Blog

Peeking Through

by Don Friedman on June 26, 2017



Infrastructure is to us as the ocean is to fish: it’s everywhere around us, and we depend on it completely, but we usually don’t see it even when we’re looking at it. Sometimes it shows up as oddities that require explanation; sometimes it shows up as windowless buildings. The cute corporate-art-deco structures in the two photo above are electric substations for the IND subway, constructed as part of the first wave of that system’s construction. Those buildings are basically solid equipment, transformers mostly, with pretty brick and cast-stone shells as wrappers. The one at the top is on Greenwich Avenue, where the A/C/E trains jog from Eighth Avenue to Sixth; the one at the bottom is near the Cranberry tunnel that carries the A/C between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

If we think of the infrastructure of a large city – for an example, I’ll use…hmmm, let me see…New York – as a series of large interlocking systems, most of the hysterical structure of them is hidden. Our power lines are underground in most of the city, our communications cables are underground in much of the city, our water supply and sewers are underground, about half of our trains are underground, and so on. What we see are the points where we interact (or sometimes, nature interacts) with the hidden system. We see the water system as fixtures in buildings and as hydrants in the street, we see sewers as the drains in the gutter, we see the electric system as street lamps, and so on. The first segment of the IND subway was entirely underground, so that its visible presence on the street was limited to the entrances and support-system enclosures such as the electric substations. Apparently, someone felt that having well-designed buildings was important.

If you look at the public face of infrastructure in the U.S. before World War II, you see a lot of effort spent on hiding the sometimes-brutal utilitarian nature of the structures in question. From the distribution reservoir to Edison’s Pearl Street generating plant to ferry terminals to the IRT electric generating plant, there were consistent efforts to make the visible portions of the systems attractive, or at the very least to fit in with the cityscape. This idea gradually disappeared, possibly a victim of “form follows function” philosophizing that denies a purpose to decoration on functional buildings, possibly a victim of simple budget cutting. There are some bright spots recently – most notably the Spring Street Salt Shed – that suggest we may return to efforts to make visible infrastructure worth the look.

Of course, this entire post has been a long-winded way of saying that I think the IND substations are good-looking and I wish that their model was followed more often.

Skyline Chess

June 25, 2017

This is genius: Skyline Chess.

Read the full article →

Live Time Lapse

June 24, 2017

I’m a sucker for this kind of thing: a side-by-side video comparing various New York locations as seen from a car in the 1930s and today.

Read the full article →

“It’s Alive!”

June 23, 2017

That beautiful specimen of design is the Pulaski Bridge (not to be confused with the Pulaski Skyway – General Pulaski was a fellow worth memorializing) over the Newtown Creek, running between Greenpoint in northwest Brooklyn and Long Island City in western Queens. The bridge is a double-bascule, otherwise known as a drawbridge with two movable […]

Read the full article →

Riveted Lineage

June 22, 2017

National Geographic articles always have great pictures, and this one on the construction of Yankee Stadium is no exception. The article text tells the basic story; the best of the old drawings is, in my opinion, the 1934 extension steel diagram. (Yankees purists – which I am not – will probably prefer the architectural section […]

Read the full article →

Why Green Roofs Are Not A Fad

June 21, 2017

People have known about the heat island effect for some time, where the concrete, asphalt, stone, and brick of buildings and streets absorb more heat than a natural landscape would, where black roofs absorb heat, where human activity generates heat, and the relatively lesser amount of vegetation means that the natural cooling from plant respiration […]

Read the full article →

Baby Steps

June 20, 2017

A new concourse has opened at Penn Station, running north-south on the west side of Eighth Avenue. This is the first completed piece of the Moynihan Station plan, to turn the James Farley General Post Office into the new Penn Station. That’s not as crazy as it sounds, since the tracks and platforms extend well […]

Read the full article →

More Than A Drop To Drink

June 19, 2017

Via David Goehring, the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County: Stanley Greenberg, writing for The Architectural League, took a photo of a nondescript tunnel entrance and did a nice job explaining how that concrete and steel protrusion shows our water supply system. The very short version: after a long period of New Yorkers drinking water that […]

Read the full article →

Generating Buzz

June 18, 2017

There was a bee incident across the street from our office last week. Fortunately, both humans and bees escaped unharmed.

Read the full article →

A Very Small Park

June 17, 2017

The “park” in Park Avenue was never anything more than planted median islands, but still, that’s pretty nice.

Read the full article →