In the mid 1980's I worked at an architectural firm on West 27th street in manhattan. The next block south, off the Avenue of the Americas was a parking lot which allowed full view of the buildings facing south on West 26th street. One of these buildings was what I thought of as a power station for the city's subways. It's tall proportions, over scaled archway and cast iron elements always attracted my eye- it was a powerful but anonymous architecture. It had been abandoned and converted to a nightclub when I was able to see the interior, which was fantastic in a minimal way. The soaring height of the main space was spectacular and I remember the ceiling treatment being some simple wood panels set off the existing structure in a grid pattern. It was a treat to experience an adaptive reuse of a building that was no longer needed for its original purpose. At the time I wondered why it was abandoned. I couldn't understand how the subway system could function, on the next block, without the power implied by this building.
Christopher Payne's new book answers this question and reminded me of my experience so many years ago. This handsome volume, one of a series of studies published by Princeton Architectural Press ("Grain Elevators", "Wood Burners", "Bethlehem Steel"), is a fascinating look at a building type that developed from the site specific infrastructure within one city, the power supply for the New York City Subway system. The appeal of this book is its combination of history, personal interest, photography, as-built plans, and hand sketches done by the author. This is a fine example of what is called a typology study, a monograph whose subject is a particular building type or function. Typology studies can be dry affairs loaded with minutia that would appeal only to academic types. This series though, and "Substations" in particular, aims for a broader audience with an abundance of images, clear illustrative drawings, succinct background narrative, and affordable pricing. Although I think the publisher has targeted students with books like these, the general public would be entertained by them as well.
Generally speaking, the Subway system is a fascinating subject. Famous and infamous, it is the largest system in the world and the second oldest (after London). The star of many films, shows and books, it can elicit fear for people not familiar with it, an frustration for many who use it. Legendary for being filthy, noisy and covered with graffiti (for me in the late 70's), it is the most efficient way to get around New York today. Mr. Payne's study takes on an integral part of the system that is completely unknown to the general public.
Although the substations housed power supply for the "third rail" of the subway system, what has always intrigued me, as a former New Yorker and an architect, is the exterior appearance of these silent buildings. Although many of the stations were lavished upon with striking terra cotta and glazed tile ornament, these buildings are just as architecturally important and significant. Their appeal comes from their place within the urban fabric of the city, and how they project a benign presence of a vital infrastructure. Nestled within the city streetscapes, the substations generally were of a modest size and built with quality materials. Their proportions always seem just right. A dead giveaway to their presence was the large centrally located archway (or archways) surrounding the main entry to the building.
One could guess that the size of these archways was related to the equipment housed within, but I had no idea of the massiveness of the transformers. Mr. Payne's photographs of this equipment are beautiful. The square format, luminous black & white tones, and practical compositions make even the most derelict interior (of which there are many), look captivating. The appeal of this book is its combination of history, personal interest, photography, as-built plans, and hand sketches done by the author.
As urban archaeological artifacts, one only hopes that all these structures do not disappear as they are taken "off line". I would think the landmarking significance of these structures is high due to their integration into the streetscape, their symbolism of the transit system, the high quality of the construction, and the reusability of the structure. A book like this will shed light on this building type, perhaps as a group landmark
This is a welcome addition to the series of studies on some unusual building types. I have only minor complaints about this book. I would liked to see more of his hand drawings. These sketches provide a window into what he saw and why he needed to draw certain things. Architectural sketches can be interesting images in themselves. I also wish there was concise appendix list of all the substations with information on construction, location, present use. Mr. Payne makes mention that some substations were either "gutted" or "torn apart" soon after he visited them. Knowing if one of these was the building on West 26th Street would have completed a circle for me.