Even the worst gardener knows that a plant needs light to grow. And yet, in defiance of basic biology, a lush garden grows inside a windowless warehouse on the Lower East Side.
The Lowline Lab is an experiment in subterranean horticulture, a “living lab” for the Lowline, the planned one-acre underground park on a disused trolley terminal (visible from the J/Z platform) at Manhattan’s Delancey-Essex Street station. To lead architect James Ramsey of raad studio, the core mission of the Lowline Lab is to “drive people to think about innovative urban design.”
The science of growing light-loving plants underground is relatively new. Configuring a specific light pattern for 3,500 individual plants—without killing any of them—is the project’s primary technical challenge. The Lowline Lab, explains Ramsey, is a place to “sort out hurdles and kinks surrounding daylighting technology” before scaling the project up. The team has time to experiment: Lowline Lab co-founder and executive director Dan Barasch says the Lowline will be complete by 2020.
Here’s how the lab gets its natural light: on the roof, two solar panels send sunlight into three curved parabolic mirrors that concentrate light at thirty times its normal strength. That super-light is funneled into three tubes that descend into the building, piping sunshine onto three central reflectors that disperse light over a sculptural steel canopy suspended from the rafters, sixteen feet above the concrete floor. The canopy’s construction is influenced by solar telescope design (Ramsey was once a satellite engineer at NASA). Comprised of interlocking hexagons, the undulating canopy delivers light, at varying intensities, onto plants.
raad studio collaborated with Mathews Nielsen to select plants and design the lab’s topography. Before installing the canopy, the design team created a 3-D model of the light intensity and positioned plants accordingly. Depending on their biological preferences, plants receive strong, medium, or low light. The team is still experimenting with the optimal configuration. The Lowline Lab hosts a young designers program that invites Lower East Side students in grades K-12 to take part in the discovery process.
To Ramsey, the garden’s exuberant arrangement evokes “an undulating, sci-fi cave-scape.” Sixty plant species, all from the southern hemisphere, are planted in rolling raised beds and on stalactites protruding from the canopy. Air plants, ferns, moss, and exotic flowers vie for space with edibles, including pineapples, mint, and mushrooms. The garden’s wavy, roughly U-shaped outline lets visitors get close to the plants from all angles.
For those who want to see the future of horticulture in person, the Lowline Lab will be open through March 2016.