The 1899 contract to build New York City's first subway contained this resounding declaration: "The railway and its equipment...constitute a great public work. All parts of the structure where exposed to public sight shall therefore be designed, constructed, and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance, as well as their efficiency."
Five years later, the IRT subway opened, running from City Hall up to Grand Central, across 42nd Street to Times Square, and up Broadway. The stations featured distinctive ceramic panels designed by the prominent architects George Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge. These plaques—the beaver of the fur trader John Jacob Astor for Astor Place, the galleon of Columbus Circle, the grand purple City College seal at 137th Street—mostly disappeared in later remodeling. While newer lines, such as the Lexington Avenue IRT, were barer, they still made quite a play of displaying and bordering the station names in colored ceramic tile.
But though the art of later lines was more sparse than that of the original IRT, the subways never descended, in their original construction, to narrow functionality. Clifton Hood, in his history of the New York City subways, 722 Miles, notes that the Independent lines, built by the city in the twenties and thirties, were constructed with a strict economy in mind. But one can nonetheless see that someone had been thinking aesthetically. The tiles in the local stations between two express stops are all of one color family, but lighten or darken (depending on direction) as one approaches the next express stop. One can hardly call this art, but it was a fillip to the jaded subway rider if he recognized the scheme. As a teenager, I remember enjoying the subtly changing colors and feeling a sense of arrival when the train screeched to a stop at an express station with a completely different color.
The years have battered the subway system badly, but of late the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has begun paying attention again to the aesthetic environment underground. Through its "Arts in Transit" program, the authority has installed more than 50 new permanent art projects in its subway and commuter rail stations. It has another 50 on the drawing board.
The new works of art are enormously varied: in the materials used, in the styles they display, in their location. On station walls, on stairways approaching station platforms, on mezzanines, they include works in the classic ceramic tile of the old subways, in bronze, in glass, in enameled porcelain, in metal. Some are representational, some abstract, some symbolic, some evocative of the past; and in many cases, one thinks, it will be hard for the unsophisticated subway rider to know what to make of the art. There is no uniform scheme of decoration and artwork, as there had been on the original IRT and the IND lines.
Noting from the MTA's useful guide, Arts en Route, that a number of stations on the Lexington Avenue line (the 4. 5, and 6) feature new artworks, I took a trip down the line from 125th Street to 42nd Street.
On the mezzanine walls, the 125th Street station has conical bronze reliefs by Houston Conwill, named The Open Secret. They look good enough, but it is not clear what they symbolize, if anything. The markings might be a street grid or perhaps African design motifs. At any rate, this work immediately calls to mind a key problem for art in the subways: substantial as these artworks are, they make no great impression compared with the extensive subway walls on which they are placed.
Another problem: the station platforms at 125th Street are dismal, the floors encrusted with old, black chewing gum. The tile walls, with their remaining patches of old decoration, are broken and streaked with dirt. One immediately asks, philistine though the thought may be: Might the MTA not have done better to spend the money for art cleaning up the station? The thought persists as one proceeds to the 116th Street and 110h Street stops.
At 103rd Street, however, that is just what has been done. The entire station has been re-tiled, walls and floors. The new tile floors are mostly free of chewing gum. The original decorative sign identifying the station has been cleaned and restored and is surrounded by new buff tile. Appropriately, the major design element in the original station was its name—unglamorous as 103rd Street is, compared with Wall Street, City Hall, Astor Place, or Columbus Circle. Appropriately, too, the new artwork here is ceramic tile murals above the entrances to the platform by Nitza Tufino, called NeoBoriken. Boriquen, of course, is an old name for Puerto Rico; the station is in one of the city's oldest Puerto Rican neighborhoods. The murals are colorful but, as in the case of 125th Street, too small in relation to the size of the station. Nor are they particularly obvious, located as they are above the stairways.
Ninetysixth Street is also undergoing a full restoration, including the installation of mosaic tiles. The new floors are large concrete squares; the walls are white tile; and when I came through the station, a good number of workmen were completing the tile work on the walls and—wonder of wonders—scraping chewing gum off the new floors with an instrument that seems specially designed for the purpose. If the new flooring is smooth, hard, and nonporous—ceramic tile, terrazzo, polished stone, or concrete—it would seem no great matter to keep the floor clear of gum.
Fortysecond Street has always been a problem, with its too-narrow platforms and toolow ceilings. But what has been done on the mezzanine, though the MTA doesn't list it in Arts en Route, is wonderfulclean, bright, and colorful. The columns are stainless steel, and in the middle of the floor is a huge, multicolored compass, a most suitable decorative element for an underground concourse where one is likely to lose one's bearings. The contrast with the station below is striking. The artworks listed for 42nd Street are Fast Track and Speedwheels, mixedmedia sculptures that one finally gets to see at the end of the long and dismal passage that connects the Lexington Avenue line with the 42nd Street shuttle. The passageway is hardly improved by some old, scattered colored tile, dating from a decadesold effort to brighten it. Nothing is wrong with the works of art when one finally reaches them; it is just that the passageway is so long and the sculptures so small relative to it.
The problem, to my mind, is that the MTA is thinking of art in the subway rather than of the subway as art, as its creators did nearly a century ago. We see the same problem when we consider the artworks hanging on the bare lobby walls of postwar office buildings. Contrast the result with the wonderful lobbies of such older buildings as the Woolworth, the Chrysler, the Chanin, and scores of others, in which the lobby is a work of art in itself. Today's designers find this unity between architecture and art hard to achieve. Too much art meant to embellish architecture becomes an irrelevancy, too small to match the enormous walls even though it may be the biggest work the artist has ever produced.
The first response to such a criticism might be that we can't rebuild the subways. The Washington, D.C., subway is a work of art, but it was built as one great project, adhering to a single impressive design for its stations, created by a single architect. In New York, we deal with a heritage of variousness. Yet cleaning and re-tiling and re-flooring, with imaginative colors and fittings—the process going on today, if all too slowly—does much more for a subway station than the occasional piece of art mounted on a platform wall, over a stairway, or in a mezzanine. Aesthetic concerns can be integrated into this station rebuilding process, as they have been at 103rd, 96th, and 42nd Streets. What is really successful in these stations bears no artists' names. What really works are the large functional elements, such as the new iron grilles and railings.
Riding the subway, I saw an advertisement for "River of Steel," a documentary on the building of the New York subways being shown at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn, itself located in an abandoned station. The ad was illustrated by a stunning picture of the original City Hall station, vaulted in Guastavino tile and closed since 1945. That is the true art of the subway: the subway as a work of art. Couldn't the MTA think of a way to reopen this station so that people can marvel at the ambition that once created such an extraordinary setting for the trains that carry ordinary people?