Monday, November 17, 2008

The Future is So Yesterday

Any BRT proponent will tell you that image matters for transit. This is true for trolleys and subways as well as buses. But what image?

For as long as I can remember, subway design has been relentlessly modernist and futurist. The World's Fair subways of 1962-1964 had straight lines and hard surfaces, and since then the outsides have just gotten shinier and the insides brighter, until today you can go blind stepping on a train. The aesthetic is all about faster, sharper, newer. Aren't they going to run out of new at some point?

This drive to constantly be newer is kind of surprising, since it means that the subway seems to be one of the only areas of design that doesn't like to look back. it goes against the aesthetic of postmodern architecture, which according to Wikipedia has been borrowing from the past for at least fifty years. It even goes against the trends of subway station design, which after years of tacky orange tile (Lexington and 63rd!) and covering old mosaics with very very square tiles (Columbus Circle) has begun to recreate, restore and replicate some of the earlier designs.

I don't know about you, but I've always been irritated by the modernist aesthetic that presumes that everything made before 1930 was shit, and we have nothing to learn from the past. Mathieu Helie can tell you all about what's wrong with that idea. People in the past did a lot of good things, and we should take what we can from them.

I remember the first postmodern building I visited: the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. It looks good and it's functional too, especially the awesome top-floor atrium. Similarly appealing is the World Financial Center. Talk about a contrast with the buildings across the street! The WFC's outsides are a calming, brown stone, not another anonymous glass wall. The buildings have several welcoming public spaces in and around them, something that the World Trade Center never managed to achieve - assuming it wanted to.

Last weekend I took the kid to the NYC Transit Museum, and walking through the old subway cars I thought, "they don't make subway cars like these anymore." Then it hit me: why the fuck not? They were elegant and some of them had a lot of sophistication, even though they were built for the working class. The wicker seats! The ceiling fans! The open-ended cars! The wide doors! The subtle lighting!

And yet, transit agencies keep buying aggressively modern designs. They keep fighting this battle with car designers to prove who's more streamlined. Never mind that the car designers themselves have had great success with retro designs.

The success of the many "heritage streetcar" systems around the world and across the US, including the F Line in San Francisco, shows that there's definitely a market (sorry) for retro transit design. All across America you can find "tourist trolleys," rightly characterized as "transvestite buses," trying to capitalize on the nostalgia for old transit.

This is not just empty history-worship. It's an association with sturdy construction, quality design and dependable service, and more and more people are picking up on it. Focusing more on long-distance service, Alex Marshall argues that trains offer a level of comfort not easily obtainable in most other modes. In Pan's light-rail vehicle design poll last week, I wasn't the only one who wanted to vote for the PCCs. You can even buy for your living room a retro ceiling fan that evokes those on the R10 series cars.

I don't know when the MTA will ever have money to contract for a new order of subway cars, but when they do I hope they'll realize that the modernist schtick is itself getting old, and commission a design that incorporates the latest understanding of passenger comfort and convenience with the successes of the past. Maybe wicker seats get eaten by rats, but I bet there's some biodegradable polymer that looks just like it and can be easily made from old plastic bags or grown by algae. Maybe ten years from now we'll be relaxing on fake-wicker seats under the breeze of vandalism-resistant, non-decapitating ceiling fans, with lighting that's friendly but doesn't encourage muggings. Sure it's a challenge, but I think we're up to it.

By the way, the Nostalgia Train will be running on the "V line" between Second Avenue and Queens Plaza every Sunday from November 30 through December 28. Yes, I know, the V doesn't run on Sundays, and it goes all the way to Continental, but it's easier than saying "Along the Houston Street line, up the Sixth Avenue Line and through the 53rd Street Tunnel." You missed your chance to ride with the Rockettes, though.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I like your blog, but I feel you're a little off the mark with this post.

You forget that all the "retro" designs you admire were once considered "modern" themselves. Future generations will look upon the modern designs of today that you abhor with the same nostalgia you feel for wicker seats. 50 years from now florescent lights will seem warm and hearken back to a simpler time. Don't deprive the future of its own past by advocating the recycling of today's past.

Good design strives to be something new. Sure, this "newness" may incorporate "retro" elements, but too often the result is gimmicky. I feel that in hindsight post-modernism will be viewed as a detour on the otherwise linear progression of modernism.

But who knows? Maybe when I'm older I'll feel the same way you do and lament the rapid pace of modern design. Come Christmas 2058 I'll be having pleasant flashbacks riding vintage R160s.