Grimshaw’s grand Fulton Center is part of a rebirth of Lower Manhattan as a social and residential district
Over the course of the last century or so, Lower Manhattan has acquired a fairly well deserved reputation as the place where fun goes to die. New York’s oldest neighbourhood – the seed from which the rest of the city sprang, the original encampment of its first Dutch settlers and now home to its highest concentration of skyscrapers – has long been considered its least interesting, a bland commercial district by day and an un-peopled dead zone by night. EB White, in his famous 1949 essay Here Is New York, describes three types of Gothamites: the born-and-bred native, the immigrant from the provinces, and the commuters, ‘the locusts’ who descend on the city during working hours and flee it come five o’clock. The Financial District (FiDi) is the great grove of the locusts, picked bare by their constant comings and goings.
But that’s changing as new residential developments, restaurants and stores have sprouted alongside the looming office towers. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought a renewed focus and enormous government investment to the area around the World Trade Center, and a decade later that investment is starting to bear fruit. No longer the land of Bartleby the Scrivener and the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, FiDi is coming back to life, and behind its improved image an even newer transit infrastructure will make it more accessible to the city’s residents while corralling the commuter-locusts into a more manageable swarm.
‘It’s a transfer point for 300,000 people,’ says Vincent Chang, partner at Grimshaw Architects. The UK firm, in collaboration with Arup Associates, has just put the finishing touches to the Fulton Center, a major node in the citywide subway system in the very heart of the Financial District. The gleaming low-rise glass box, topped by a strikingly sculptural funnel-dome, was officially opened in November, and besides making a welcome addition to the streestcape along lower Broadway it’s quickly bearing out its designers’ promise to reduce congestion in the passageways beneath it. ‘Well over a third of downtown Manhattan’s workforce uses the subway,’ notes Chang, and for his firm and their collaborators the question was, ‘How could we combine intuitive wayfinding for all those people, and give it the nature of a civic space?’
The problem, as Chang observes, is rooted in the history of New York and its mass-transit network. ‘Many of the lines were built by competing entities over 100 years ago,’ he says, and the city’s subway map shows the result: New York is an unruly tangle of routes that intersect en masse at points where commercial activity is highest, in particular in Lower Manhattan. Not only that, but because the original builders had no interest in helping their passengers to get to competitors’ trains, interchanges were often only constructed later, and can be incredibly difficult to navigate. The Fulton hub marks the point where trains 4 and 5 – the only two serving the Upper East Side of Manhattan – connect with the A and C trains, the longest line in the system. ‘All those passengers were funnelled through two narrow transit ways,’ Chang points out. Very skinny platforms meant rush hour crowding could make it all but impossible to get in or out of the packed train cars.
The consequences for New York could be felt well beyond the confines of the Financial District. Craig Covil led the Fulton Centre project from the Arup side, beginning in late 2001 with a study on how renovation of the Fulton Street station could affect the New York subway as a whole. They realised that ‘the traffic at Fulton dictated the pace at which all trains on 4/5 line can run,’ says Covil: the congested transfer point was the greatest bottleneck in the entire line, reducing the frequency of service all the way along from the northern Bronx to southernmost Brooklyn. ‘The solution was to reduce the time that the trains had to sit idle,’ Covil explains. Arup proposed a list of changes that would widen the passageways to the A/C lines, increase platform space for waiting passengers, and open newer and larger surface-level entrances to clear people out of the station as quickly as possible.
As the project progressed and Grimshaw was brought on board in early 2003, the question of what to do became less pressing than how to do it. Several logistical hurdles presented themselves, beginning with the problem of funding as municipal budgets fell drastically in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. That stumbling block was overcome in 2009, when the Obama administration passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (popularly known as the stimulus bill), bailing out the project to the tune of $500m. Next there was the problem of the structure’s neighbours: the original proposal involved demolition of the adjacent Corbin building, a gorgeous 1889 American Romanesque pile that the designer was loath to tear down. A landmark review saw it ‘quickly incorporated it into the project,’ says Covil, and the consultant retained to document its dismantling was happily promoted to oversee its preservation as its basement level became a part of the Fulton Centre’s subterranean warren. Finally, and perhaps most dauntingly, the Metropolitan Transit Authority—the quasi-public agency that oversees New York’s subways—imposed a strict order on the design team, forbidding any interference in the continuous 24-hour operation of the subways during construction. ‘They said it over and over,’ recalls Covil, ‘Do not impact our revenue service!’ The interventions would have to be done while ensuring trains still ran more or less on time.
But the completed Fulton project has an even more remarkable aspect. This is without doubt the projecting oculus that tops the steel-frame above-grade structure and directs light down into the lower reaches of the space. Created in collaboration with artist and designer James Carpenter, the glass-topped cone – dubbed the Sky Reflector-Net – illuminates the main concourse of the transit center and the multi-use retail levels that surround it. Its prime purpose is functional, daylight acting as an ideal wayfinding agent to help users orient themselves in the cavernous interior. But the glittering rotunda is also key to what Chang calls ‘the narrative about the combination of art and architecture’ that the architect deployed to take the project beyond mere infrastructure to a real civic asset, one in the tradition of Grand Central Terminal and the original Penn Station.
On that score, the Fulton Center can largely be ranked a success, albeit a qualified one. In total the renovation cost a startling $1.4bn, a price tag that seems out of proportion to what is, at bottom, a very nicely-lit subway station that affords a slightly faster ride on a single train line. As an architectural appurtenance to a largely invisible system, the Fulton building seems somewhat extraneous—especially since it’s only a few blocks from where Santiago Calatrava is finishing work on another transit hub, connected by passageway to Fulton, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center at Ground Zero. Grimshaw’s building is (thankfully) a great deal more disciplined than its bird-like neighbour, but it does seem somewhat redundant. It would appear that the competition between private companies of a century ago has only given way to competition between bureaucracies: the WTC hub is a project of the Port Authority, and not to be outdone, the MTA has insisted on having its own shiny new station, too.
On the other hand, the fact that everyone now seems to want part of the action in the Financial District is encouraging. With the Grimshaw and Calatrava buildings, and existing tunnels running some way to the east, one can now walk underground almost end to end through the entire area and pop out for drinks at fine new bars, at art galleries for an evening’s vernissage, or for a dinner party at one of the new apartment buildings that are finally making it feel like a neighbourhood. All grand infrastructure projects tend to pre-empt their own utility, and seem lavish or foolhardy only briefly; their logic, typically, is of the ‘If you build them, They will come’ variety. The Fulton Center is built, and ‘They’ are coming—and for practically the first time since Peter Minuit made landfall, they’re coming to Lower Manhattan.
Ian Volner is a contributing editor at Surface and Architect magazines. He lives in Manhattan
Total cost £1.4bn
Retail area 6,000m2
Passengers daily 300,000
Height of atrium 33m