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

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This is genius: Skyline Chess.

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Live Time Lapse

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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.

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Riveted Lineage

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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 […]

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More Than A Drop To Drink

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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 […]

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A Very Small Park

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

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