An Architect Breaks Down the Design of New York City Subway Stations, from the Oldest to Newest

With 26 lines and 472 sta­tions, the New York City sub­way sys­tem is prac­ti­cal­ly a liv­ing organ­ism, and way too big a top­ic to tack­le in a short video.

Archi­tect Michael Wyet­zn­er may not have time to touch on rats, crime track fires, flood­ing, night and week­end ser­vice dis­rup­tions, or the adults-in-a-Peanuts-spe­cial sound qual­i­ty of the announce­ments in the above episode of Archi­tec­tur­al Digest’s Blue­prints web series, but he gives an excel­lent overview of its evolv­ing design, from the sta­tions them­selves to side­walk entrances to the plat­form sig­nage.

First stop, the old City Hall sta­tion, whose chan­de­liers, sky­lights, and Guas­tavi­no tile arch­ing in an alter­nat­ing col­ors her­ring­bone pat­tern made it the star attrac­tion of the just-opened sys­tem in 1904.

(It’s been closed since 1945, but savvy tran­sit buffs know that they can catch a glimpse by ignor­ing the conductor’s announce­ment to exit the down­town 6 train at its last stop, then look­ing out the win­dow as it makes a U‑turn, pass­ing through the aban­doned sta­tion to begin its trip back uptown. The New York Tran­sit Muse­um also hosts pop­u­lar thrice year­ly tours.)

Express tracks have been a fea­ture of New York’s sub­way sys­tem since the begin­ning, when Inter­bor­ough Rapid Tran­sit Com­pa­ny enhanced its exist­ing ele­vat­ed line with an under­ground route capa­ble of car­ry­ing pas­sen­gers from City Hall to Harlem for a nick­el fare.

Wyet­zn­er effi­cient­ly sketch­es the open exca­va­tion design of the ear­ly IRT sta­tions — “cut and cov­er” trench­es less than 20’ deep, with room for four tracks, plat­forms, and no frills sup­port columns that are near­ly as ubiq­ui­tous white sub­way tiles.

For the most part, New York­ers take the sub­way for grant­ed, and are always pre­pared to beef about the fare to ser­vice ration, but this was not the case on New Year’s Day, 2017, when rid­ers went out of their way to take the Q train.

Fol­low­ing years of delays, aggra­vat­ing con­struc­tion noise and traf­fic con­ges­tion, every­one want­ed to be among the first to inspect Phase 1 of the Sec­ond Avenue Sub­way project, which extend­ed the line by three impres­sive­ly mod­ern, airy col­umn-free sta­tions.

(The mas­sive drills used to cre­ate tun­nels and sta­tions at a far greater depth than the IRT line, were left where they wound up, in prepa­ra­tion for Phase 2, which is slat­ed to push the line up to 125th St by 2029. (Don’t hold your breath…)

The design­ers of the sub­way placed a pre­mi­um on aes­thet­ics, as evi­denced by the domed Art Nou­veau IRT entrance kiosks and beau­ti­ful per­ma­nent plat­form signs.

From the orig­i­nal mosaics to Beaux Arts bas relief plaques like the ones pay­ing trib­ute to the for­tune John Jacob Astor amassed in the fur trade, there’s lots of his­to­ry hid­ing in plain sight.

The mid-80s ini­tia­tive to bring pub­lic art under­ground has filled sta­tions and pas­sage­ways with work by some mar­quee names, like Vik Muniz, Chuck Close, William Weg­man, Nick Cave, Tom Otter­ness, Roy Licht­en­stein and Yoko Ono.

Wyet­zn­er also name checks graph­ic design­er Mas­si­mo Vignel­li who was brought aboard in 1966 to stan­dard­ize the infor­ma­tion­al sig­nage.

The white-on-black sans serif font direct­ing us to our desired con­nec­tions and exits now seems like part of the subway’s DNA.

Per­haps 21st-cen­tu­ry inno­va­tions like count­down clocks and dig­i­tal screens list­ing real-time ser­vice changes and alter­na­tive routes will too, one of these days.

If Wyet­zn­er is open to film­ing the fol­low-up view­ers are clam­or­ing for in the com­ments, per­haps he’ll weigh in on the new A‑train cars that debuted last week, which boast secu­ri­ty cam­eras, flip-up seat­ing to accom­mo­date rid­ers with dis­abil­i­ties, and wider door open­ings to pro­mote quick­er board­ing.

(Yes, they’re still the quick­est way to get to Harlem…)

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Sub­way Ride Through New York City: Watch Vin­tage Footage from 1905

How the Icon­ic Col­ors of the New York City Sub­way Sys­tem Were Invent­ed: See the 1930 Col­or Chart Cre­at­ed by Archi­tect Squire J. Vick­ers

Design­er Mas­si­mo Vignel­li Revis­its and Defends His Icon­ic 1972 New York City Sub­way Map

The Sound of Sub­ways Around the World: A Glob­al Col­lec­tion of Sub­way Door Clos­ing Announce­ments, Beeps & Chimes

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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