In an abandoned warehouse on New York’s Lower East Side, a radical new kind of park is taking shape. Among the peeling paint and old neon signs advertising food, fruit, and meat, an intensive period of design development has yielded a prototype of the LowLine, an underground park whose name riffs off Chelsea’s now-famous High Line.
The High Line got us all thinking about how to reuse and reimagine underutilized and forgotten urban spaces. The LowLine takes that even one step further, inspiring cities around the world to conceive of even the least visible disused infrastructure as potential green space—in this case, a former trolley terminal. “If the High Line is a sand dune, the LowLine is the forest floor,” said James Ramsey, co-founder and lead architect behind the LowLine, an organization in its first year that already has run a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign and has the backing and partnership of many city officials, local community organizations, and corporate sponsors.
Now, the project is into its next and much more real phase: an exhibit of the underground park prototype, a proof of concept which will be free and open to the public until the end of this month. In partnership with Audi and Columbia University, A First Glimpse of a Future Underground, does indeed feel like just that—a peephole into what a new, green, subterranean landscape could be.
When Co.Design first reported on the LowLine, it was merely a pie-in-the-sky pitch. Now, 600 individually rendered pieces of anodized aluminum make up a 36-foot-radius canopy suspended over a piece of cozy park.
The web-like structure—designed by Edward Jacobs (previously a lead designer for Confederate Motorcycles, a custom-bike company based in Birmingham, Alabama), and Brandt Graves (formerly of New York–based design studio SOFTlab), is an exercise in bringing a design sensibility to NASA space telescope technology. It culminated in brute strength, as the assembly was hoisted to the ceiling so as to look like it’s levitating. The exhibit is essentially a core sample of what all 60,000 square feet of the LowLine park, a stone’s throw away from the exhibit, would eventually look like—a subterranean, dreamlike space in the middle of the city.
At the heart of the project is a network of tubes, which bring sunlight where there was none before. “With the solar technology that James invented, we now have the chance to make use of space which wasn’t possible by horticultural standards before,” says Misty Gonzalez, the lead environmental designer for the project. “A lot of space exists that we don’t use well enough. We don’t need more or new.”
The technology to create a sunlit, underground, green park is complex. Using six tubes called collimators controlled by a computer and GPS system, the system channels natural sunlight 15 feet down through a series of lenses and suspended reflectors, which then bounce light back onto the anodized aluminum parabolic curve. The lens-and-curve method of light diffusion is essentially the same as that used by the James Webb Space telescope—“a large, infrared-optimized space telescope” that is being developed to observe stars forming under extreme conditions. For the LowLine’s life-size prototype, the curve shape was made entirely of flat pieces to obviate the need for tooling, the cost of which could have run into the millions of dollars. Instead, each piece was laser or water-jet cut and fabricated entirely in Brooklyn, right across the river.
In spite of the high-tech nature of the project, the team members emphasize the idea of a forest floor: “It’s like you’re walking in the forest, and you turn a corner and see a fallen tree illuminated in a shaft of light,” James analogizes. It’s that element of the unexpected that James hoped visitors to the exhibit opening last Saturday would experience. “People will turn a dark corner, be confronted with this, and just be taken aback by the magic.”
The LowLine has more exhibits, fundraisers, events, and outreach planned. Constantly engaging their stakeholders, they will be submitting a formal proposal for the former trolley site as early as next year. In the meantime, more designs, more work.
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