New York

“Culture Stations”

The Urban Center

Paris’ Metro has always been prominent among subway systems, and when the City of Paris began its renovation program, the role of “supreme station” was rapidly conferred on the Louvre stop. I’ve always found its look over Frenchified, what with the slick beiges, dramatic lighting and the photos and vitrines tastefully advertising the museum’s wares, but American public officials are confirmed in their admiration. In Spring 1981 the Urban Mass Transportation Agency awarded a $128,000 federal planning grant to New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the purpose of developing conceptual designs for cultural-identity symbols in subway stations. “Culture Stations,” an exhibition cosponsored by the Municipal Art Society and the MTA, records the proceedings of that research.

The show displays the projects arrived at by four design teams for four different subway stops—those at Astor Place, 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue, and 66th Street/Lincoln Center, all in Manhattan, and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. These stops were designated as “culture stations” by reason of esthetic concentration: the 53rd Street stop, for example, services the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of American Folk Art, the American Craft Museum, the Donnell Library, the Urban Center, and more. Only two of the four (Astor Place and 53rd Street) have as yet been accorded funding however, the proposals were conceived to function as an “idea bank” of “cultural identity designs” which might be used independently for other New York or national transportation systems. “Culture Stations,” then, rests at the nodal point of a series of forces: on the one hand, it pertains to the MTA’s $7.2-billion Capital Improvement Program which over the next five years will renovate 50 stations, providing the cleaner air, better light, and clearer signs we’ve long craved in our daily urban transit; on the other, it pertains to the renewed public reverie of a ubiquitous esthetic, as it has informed recent public art programs and the more enlightened reaches of urban design. However, in a third manner, these proposals tend towards high-class advertising. One of their premises is that people are not aware of the vast cultural riches above them as they shoot through those (currently) wretched tunnels: that (to quote from the wall-label information) “station after station leads to the world’s greatest museums, theaters, libraries, schools, and gardens.”

It should be stated at the outset that these projects contain many intelligent solutions to the general problems of station design: noise abatement programs, variegated lighting, clearer signs, and attractively arranged schemes of tiles are but a few improvements that promise to alleviate today’s rush-hour horrors. Add to them several proposals to redesign spaces, reducing some of the maddeningly oppressive congestion, and the planners can be said to have functioned fairly well. However, on a general level, the line between information—which presents material and directs the traveler toward appointed locations—and promotion—which alternately seduces and shoves—is constantly transgressed by these public schemes. The myriad vitrines. light-box systems, color posters, and multiscreen video installations that are envisaged for the display of museum wares appear as direct advertisements for admission, a kind of “buy our cereal” on the part of cultural institutions. Viewing them, one wonders if transportation officials haven’t seriously confused their responsibilities to service the culture industry and to serve the commuter who has interests other than “culture.” Don’t innumerable workers and businesspeople also use these stops? And mightn’t they mind the explicit esthetic hard-sell? To reduce the quantity or regulate the arrangement of advertising in stations seems a good idea, but I question what’s accomplished by merely replacing it with another, esthetic variant.

The most successful station appears to be the least intrusive: at 66th Street/ Lincoln Center commercial and cultural promotion are carefully interspersed, so that the ads for various programs seem to inform with a minimum of push. The worst are those at 53rd Street, with its bands of eye-popping posters and video displays, and at Eastern Parkway. In the latter, the design firm of Edwin Schlossberg Incorporated has conceived a series of improvements so blatant and (on another plane) so reductive as to both assault and diminish the viewer. In this station (a nexus for the Brooklyn Museum, Botanical Garden, and Public Library) everything is color-cued: green for the garden, orange for the library, a bluish purple for the museum. A long wall will flash “exciting and changing impressions” of these institutions at moving passengers (I quote, again, from the labels), while elsewhere sequentially arranged graphic panels will represent them through temporally moving forms. Thus one shows a book opening to reveal pictures and information, while another displays a growing tree: yet a third presents the museum “as a treasure house of art and antiquities.” Poor passengers, who thought they’d had enough with the now-standard supergraphics! For Astor Place, Milton Glaser Inc. has proposed to preserve historic features such as the beaver plaques and decorative faience: but for the new ceramic tiles, originally intended to cover all existing walls, the firm has designed a “contemporary interpretation of the original design,” a grotesque composition developed by subjecting color and form to enlarged scale and random patterning so as to create a kind of puzzle, hence “stimulating curiosity and inviting participation.” This is the sort of simplistic, reductive strategy all too familiar from public planning programs, which speaks volumes about the vision maintained by officials and designers of the average citizen.

Commendations are in order for all attempts to redesign and generally civilize the subway system. But I wish that officials, in searching for “cultural identity,” had considered the force of two basic schemes. One would be to rephrase signs so as to clearly inform on locations and exhibitions. And the other would be to commission artists to create both permanent and temporary works for these stops. That, rather than advertising, might comprise a more legitimate emblem of culture.

Kate Linker