Since its glass doors opened and its escalators sprang into motion in early November, the Fulton Center, lower Manhattan’s latest mixed-use landmark, has been described as a “jewel,” a “rare gem,” and a “Crystal Palace.” Where disorientation and decrepitude once reigned, where subway lines simply tunneled past each other and spat commuters out through modestly marked portals and into the sunless corridors of nine-to-five downtown, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has gifted the city a shiny new transit and retail hub. At last, after years of anticipation and delay, a Miesian glass prism now commands attention amid a hodgepodge of brick, plaster, and — more and more — curtain-walled facades; the Fulton Center’s much-publicized crowning feature, a 53-foot conical dome punched open with a glass oculus and draped with a net of diamond-patterned aluminum panels, diffuses both natural and artificial light, subtly responding to the city’s diurnal rhythms and priming itself for photos 24 hours a day. It is no wonder the facility’s critics and commentators have reached for such sparkling metaphors.
And why not? This temple to transit, conceived by the esteemed firms Arup and Grimshaw Architects, along with James Carpenter Design Associates — creators of the techno-poetic “Sky-Reflector Net” — has all the trappings of enlightened, civic-minded design. As Bloomberg News has implied, the Fulton Center seems to offer New York’s commuting masses that coveted union of form and function. The multilevel rotunda is ringed with metal-clad stairways and escalators and well equipped with elevators, a veritable symphony of multistory circulation. Commuters can access brightly lit, granite-paved subterranean spaces from a myriad of street-level entryways, connecting them to no fewer than nine subway lines and five subway stations. Locating street exits and subway transfers often requires the labored study of Helvetica signage, but this new sense of interconnectivity in lower Manhattan is indisputably welcome. There is even room in the spacious new Center to escape the rush-hour current, to pull aside to a stretch of shiny railing and look at a map or dabble on your phone comfortably out of the paths of suit-and-tie stampedes. Starting in the spring, visitors can ignore the hustle and stroll the multiple floors of retail and dining options — whispers of Burberry and Shake Shack — that will surround the atrium.
Perhaps to greater fanfare, the Fulton Center expresses design aspirations beyond expanded and streamlined utility. The dramatic central atrium invokes the spiritual, open-air oculus of Rome’s Pantheon, the clerestory windows of Grand Central Terminal, and Le Corbusier’s more explicitly sculptural gestures, particularly the curving outcropping of the Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh. In the rotunda, a glass-faced central elevator shaft blooms into a three-story ornamental centerpiece by virtue of the stairway spiraling around it. With these emphatically poetic moments, and with the whirring digital status updates and sea of pristine glazed and metal paneling, the entire complex animates the optimistic narrative of state-of-the-art technology eloquently brought together to form a work of art — a functional, public work of art, no less.
These features make the Fulton Center an easy addition to celebrate and a difficult one to criticize. It seems willfully contrarian to deprecate such a statement of civic generosity, a serious effort to alleviate the daily grinds and enhance the travel experiences of so many. However, I do believe thoughtful criticism is necessary. The Guardian critic Jimmy Stamp has already called the superstation “a vision of New York’s cold future where every building has the placeless quality of an airport or shopping mall.” Unfortunately, I can relate with much of Stamp’s assessment. While welcoming in natural light, the boxy glass exterior comes off as a lackluster modernist rehashing; pressed up against the sidewalk, its squat, rectilinear frame appears decidedly unmonumental, more uninspired quotation than bold statement. Not only is a sense of the designer missing here, but the users also struggle to find their place in the architecture: inside at street level, individuals sit awkwardly along the structure’s glass walls, looking strangely displaced as they inhabit the semi-isolated alcoves of the façade bays — currently the only available seating. The steely, age-proof surfaces and flashing digital screens also preemptively guard against graffiti commentaries, advertisement hacks, or any other visible idiosyncrasies of lived life and passing time.
It is a bit absurd to long for petty vandalism in a two-month-old, $1.4-billion public transportation center. But to me, this not-so-secret yearning hints at the more general lack of character to which Stamp has already alluded. In many ways, the design of the Fulton Center actively precludes traces of real human presence. While there is enough physical room in the rotunda to slow down and pause, the emphatic openness and transparency of this Crystal Palace, the lack of public furniture, and the ceaseless stream of digital ads collude to demand decisive and uninterrupted circulation. In addition to this general sense of unease, the highly visible presence of security guards and surveillance cameras can make any wanderer — especially one detached from her smartphone — feel self-conscious. These would seem somewhat unreasonable gripes about a Manhattan subway station if it weren’t for the project’s tremendous, conflicted effort to create a great public space. In the end, who will have the time, patience, or acuity to observe the subtle nuances of the Sky-Reflector Net, especially amid the flashing hot pink of inescapable T-Mobile ads? Perhaps the most we are expected to do is snap an Instagram photo and move on to the turnstiles, or the Burberry store.
The Fulton Center is located at Broadway and Fulton Street (Financial District, Manhattan).