New York


Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Riding the subway in New York is hardly the experience of efficient service and pleasant surroundings that it is in Stockholm, Montreal or San Francisco. Or at least that’s how it seems from the glimpse of those systems in Cooper-Hewitt’s “Subways” show in the 42nd Street subway station. The exhibition makes it painfully clear to countless commuters that pleasant and functional mass transit is possible through good design and exists in other U.S. cities as well as abroad. One can only hope that improvement is already on the way in New York and may even be spurred on by enthusiastic support from city citizens. And that is the point of the Museum’s “Immoveable Objects” series—to bring design consciousness to masses of people by putting the “exhibit” literally where the action is.

As the nation’s only museum dedicated to the design arts, the Cooper-Hewitt has managed to install some of the most inventive, participatory exhibitions seen in New York in recent years. Specializing in an objective scrutiny of everyday designed things, these exhibits see as much through a sociologist’s eye as through a curator’s, suggesting lifestyle and values through glimpses of design priorities. Architecture has been a natural for this kind of study, reflecting popular tastes as well as design eccentrics’ or visionaries’. By presenting a simple side-by-side comparison of subway architecture, the psychology of each city involved has been revealed. Consider the fact that benches line the platforms of the Paris Metro, while seating is sparse in most N.Y. stations. The (unofficial) N.Y. explanation is that there’s no time between trains to sit down—an untrue and ridiculous justification that might be used in all sincerity by the Japanese transit authority, which literally schedules trains with split-second timing.

There’s a wealth of information available in the “Subways” exhibition, both in the display cases and in the tabloid-style catalogue of the show. In a tour-de-force of low-budget versatility, Lucy Fellowes, the coordinator, and Sam Lebowitz, the designer, gathered photos, maps and illustrations from systems worldwide and packed the exhibition with evidence that good design goes a long way.

Perhaps the most striking example of imaginative design is shown in the Stockholm system, where blasted tunnels are left unfinished, and artists commissioned to paint or sculpt each “grotto” into a personalized cave. The results vary from underwater motifs to neo-neolithic cave painting to modern abstract murals. But the basic attitude is a purist’s dream of form-follows-function, and the name “underground” was never more appropriate. Conversely, Moscow’s ornate marbled and chandeliered stations disguise their underground origins, and are used in state propaganda as proof of the luxurious equality of transportation for all citizens. Compare this to the status-conscious New Yorker, who avoids the subway in favor of more expensive and efficient surface transportation.

As the catalogue points out, different cities have lionized their subways in popular songs and art. Londoners retain communal memories of sheltering in the “Tube” during the war; the pushers-and-pullers used to pack the Tokyo trains are legendary. But Tokyo can also boast of having the most attractive stations in the world, in terms of usefulness and organization. Downtown subway stations are major shopping centers in Tokyo, with commercial services, stores and restaurants of all kinds, brightly lit and heavily trafficked. Perhaps the ultimate solution to many urban problems will require such transference of services underground, to free aboveground space for housing.

As far as examples of superb futuristic design are concerned, there are some improvements but no total solutions. Better signs is one of the simplest and cheapest ways of adding to efficiency—Boston and San Francisco both have new color-coded signs relating stops to individual lines or particular stations. Mexico City plans an elaborate system of symbology to identify historic or key areas without need of words in any language. Unfortunately, the symbols have to be learned as much as any language. Since a subway is one sign of a true metropolis, it is imperative to offer understandable directions to visitors as well as residents. It’s a mystery how any non-English-speaking visitor is able to find his way around New York’s subways, with their inadequate and confusing maps.

As efficiency is improved, some last remaining remnants of charm are lost along the way. The graceful art deco station entrances in Paris may be the last vestige of romance left in that city—nowadays, new individual plastic seats are replacing benches to discourage loitering (and lovers). Traditional trysting is thwarted by practical design—the seats are too far apart for couples. Of course the new placement also discourages bums from sleeping on them, and since respectability discourages crime (and vice versa) this should make the platforms safer, if more prosaic.

Urban crime is foremost in most minds when discussing subways, since connotations of “underground” places are inevitably sinister and threatening. Vandalism and muggings have to be taken into consideration in subway design, as well as strict safety precautions. Simple improvements in lighting might be a first step in crime prevention—most likely only drastic changes in light and noise control, efficient signs and improved service will really change existing services into models of utopian transportation. But thanks to the Cooper-Hewitt, many more people than urban planners and architect/designers are aware not only of the problems but of the possible solutions. “Subways,” on view in the subway, is public entertainment and information presented in the public interest by a very vital and inventive new museum.

Deborah Perlberg