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.