September 2, 2011

Next Stop: The New York City Subway System’s Visual Journey Continues

Mention the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subway system, and uplifting interior spaces are not typically what comes to mind. Many residents are unaware that ornate decoration figured large when the first stations opened in 1904. The original planners, in the thrall of the City Beautiful movement, were furthermore concerned that “New Yorkers would not want to ride in a hole in the ground,” New York Transit Museum curator Carissa Amash says. Surface embellishment bore the considerable responsibility of encouraging them to do so, as the underground station architecture was strictly dictated by engineering requirements.

New York MTA art

To civilize the subterranean steel-and-concrete boxes, Heins & LaFarge employed neoclassical detail yet kept its monumentality in check. Humanizing design gestures break down the interminable length of the platform walls as if demarcating a series of rooms in a home. Vertical bands of colored mosaics articulate “columns” that separate panels of glass tile. And just as an archetypal house of the time would have included wainscoting, wallpaper, and crown molding, early subway interiors feature a lower section of Norman brick, mosaic patterns against white above, and a band of terra-cotta at the top.

The system’s first in-house chief architect, Squire J. Vickers, subsequently pursued a less ornate, more hand-hewn aesthetic informed by the arts and crafts movement. While sharing George L. Heins and C. Grant LaFarge’s mission to rouse the spirits of the riding public, Vickers favored irregular tile patterns and unexpected color juxtapositions. Marking a departure from any intimations of residential decor, he embraced the brute force of the stations’ structure and removed molded plaster panels to expose concrete ceiling vaults.

Most new construction had ended by 1940, and renovations in the following decades were decidedly utilitarian-with one or two exceptions. In 1969, Herman Miller produced a subway version of the shell chair by Charles and Ray Eames: a row of molded fiberglass seats supported by a cantilever mount. Installed in a few stations in Brooklyn, the design was soon discontinued due to vandalism. Johnson/Burgee Architects intervened in the early 1970’s, eradicating any allusions to domesticity by applying the tenets of the International Style. With function reigning over form, the prototype boasted orange-glazed brick walls, terrazzo flooring, and even terrazzo benches. “Cheer is the word, like a big shopping center,” Philip Johnson told the New York Times.

Today’s transit system shares the original planners’ dedication to interior design. This time, however, the vehicle is site-specific art—intended to awaken riders from their urban overload. The MTA Arts for Transit program commissions the installations while overseeing restorations of the historic stations. Across the system, 215 pieces present a myriad of styles and compose a formidable collection.

Because people typically commute to the same stations, almost nobody is aware of how impressive it is, both in size and in quality, which is why I decided to write a book on the art installations for W.W. Norton & Company. Publication is planned for late 2012, with five self-guided itineraries much like walking tours. Readers will be able to see pieces by a multitude of artists, including some of contemporary art’s biggest names. Roy Lichtenstein, using his famous comic-book style, illustrated past and future transit in his mural at the Times Square-42nd Street station, while Sol LeWitt’s vibrantly pulsating tile patterns animate 59th Street-Columbus Circle.

Many artists envision bringing the outdoors in. Gorgeous silhouetted tree branches by Doug and Mike Starn cover mul­tiple walls at South Ferry. Along stairs at Avenue U, oversize flowering plants sprout with fecundity in mosaics by Jason Middlebrook. A Hitchcockian touch invades a Canal Street mezzanine, where dozens of bronze birds by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz perch on railings and beams. In mosaic murals at Queens Plaza, Ellen Harvey created photo-realistic big-sky city vistas. Samm Kunce’s underground view at 42nd Street-Bryant Park/Sixth Avenue reveals rock layers and tree roots along with a system of pipes.

In keeping with Heins & LaFarge’s impulse to soften the stations’ harsh structure with design detail, James Garvey gracefully looped bronze bars around structural columns to create minimalist seats at 33rd Street. Michele Oka Doner’s wall of hand-made bronze-toned tiles provides an incongruous moment of splendor at 34th Street-Herald Square. Ben Snead relieves the monotony of a long passageway at Jay Street-MetroTech with a hypnotic mural of meticulously detailed fish, birds, and insects. Playful, fantastical bronze human and animal figures by Tom Otterness are everywhere at 14th Street-Eighth Avenue-up in the rafters, under the stairs.

Some artists find inspiration in the very confines of subway architecture. Elizabeth Murray transformed a claustrophobia-inducing space at Lexington Avenue-59th Street by covering every inch of the four walls in dreamy images and colors. In Vito Acconci’s trompe l’oeil installation at 161st Street-Yankee Stadium, walls slip away to reveal the infrastructure beyond. Soon to come at Avenue J and Avenue M, Rita MacDonald will depict a span of classic white “subway” tile peeled back to reveal a riff on prototypical residential wallpaper, as if we really are in someone’s parlor after all.

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