Although Fulton Center station eases a lot of commuter pain and presents the city of New York with a grand new standard in subway station design, it seems that the station needs more time to grow into its superlatives.
Weeks before New York City’s newest subway station opened, advertisements on subway trains proclaimed it as “New York’s Next Great Public Space.”
Although Fulton Center station eases a lot of commuter pain and presents the city with a grand new standard in subway station design, it seems that the station needs more time to grow into its superlatives.
New Yorkers had a good 11 years to build up as many expectations and dreams of the Fulton Center as they wished. The station, originally scheduled to open in 2007, made more headlines for its seven-year delay in completion, its frequent re-designs, and hefty budget overrun. Buttressed with Federal recovery grant funding, Fulton Center came about as one of many public works projects to help rejuvenate downtown New York in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The new station comprises a main building designed by Grimshaw Architects with Arup along with a series of expanded and new underground connections across a campus that spans three city blocks.
The station’s main Fulton Building sits only one block from the new World Trade Center buildings and is meant to serve a growing number of workers and residents the city spent years to attract to the area since the 2001 attacks. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the public-private agency that runs New York’s public transportation, sorely needed to upgrade the former Fulton Street subway stations, which had outlived their capacity to efficiently connect commuters via tunnels and concourses between nine subway lines underground.
Today’s subway riders often forget that New York’s system—the largest in the world—was historically generated from competing, privately owned subway companies. Grimshaw and Arup took on the difficult task of integrating subway line connections from three formerly competing interests, spread obtusely about a three square-block underground maze, into a traversable station. This tangle of tracks at different levels and disparate locations prevented them from being united under the roof of a single station in a grand gesture of the likes of Grand Central Station's main hall.
Grimshaw’s and Arup’s solution? To ease commuter congestion and wayfinding by installing as many stair, elevator, and escalator access points as possible between subway platforms underground. In this way, Fulton Center is most successful, and especially for differently-abled commuters who now have a whole network of elevators to use as transfer points between platforms. One of the station’s biggest assets includes a concourse that connects commuters from the 4 and 5 trains (which form the U.S.’s busiest subway line) to the platform of the A, C, J, and M trains. Frosted blue glass subway tiles brighten up this hall – a new, warmer tile typology for a system awash white ceramic. This expanded concourse and staircase erases the terrible memory of commuters squeezing through three small doorways. If the new Fulton Center station only included this updated transfer, along with compliance for differently-abled commuters, it would be a major success. Together, they prove how small infrastructural changes make an impactful difference.
Most of Fulton Center’s main terminal building, the Fulton Building, operates as an entry and exit point to the street—not really one that supports the heft of train transfer circulation between the eleven lines. Perhaps this will change with the opening of the connected World Trade Center station. From the street, the Fulton Building invites riders inside with a glass window facade on two sides. Ribbed black exposed steel armature divides the windows into bays of three, creating a handsome three-story cube crowned at the top with an inset conical dome, truncated at an abrupt angle. When entering from the street, commuters funnel efficiently down one of four staircases or escalators, radiating outwards from a below ground circular mezzanine like spokes from a hub. At the mezzanine, commuters then stream through nine turnstiles and into the subway system. Although Fulton Center boasts many different entry and exit points about its downtown campus, this new main entrance sees a steady stream of the eventually estimated 300,000 daily commuters.
At rush hour on a recent Monday, however, the turnstiles already proved to be a bottleneck, perhaps, too much so for a brand new building predicated on increased commuter flow, and especially in contrast to the breezily refreshing station entry. Similarly, one wonders why this heavily trafficked mezzanine only features three subway farecard machines. At rush hour, the farecard queue for each was consistently eight people deep – a pain point that seemed anachronistically at odds with an expansive new hall.
Light pours onto the mezzanine and its escalators from the dome’s overhead “oculus” skylight. Artist James Carpenter worked with Arup and Grimshaw to create an art installation inside the dome called “Sky Reflector-Net,” a cable-suspended net of tessellating diamond-shaped aluminum panels that reflect light from the skylight down into the main building’s below-ground interior. It forms a sweeping centerpiece to the building, a feature that is quite unexpected for a New York City subway station, and one that will hopefully set a new aesthetic standard for stations to come. Visitors to the station’s to-be-opened 66,000 square feet of retail, organized around the station’s three-story atrium, will benefit most from the oculus’ rays. Let's hope they also benefit from seating, because commuters currently looking to rest have to squat informally in the building's interior window bays, an overlooked detail that doesn’t befit a great public space.
The Sky Reflector-Net’s grace and airiness seem at odds with the clunky, brute stainless steel cladding of the mezzanine deck, the similar stainless rims of its surrounding atrium, and its screaming inset digital signage. These design elements seem dated and overwrought—perhaps a result of the fact that it was originally designed in 2003. Transit interiors don’t have to be designed this way. One only has to look at the renderings of Grimshaw’s recent Crossrail project for London’s Underground to see how the firm devised sinuous white gridded wall and ceiling panel components that unite and smooth the irregular forms of the Underground’s tunnels. This patiently devised solution not only offers cost-effective modularity, but also creates a quiet aesthetic consistency that privileges wayfinding and directional signage.
Underneath the mezzanine, the station’s bottom level includes a retail-rimmed transfer plaza that connects to a major, gleaming new concourse under Dey Street. This passageway shuttles commuters from the Fulton Building to the R subway train and will eventually connect to the 1 train at Cortland Street and E train at the World Trade Center station designed by Santiago Calatrava – only one block away. Jointly, on a daily basis, these stations estimate to handle the equivalent of the population of Manchester (UK) or Vancouver. But commuters transferring internally from Fulton Center to World Trade Center, and vice versa, have to pay another subway fare to transfer. This hiccup in seamless service between two brand-new major transit hubs only one block away harkens back to the aforementioned days when New York’s subway was comprised of competing interests, exemplifying how New York’s MTA often repeats history at the expense of progress.
In a recent article on Architect Magazine’s website, the architecture critic Aaron Betsky made the case for the New York City metropolitan region to invest in smaller, less sexy infrastructural improvements rather than big shiny new terminals for air and rail. Understanding and improving how people move about a space and the city on a more micro level, he argues, collectively lubricates transport flow and eases building and infrastructure strain. Likewise, Fulton Center demonstrates certain successes in how small gestures can make huge impacts, but it was fueled by the political desire to rebuild Lower Manhattan at all costs, and as a result, missed some connections.