index, surveys dozens of architects in the country each month. In addition to asking about their business, they pose a specific question. Back in September, it was “What is the most serious problem facing your firm?” The resounding answer, at 63 percent of firms, was client problems with project financing, followed by allied issues related to the overall financial turmoil, though that took only 19 percent.
“What we’re hearing from a lot of our people is that a lot of projects are ready to go and they just can’t go forward because they can’t get the financing,” said Jennifer Riskus, the AIA’s manager for economic research. Perhaps an architectural stimulus, separate from the all-important credit vehicles currently in the works, should be in order.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Obama administration's foreclosure program cost $750 billion. AN regrets the error.
Like the rest of the city, the recent boom years have been good to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, leading to shiny new buses, trains, and megaprojects. But now, with the fifth-largest debt load in the country and the state out of money, the authority is on the verge of jumping the tracks, right into territory it has not seen since the 1970s.
The problem we’re in is the perfect storm of major dedicated taxes all drying up at once,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director at Transportation Alternatives. “The gas tax, the bridge tolls, the real estate tax, the sales tax—they’ve all gone dry. Plus, the MTA’s debt has exploded over the last two years.”
The result is a $1.2 billion hole in the authority’s operating budget, and a potential $20 billion shortfall in the forthcoming $30 billion 2010–2015 capital plan. The press has called it the “Doomsday Budget,” because, short of new revenue streams, it will lead to massive service cuts and fare and toll increases throughout the system.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the $1 billion payment for Hudson Yards was pushed back a year, following a February 4 agreement between the authority and developer the Related Companies. Meanwhile, Forest City Ratner has yet to secure financing for the $100 million it owes on the Atlantic Yards project.
On the bright side, the city’s Congressional delegation has secured between $1.5 billion and $2 billion for the agency in the House stimulus bill, with possibly more to come from the Senate. And, in an act of confidence or hubris, the authority earmarked $497 million on January 30 to complete the Fulton Street Transit Center, designed by Grimshaw and James Carpenter, before the package was even finalized.
It’s enough to make even the steadiest straphanger’s head spin.
“If we don’t solve this problem, we’re shortchanging the economy right now, when we can hardly afford to, and for decades to come,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. He said that as the city has learned in the past, even a year or two of disinvestment can take decades to reverse. Fortunately, the MTA agrees wholeheartedly. “This is probably the most difficult landscape the MTA has faced in a generation,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said.
And yet the recession could prove, in some small way, to be the authority’s salvation. Given the dire state of the economy, many politicians appear willing to entertain once-heretical notions. Take the mayor’s congestion pricing plan. It was initially sold as a measure to reduce congestion and pollution, but was ultimately defeated by the state legislature because, in its members’ view, the real purpose was to fund mass transit. Newer proposals, however, such as those put forward by former MTA chair Richard Ravitch—East River bridge tolls, payroll taxes, slightly increased fares and tolls—avoid the bait-and-switch and go right for the money.
Norvell said that compared to last year, the tone in Albany is “markedly different,” with almost no complaints about the payroll tax and a surprising openness to East River bridge tolls. “Oddly enough, the financial crisis has created a lot of political breathing room,” he said. “We’re looking at $2.50 MetroCards, $100 monthlies. Nobody wants his fingerprints on that.”
It will likely be late March before we know whether it is Doomsday or V-Day for the MTA. The federal stimulus package must first be passed, though even that would be but a few nickels in the bucket. From there, it should take a month for the legislature to either endorse Ravitch’s plan, adopt an alternative, or let the MTA go forward with its cuts, which the authority’s board approved in December. Given the state’s budget woes, that remains a distinct possibility.
Transit advocates remained heartened despite the MTA’s predicament. “I have reason to believe it will pass, given my conversations with people in both houses,” Yaro said of the Ravitch plan. Norvell believes the legislature owes it to the MTA. “The system’s been starved by Albany for the last decade,” he said. “The ball is in their court. We hope they make the right play.”
In 1931, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat in on a roundtable conversation with the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, RPAA members including Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye, and Clarence Stein presented the future president with a powerful argument that fallout from the economic collapse of 1929 might be best attacked by following a “new road” of regional planning at a national scale. The governor seemed sympathetic to their ideas, and helped MacKaye launch his ambitious plans for the Appalachian Trail, which began in New York State.
Two years later, when FDR began the historic 100 days of legislation that kicked off the New Deal, the RPAA’s lobbying seemed to have paid off. Roosevelt placed MacKaye in a planning position with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and selected Stein’s partner, Robert Kohn, as the first head of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA). But while the RPAA’s progressive goals were embodied in these programs, as the New Deal wore on, its idealism and the scale of its ambition became muddled through political compromises.
The Greenbelt Town program, which was supposed to change the face of America with a series of highly rational garden cities, was whittled down to three small projects. And the TVA’s initial steps toward creating a “dynamic regional and interregional economy” were soon shed by its director, Arthur Morgan, who steered the authority toward becoming merely a source of electricity for the industrializing south. This tension—between those with plans to use government action and money to transform the country and those who prefer a more laissez-faire approach focused purely on temporary job creation—is very much alive today as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) works its way through Congress. Like today’s stimulus package, the New Deal started as a jobs-creation program, but it gave rise to profound changes in the landscape and culture that were a natural outgrowth of the era’s newfound belief in the federal government’s ability to play a transformational role. As we debate what many call “the New New Deal,” the lessons of the 1930s remind us that a focus on job creation need not preclude a commitment to the broader progressive agenda that made the New Deal so far-reaching.
The New Deal’s largest and best-known agency, the one that became synonymous with the entire program, was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Enacted in 1935, it received more money and attention than any other of the Roosevelt administration’s initiatives. By 1941, the WPA had spent approximately $11.4 billion ($169 billion in today’s money). Of this massive investment, $4 billion went to highway and street projects; $1 billion to public buildings; $1 billion to publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion that funded initiatives as varied as school lunch programs, the famous Federal Writers Project, and sent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans out to document the American landscape. By the time it was disbanded by Congress in 1943 as a result of the manufacturing boom created by World War II, the WPA had provided some eight million jobs and had left its mark on nearly every community in America by way of a park, bridge, housing project, or municipal building.
The magnitude of the change created by the WPA’s modernization program was unprecedented among direct federal interventions, and the current recovery bill has the potential to be as, or more, effective. At this writing, ARRA promises $825 billion in economic stimulus, $275 billion of which is tax cuts and $550 billion of which is actual investment. Much of this $550 billion will go to construction projects to bring America’s flagging schools, health care facilities, and infrastructure up to standard and beyond. A recent analysis of the bill from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the following run-down on infrastructure spending: $30 billion for highways, $9 billion for transit, $1.1 billion for Amtrak, $10 billion for science facilities, $3 billion for airports. The list goes on, including appropriations for clean water and restoration of brownfields, but also money for other architecture-related building work: $16 billion for school modernization, $9 billion for Department of Defense projects like VA hospitals and child care centers, and $2.25 billion for rehabilitating public housing.
While the rough balance of funds in the current bill and the WPA evinces a kinship, they will be disbursed in a very different fashion. Harry Hopkins, FDR’s handpicked director of the WPA, worked directly with the states to evaluate and select projects. Other agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), also had their own directors, their own budgets, and the power to choose how best to spend them. The money in the current stimulus package will be apportioned to the states not through newly created agencies based in D.C.— as was the case in the 1930s—but by existing formulas. These formulas evaluate the needs of various localities by calculating factors that range from demographics, to income levels, to official reports on structures and efficiencies. The formulas have the benefit of distributing funds by objective measures rather than political ones, as goes one criticism of the WPA. However, these measures change little from year to year, and a formula-based system has done little to address infrastructure failings at a regional or even national scale.
What has not changed between now and then is the imperative to choose projects that are ready to start construction immediately. What we might call “shovel-ready” projects were a big part of the WPA agenda, and there were a number of regional plans in place, notably those developed by Robert Moses in New York, that captured an enormous share of federal funds. By 1936, New York City was receiving one seventh of the WPA allotment for the entire country, employed 240,000 people with this money, and was considered “the 49th state” within the WPA. Meanwhile other municipalities floundered in their attempts to draw up plans, and the WPA canceled more than 100 major grants to 11 northeast cities because the blueprints for those projects were not ready. Today’s analog is the “Use it or Lose it” provision in the bill that demands the return of funds if they are not put to work within 120 days. Because of this urgency, many are wary that we will spend $100 billion filling potholes.
There are a few significant projects in New York that promise to make a real difference to the region. One is Access to the Region’s Core, or the ARC tunnel, which will improve transportation between New Jersey and Manhattan. East Side Access, a project that will do the same thing for commuters coming from Long Island, is already under construction, but in dire need of funds. The same can be said for the MTA’s 2nd Avenue Subway project. And then there’s the Fulton Street Transit Center, which promised to become a central element of downtown’s redevelopment before the MTA’s own parlous financial situation put it in jeopardy. These projects, which stand to receive substantial stimulus funding, will undoubtedly improve transportation in the New York region and lay the groundwork for increased demand in the future. But what about transportation between New York and Boston, or New York and Chicago? What about developing a framework for wind power in the tri-state area? What about a comprehensive plan for regional watershed management?
There is no agency to think about the changing infrastructure needs of the country as a whole. In 2007, a bill was put forth to do just this: The Infrastructure Investment Bank Act would have established a national institution to evaluate project proposals and assemble investment portfolios to pay for them, much like the World Bank does on a global level. The fact that it did not pass Congress speaks to a reluctance in the U.S. to put planning power in the hands of the federal government—the same reluctance that the RPAA came up against in the 1930s.
One of Roosevelt’s first acts of the New Deal, an act some say he first mentioned at that RPAA roundtable meeting in Virginia, was the creation of the TVA. This ambitious project targeted the poorest part of the country, the one hardest hit by the Depression, and took it upon itself to modernize and reinvigorate it. Through a comprehensive regimen of education and infrastructure building—including the construction of 29 hydroelectric dams and even the building of one town—the TVA turned this rural backwater into the nation’s biggest producer of electricity, and one of the backbones of mobilization during WWII. Though it faced determined opposition, and proposals to implement similar regional plans were shot down across the country, the TVA stands as a high water mark.
The only time in American history that the federal government has been able to enact a national plan was through the Federal Highway Act of 1956, a project whose skeleton was drafted by the NRA during the Depression. While many today dispute the merit of this program, it is instructive to note that the only way Eisenhower was able to sell the highway act to the country was by declaring it vital to national security.
Today we face not nuclear Armageddon but a danger that could, in the long run, prove all the more crippling: our national infrastructure on the brink of collapse. It seems time to draft our own “new road,” one designed not just to pull us out of economic crisis, but also to lay the groundwork that will carry us undiminished into the future.
"People have been worried that we were going to leave a hole in the ground or construct a simple subway entrance instead of the iconic structure that the community was expecting," Sander said. "I am here to tell you that this is not the case." The original designs of the above-ground glass structure called for an oculus that would reflect light into the station. The plans were later simplified to only include skylights.No word yet from Jamie Carpenter, though the MTA press office is hard at work on filling us in. For a reminder of what the project may or may not look like, check NY1's story from Monday. Update: In an email, Carpenter writes, "We are of course hopeful but I have no current information." Meanwhile, MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan shed slightly more light on the project. "At this stage, we've reached a concept but no new designs yet," he said, adding "A three-story glass structure is about as specific as I could get." In the Times, Sander said pretty much the same thing, as well as making a strong case for its inclusion in the stimulus plan:
“The pavilion has to be many things to many people,” Mr. Sander said, referring to the glass structure. “It has to be a building of vibrant design with as much new retail activity as possible.” He called it “a highly visible portal to a modern transportation complex.” [...] “The project needs to be finished,” he said. “It does at this point appear to meet the criteria that Congress has put out, and from an economic stimulus standpoint, in terms of job creation, it certainly seems appropriate.”
In our last issue I noted The Architect’s Newspaper and SCI-Arc’s plan to launch a competition promoting creative ideas for LA’s transit system. Now it’s official. The contest, called A New Infrastructure: Innovative Transit Solutions For Los Angeles, is open for entries, due by March 13. (Participants can find information and an entry form here.) The jury will include architects Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Neil Denari; Gail Goldberg, LA planning director; Aspet Davidian, director of project engineering facilities at the LA Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Cecilia estolano, CEO of the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles; and other design experts and civic leaders.
The contest is designed to encourage solutions outside the normal parameters of LA’s—and the country’s—existing transportation-related schemes. We hope that entrants, including architects, engineers, planners, or (hopefully) a combination of the three, will explore new transit systems and technologies, new transit-related buildings and neighborhoods, and a new thinking about the relationship between transit, architecture, open space, and urban redevelopment. Competitors will be asked to focus on specific rail extension projects and also take a look at larger-scale, interrelated transit planning challenges.
The competition coincides with the passage of LA County Ballot Measure R, which will give the city up to $40 billion in transportation funding over the next 30 years, and with President Obama’s pledge to make the largest investment in infrastructure since the 1950s.
Here’s our opportunity to think big; to break the outmoded boundaries between transit and its surroundings; between design and infrastructure; and between the professions of architecture, engineering, and planning. And to think innovative about existing new technologies such as light rail, zip cars, biofuels, as well as even newer technologies
Fifty years ago our new highways increased our city’s mobility and its efficiency. But they subsequently destroyed many of our neighborhoods and now they cannot even handle the city’s voluminous traffic. Meanwhile, as many of the nation’s mass transit systems continue to age, LA’s transit remains stalled with limited ridership and a limited reach. Sure, there are subways, and our bus routes are certainly extensive, but who do you know that takes mass transit? I know a few, but everyone else spends their days stuck in traffic.
It’s the rare Angeleno who believes that the age of the automobile will soon end. And I’m not one of them. People will always relish the opportunity to set out on their own, and cars will continue to become more efficient and ecologically sound. But we still need new transit systems to supplement them, and to insure that our city doesn’t grind to a halt. These systems need to be designed to encourage riders to want to take them, and in ways that nourish and improve our neighborhoods.
Hopefully these ideas will encourage our transit planners, city planners, and civic leaders, some of whom will have a seat on our jury, to be inspired and to think fresher. Maybe a plan will become reality. We also hope this competition will draw attention to an issue that could make or break the prototypical freeway city. If no one is paying attention, we will get more of the same. Or nothing at all. Already the MTA has announced in a report that because of budget shortfalls the Red Line “Subway to the Sea” wouldn’t even reach Westwood until 2032, and that the Green Line extension to LAX would take until 2018. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has sharply criticized these dates, and we must too. If we are active in this process, imagining schemes and pressuring our government to move swiftly and innovatively, there’s no telling what we can accomplish and how far we can travel.
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In recent years, some of the best architecture in the world has been built underground. The infrastructural imperatives of subway systems have brought out the best in architects, as evidenced in London’s Jubilee Line Extension, in Paris’ Meteor, and perhaps above all others, in the Bilbao subway designed by Norman Foster: True, it runs for just over a mile and is thus of little use, but it looks great.
Naturally, it would never occur to the magistrates of New York (at least in the past half century) to care greatly about such things. But some of our stations are better than others, and a new station at South Ferry, at the very base of Manhattan, has much to commend it. Set to open at the end of January, South Ferry, which will serve as the terminus for the 1 line, differs from the competition in two key architectural respects, and was designed by in-house MTA architects working under Porie Sakia-Eapen. Neither the above-ground entrance nor the overall conception of the site is radically new. What’s different is that the area where the trains pass has been covered with a long barrel vault about 16 feet high. Though the fact is seldom remarked, the ceilings in New York’s subways are usually very low, which only adds to the dispiriting dreariness of most stations. By contrast, the combination of South Ferry’s high concave ceilings, its pink granite floors, and the white porcelain cladding of its columns and walls suggests the sort of infrastructural grace that one associates with Northern Europe.
Also impressive is the way that at one point, a bridge spans the tracks, making it possible to see and feel the trains passing underneath. In the more than 400 stations that make up the city’s subway system, this is not unique, but I know of no other such bridge that is underground or that provides windows permitting riders to see the trains as they pass. Though the windows were something of an afterthought, this bridge cannot fail to engage the avid attention of anyone with an appetite for infrastructure.
More immediately striking than either of these architectural features, however, is the large-scale decoration of the entrance concourse, a 150-foot parabolic wall, 14 feet high, covered with the site-specific installation See it Split, See it Change, created by the artistic team of Doug and Mike Starn. This work consists of 425 fused-glass panels that depict the darkened branches of trees in Battery Park silhouetted against a stark white ground. These branches, whose relentless ramifications suggested to the artists the complexity of the subway system itself, appear as well in a stainless-steel fence, also designed by the Starn twins, that separates the entrance from the station proper.
The final component of their installation, rather different from the rest, is a mosaic of Manhattan from the Battery to 155th Street, based on a U.S. census map from 1886, that integrates a map from 1640 in such a way as to superimpose the 1811 grid over the geological specifics (like the spring at Spring Street and the canal at Canal Street) that have been covered up in the course of centuries.
The historical sensitivity revealed in this choice of map is enhanced by the nearby reconstruction of an ancient wall that was once the limit of Manhattan Island, discovered in the process of constructing South Ferry Station. Like the display of unearthed fragments along the walls of Brooklyn Museum’s new subway entrance, or in various stations of the Athens subway system, this reconstruction suggests an almost curatorial sensibility. It reveals a deep reverence for the past in the very heart of the newest addition to the infrastructure of New York City.
“The MTA is my conductor; the Z Train shall not want … (hopefully). Transit officials maketh the J and Z skip-stop during rush hours, providing faster trips. They leadeth the J and Z quickly in the path from Jamaica, Queens to lower Manhattan. But now the MTA sayeth it is very broke and must still the Z, and addeth an hour more a week commuting time for many riders.” “Yea, though the Z walks through the valley of the shadow of death, it will fear no MTA plan: For thou art with the Z, Governor David Paterson. Thy leadership and thy budget staff, they comfort Z riders. Thou preparest new revenue proposals to stop the death of the Z; thou annointest the Z’s wheels with oil; the Z’s subway cars runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow the Z in all its days and the Z will dwell in the house of MTA subway tracks forever.”And, lo, I could hearth yon groaning over mine Wifi.
When a steam pipe exploded in Midtown last July, and the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed just weeks later, people around the country began listening to the Cassandras who had been warning about the decrepit state of our infrastructure, urban and rural alike. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the cost of bringing it all up to date would be $1.6 trillion, and at the time, that number seemed just impossible—would Congress ever allocate that kind of money to something as unsexy as infrastructure? No way.
Fast forward 15 months—and one $700 billion bailout later—and it doesn’t seem so crazy. More traditional quarters of the Republican Party may regard New York Times columnist David Brooks as the skunk at the picnic, but he is squarely in line with a growing number of people who believe that the one way to pull us out of the looming recession is to devote significant federal resources to public works, especially those that focus on transportation and the development of alternate sources of energy. A “Green New Deal” has been championed in one form or another by people across the political spectrum: President-elect Barack Obama, Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens, the Regional Plan Association, and even Martin Feldstein, the economist who advised President Reagan on policy.
For New York City, and the Northeast in general, Brooks’ argument for transportation spending is the central one. In a recent Times column, he suggested a “National Mobility Project,” which argues that we should take the mix of fiscal stimulus and research in alternative energy, and focus it on the realm of transit. This makes sense: Many supporters of a Green New Deal advocate turbine farms in the Southwest and the Dakotas to capture that region’s least-exploited resource, the wind. Our version of that is our regional transit system—everything from Amtrak and Metro-North to NJ Transit and the MTA. One of the Obama campaign’s platform issues was a commitment to thinking about cities on a metropolitan scale, and that means thinking about transportation of every kind.
One of the most striking elements of the Skyscraper Museum’s recent symposium on density in Hong Kong was the way that the government there believes in the centrality of investment in infrastructure and transit to future development. Project after project detailed train stations built before the new neighborhoods that would use them, and the assembled panel of New Yorkers—including MTA commissioner Elliot Sander, Port Authority chief Chris Ward, and developer Vishaan Chakrabarti of the Related Companies—looked on with a mixture of awe and envy. There are many reasons why the Hong Kong model wouldn’t work here, but the straightforward premise that infrastructure feeds growth does. Architects, developers, planners, and urbanists have a rare opportunity to argue for the kind of investment that will strengthen the city and its connections to the region. If the Obama administration does in fact begin to formulate an infrastructure-based stimulus program, New York must be a part of it.