Grimshaw’s design has set a new standard in the quality of human movement. Jay Merrick discovers AJ120’s Building of the Year
Looking west from the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York, you can glimpse the grandiose white ribcage of Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub and the glazed, but actually blind solid concrete lower facades of the Freedom Tower. Seen from Fulton and Broadway, the perspective has a compacted telephoto quality and suggests its own caption: ‘The power and the glory’.
From the scene behind you, the phrase that springs to mind is: ‘Let there be light’. Above ground, the $170 million Fulton Center building is modest in scale, with a three-level base structure and the equivalent of three storeys above it, which include the building’s canted ocular cone. The new building is the centrepiece of a wider $1.4 billion scheme that includes improvements to stations serving the Seventh Avenue Line, the Broadway Line at Cortlandt Street, and the Lexington Avenue Line.
Grimshaw’s design, led by Arup’s masterplan, has set an entirely new standard in the quality of human movement through New York’s subway stations. Calatrava’s scheme will, too. But the Fulton Center has done it first.
More than 300,000 people use the Fulton Center interchange daily; about 60,000 more than pass – relatively pleasantly – through London’s King’s Cross-St Pancras Underground station, whose subsurface volumes are much more generous than the centre’s historically unpleasant gullets. Whereas London’s Tube network grew in more or less logically expansive and interconnected ways, New York’s subway lines were conceived of and built as competitively separate entities.
The base structure is a nod to the city’s 19th-century iron-framed buildings
The Fulton transit interchange had been notorious for creating delays, caused by the infamously herniated troglodytic movement between lines 4 and 5, and A and C. Commuters used platforms to wait for trains, and as corridors to other lines. The complexity of the interchange process – the dense subsurface clottings and switchbacks of pedestrian movement – can only be fully grasped axonometrically, or in The Subway, George Tooker’s spatially anxious 1950 painting.
Grimshaw, led by deputy chairman Andrew Whalley and partner Vincent Chang, has clarified movement significantly, and has designed a building and subsurface volumes that can fairly be described as a civil experience. That civility applies to the centre as an architectural object standing on Broadway; to the typically highly wrought Grimshaw details, such as the staircase handrails and posts; and, most obviously, to the theatrical lucency and articulation of its central internal volume.
There was considerable pressure to design an architecturally notable scheme at stripped-down costs – residential values in Lower Manhattan were rising sharply when the city bought the Fulton Center’s corner site, so it cost more than had been initially budgeted. It meant that Grimshaw’s original design for a much grander ocular dome was shelved.
The reduced budget must also have reflected clawbacks prompted by the design and scheduling complications of the Calatrava scheme, whose costs ballooned from $2 billion to $3.7 billion.
The fundamental three-dimensional clarity of Grimshaw’s design, however, remained intact.
‘We wanted to make a very simple diagram: a ring and oculus, and four escalators at each corner, and the diagram came incredibly quickly, from a planning point of view,’ Chang explains. ‘Very early on there was also a sectional diagram. We were fascinated that the depth [of the lines] was so shallow. So that meant light, exposure to the sky.’
The design was partially rooted in biologist EO Wilson’s theory of biophilia: that people work and live better if they are connected with nature. Northern light, for example, shimmers down an angled $2.1 million oculus and perforated cable-net funnel that hangs dramatically above the centre’s central entrance. This thoroughly illuminates the street-level segment of the building, and the upper of its two subsurface levels. Some natural light also falls into the piazza-like lowest level via the so-called lilypad – a circular gallery in the centre of the first subsurface level, and down the stairs leading to the base of the structure.
From the street, the centre presents itself as a base structure with glazed facades whose sections are formed with two layers of framing, and from this assembly rises a metal-sheathed cone. It is an unusual combination of forms that offers no immediate functional or typological clues. However, the base structure, with its tough but aesthetically pleasing connectors, is a nod to the city’s 19th-century iron-framed buildings – not least the 1888 Corbin Building (often referred to as New York’s first skyscraper), which is butted up against the Fulton Center’s escape and seismic buffer structure.
The base volume at street level is both urban and urbane: a square two-storey-high girdle of circulation space from which one can see deep into the core volume: the sets of multiple escalators, the eight huge bifurcated structural pillars, the central steel staircase and lift to the two upper levels, whose strong sense of layering and surface finishes recalls the facades of Foster + Partners’ City Hall on the south bank of the Thames in London.
The drama of the descent to the platforms is considerable
The 6,130m2 first and second floors of the Fulton Center’s internal ‘doughnut’ structure have been earmarked by the centre’s commercial overlord, Westfield, for restaurants and offices.
The drama of the descent to the platforms is considerable. During the day, natural light is reflected techno-pointillistically down the 952 internal facets of the funnel’s perforated, diamond-shaped optical-grade aluminium panels, which have been co-designed with James Carpenter Design Associates, and suspended from a net of fine cables. One cannot help but glance upwards as one escalators down. Warm air is also drawn up the funnel, creating a stack effect that significantly reduces the centre’s mechanical ventilation requirement.
There is another equally engrossing descent: one set of escalators cuts down 6m below the foundations of the Corbin Building, presenting a construction history lesson in the form of a decorative stone frieze, an iron structural beam and beautifully laid inverted brick arches. Grimshaw took great pleasure in this element of the scheme, as it did in renovating an original, decoratively tiled wall along one of the platforms through which it had very carefully punched a new portal.
The design and delivery of the Fulton Center has proved Grimshaw’s ability to produce notable, functionally sophisticated architecture in the most politically, commercially and urbanistically challenging of American cities. Its 100-strong New York cohort may find their current masterplan projects for Los Angeles’ Union Station and Washington DC’s Union Street Station slightly less fraught.
The Fulton Center will streamline connections between 11 subway lines for up to 300,000 daily passengers, offering a memorable urban experience that nods to Lower Manhattan’s history, while supporting the region’s rebirth.
Organised around a large-scale atrium contained within an elegant, transparent facade, the centre draws inspiration from the surrounding neighbourhood’s cast-iron buildings and incorporates the restored 1888 Corbin Building.
The key architectural concept of redirecting natural light deep into the transit environment culminates in a conical dome highlighted by a new artwork, Sky Reflector-Net, that centres on the atrium concourse below.
Andrew Whalley, deputy chairman, Grimshaw
Situated in the heart of Lower Manhattan, the Fulton Center is designed to be a catalyst for the redevelopment of the area. The dynamic transport environment is a vital link to this commercial centre and its growing residential sector, streamlining connectivity between 11 New York City subway lines and enhancing the user experience for 300,000 passengers daily.
The Fulton Center is arranged around a large atrium within an elegant, transparent facade. Tapered steel columns take their inspiration from the historic neighbourhood’s cast-iron buildings and complement the integration and restoration of the adjacent 1888 Corbin Building.
Carefully aligned entrances and exits allow the streetscape to permeate the building, defining clear and efficient pathways to all trains. Once beyond fare control and underground, passengers encounter brighter, widened passageways with clear signage connecting the complex array of platforms.
The transit hub’s atrium ascends to 36.5m and is topped by a conical dome. The central architectural concept of redirecting natural light deep into the transit environment culminates in the design of the dome’s interior and the artwork Sky Reflector-Net.
Both a neighbourhood asset and regional interchange, the Fulton Center fulfils a significant civic role as a gateway to and from Lower Manhattan. Commuters and visitors arrive and depart through a memorable, contemporary urban transit centre that celebrates the city’s history, while looking forward to its optimistic future.
Andrew Whalley, deputy chairman, and Vincent Chang, partner, Grimshaw
The station’s atrium ascends to 36.5m within a conical dome. It culminates in the integrated artwork Sky Reflector-Net – a collaboration between Grimshaw, Arup and James Carpenter Design Associates. Its creation followed preliminary form-finding by Schlaich Bergermann und Partner. It was commissioned by MTA Arts & Design and MTA Capital Construction Company.
Sky Reflector-Net is composed of 112 tensioned cables, 224 high-strength rods and around 10,000 stainless-steel components. The lightweight, cost-effective net is bound by upper and lower steel rings of 16m and 22.2m in diameter respectively.
It carries 952 diamond-shaped optical-aluminium reflective panels that distribute daylight into the station all year round. A ‘scatter gloss’ finish enables the panels to reflect up to 95 per cent of the light that reaches them. As the position of the sun shifts, so does the experience inside the Fulton Center as Sky Reflector-Net offers an ever-changing display of light.
The installation improves wayfinding and offers passengers a moment of respite and connection with nature on their daily commute. Sky Reflector-Net is emblematic of a restored sense of optimism and awe in Lower Manhattan.
Vincent Chang, partner, Grimshaw
Related projects in AJ Buildings Library