The Low Line, More Than Science Fiction?
November 22, 2011
Rendering of Delancey Underground park, better known as the Low Line. All images: Raad Studio
In 1912, writer Paul Scheerbart published “The Light Club of Batavia“, a short story (or, “Ladies’ Novelette”) about one woman’s visionary plans for an underground light spa where patrons would bathe not in water, but in light. Located at the base of an abandoned mine shaft, the club would restore those suffering from “light hunger” by completely enveloping them in light, filtered through giant prismatic volumes intersecting in space. Guests would be lowered into the depths by colored Tiffany-glass elevators, whereupon exiting they would be pushed out into the throes of hopping “light parties.” It was, in Scheerbart’s exclamatory assessment, “a spa to exceed all spas, a place for limitless intellectual insight and discovery, a model for the world!”
Fast forward a hundred years to our present time, when science fiction’s most fantastic scenarios are rapidly becoming realities. The Low Line, a park proposal situated underground in an decommissioned trolley terminal, recalls the Light Club in more ways than one. Read on.
Present condition of proposed park site. Photo: The New York Times
As we noted in our first post about the conceptual park, the project is a collaborative effort between architect James Ramsey (who heads up LES-based Raad Studio) and PopTech exec Dan Barasch. Whereas the High Line latter is suspended two stories above 10 Avenue, the Low Line, officially called “Delancey Underground,” would span nearly a football field (360 feet) in length under Delancey Street in the Lower East Side. The industrial detritus that has collected since the station closed in 1948 will be replaced with 60,000 square feet of deck flooring, planters, flora, trees, and water features–an idea which Ramsey admits to the New York Times is “a little perverse, a little like science fiction, but we realized that we have the technology to grow grass and trees underground.”
Photo: The New York Times
The technology Ramsey alludes to is a system of “remote skylights,” which would siphon and filter sunlight to the underground park via “collectors” above the surface connected to each other by fiber-optic cables. These cables would then transmit the light to “distributors,” concave depressions which form the ceiling, coated in a reflective film to magnify the falling light. On winter and rainy days, artificial lights will supplement the natural lighting captured by the skylights. Ramsey and Barasch are still developing the system and are currently raising $400,000 to construct a mock up to demonstrate how it would work.
The team just finished a first round of community meetings, which they are using to build up support for the project. So far, they’ve been well received by locals, including Robert Hammond, co-founder of the Friends of the High Line, who has already given the subterranean park his backing. What’s different about the Low Line, as Hammond told the Times, is that “it’s not the High Line…it pairs technology with an interesting location to envision a different use.”
Which brings us back to the Light Club of Batavia. Whereas the High Line more or less used current building technologies to rehabilitate an old elevated railroad in almost exclusively aesthetic terms, the realization of this still-hypothetical project is entirely contingent on the success of the technology performing what it promises. If it does work, it could prove a “a model for the world” in its engagement of architecture and technological systems. But such pronouncements, if they ever comes to pass at all, lie in the unforeseeable future. Right now, the designers are seeking approval by the MTA, which owns the property and which has pledged zero financial support to the project.