Fulton Center

Fulton Center

Arup, Grimshaw, James Carpenter Design Associates

David Sundberg / Esto

Zak Kostura

In addition to its daylighting function, the installation conceals large air ducts that draw warm air, or smoke, from the tunnel system and exhaust it out of the building.

Courtesy Arup

The recently opened Fulton Center has brought a scrumptious taste of sexy British high-tech to Lower Manhattan. Subway riders accessing or departing from the Gordian Knot of transit lines that the center serves—2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, J, N, R, Z—now have the opportunity to pass through a sci-fi fantasy of a pavilion building.

A robust grey metal exoskeletal framework supports the rectilinear glass facade—blast-proof, you understand, and offering a contemporary take on the depth and modularity of downtown New York’s historic cast iron edifices. Elemental granite floors anchor the interior, cluing you into the fact that you are about to descend into the earth. Two upper levels of yet-unoccupied retail and restaurant space hover within the glass box, floated above the ground floor on V-shaped columns with rounded GFRC covers that give the curved volume’s glistening glass walls an outward cant. Passing under the commercial component—a moment of compression—stairs and escalators descend one flight to an intermediate level, and a soaring atrium rises above—the corresponding moment of release.

Roughly circular in plan, the intermediate level offers sightlines up to the street as well as down into the subway system, an excellent position from which to find your direction into, or out of, the rabbit warren of tunnels. At one end, a snaking stairway rises up from the granite floor, curving sensuously around a glass elevator shaft and providing access to the upper levels. Digital screens ring the circular cut in the street-level floor plate, adding another layer of kinetics to an already busy space and more of the sense that you’ve just entered a scene from Neuromancer.

The atrium is bathed in an otherworldly light that filters down from an oculus skylight, some 110 feet above. The light has a diffuse, almost material quality, similar to the fog of light seen in certain James Turrell works. This quality is the result of an optical diffuser/reflector that rings and hangs down from the oculus. Composed of crossing radial stainless steel cables that support diamond shaped aluminum panels, it looks like it could be the glowing interior of a nuclear power plant’s cooling tower.

Entitled Sky Reflector-Net (2013), this $2.1 million component of the architecture is the result of a collaboration between Arup, Grimshaw, and James Carpenter Design Associates. MTA Arts and Design and the MTA Capital Construction Company commissioned the work, along with the whole project, more than a decade ago. In March 2002, in the wake of the destruction of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the MTA hired Arup to conduct a planning study for a downtown transit center. The study, which was delivered four months later in July 2002, got the MTA $847 million in funding from the Federal Transit Administration, part of the huge outlay of cash made available by the Supplemental Appropriations Act for Further Recovery.

The building that now stands on the corner of Fulton Street and Broadway is remarkably consistent with the recommendations of the initial study, a primary component of which was the use of daylight as a wayfinding device. Arup performed a solar analysis that established an ideal geometrical relationship between the site, the building, and the oculus to take optimal advantage of the sun’s path throughout the course of the year. One of the chief challenges of the site in this regard is that the street corner faces north, whereas sunlight in this hemisphere comes from the south. In that direction, tall buildings hem in the site. In answer, the oculus rises out of the roof like a chimney, and its low-e coated, insulated glass top is tilted 23½ degrees south, to capture as much light cresting the neighboring buildings as possible. The exterior of the oculus is clad in a stainless steel batten system with a diffusive coating that prevents hotspots and glare.

In February 2004, Carpenter was brought on to work with Arup and Grimshaw on developing a system that would encourage the light captured by the oculus to reach two levels under the ground to the subway system. His studio worked with the architects and engineers on reflection studies and finding a structure and materials for the system. The team eventually decided on a cable net. Made of 316 stainless steel, it attaches at 56 points to gusset plate and tension rod connections on the compression pipe at the top of the oculus, and at 56 points on the atrium structure below. TriPyramid fabricated the 4,000-pound net in its Westford, Massachusetts, facility and drove it to the site on the back of a tilt-bed truck. An installation team from Enclos lifted the net into place using eight individually operated hoists. As cable nets do, when erected and pulled into tension it naturally assumed its cooling tower shape.

Attached to the cable net are 952 1/8-inch-thick, diamond shaped aluminum panels with a mechanically applied anodized coating. Carpenter worked with German optical aluminum company Alanod to develop the coating, which has both diffusive and reflective qualities. The custom finish is now part of Alanod’s product line and is called Scattergloss, an apt name that well describes what happens to light as it lands on Sky Reflector-Net. It works as well for daylight as it does for electric light. At night, 32 metal halide lights grouped at the top of the installation in clusters of four transform the net into a giant lampshade.

The panels are perforated, 80 percent toward the bottom of the net and 20 percent toward the top. This gradient causes the installation to seem to dissolve as it reaches toward the ground. It also allows views to pass through where the net covers the upper atrium floors. As importantly, the perforations provide for the more-or-less unimpeded passage of air. In addition to directing light, the net conceals the large ventilation and smoke-evacuation ducts that ring the upper reaches of the atrium, lending a glowing face to a machine built in the memory and for the prevention of Fulton Center’s tragic historical impetus.


Cable Net:

Aluminum Panels:

Optical Finish:


Commissioned in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Fulton Center brings much-needed clarity to the tangle of subway lines that the station serves. A large part of the wayfinding strategy is Sky Reflector-Net, an art installation that directs daylight captured by the building’s raised oculus two levels under the ground.