"Imagining the Lowline" Sheds Light on the Potential for an Underground Park

"Imagining the Lowline" Sheds Light on the Potential for an Underground Park
"Imagining the Lowline" in the Lower East Side
(Photo © Janelle Zara)

The former Essex Market warehouse on the Lower East Side seems like an unlikely (and uncomfortable) place to hold an exhibition. It’s dark and dank, conjuring the feeling of being in an underground tunnel, but that’s what makes it the perfect location for the “Imagining the Lowline” show. On view through September 27, the exhibition illustrates a radical proposal by architect James Ramsey and former PopTech strategist Dan Barasch to convert a long-abandoned underground trolley station into a lush public park, complete with thriving plants and actual sunlight, funneled by high-tech fiber-optic lenses from above ground. If they could successfully pull it off, it would provide Manhattan's East side with an underground answer to the High Line, the elevated West side park that cities around the world have sought to emulate.

The first part of the show is just a tease, part “Tron,” part “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Upon entering, visitors see a metal, laser-cut lattice on the ceiling that maps the New York City Subway lines. On the floor, neon-hued lights trace the grid of the city’s streets. To the left, screens project images from “Experiments in Motion,” an initiative by Lowline sponsor Audi that explores the future of urban transportation, as imagined by students from the Columbia University School of Architecture (who actually studied the Lowline in class). It’s nice enough, but coupled with the lights dancing on the walls (reminiscent of those that reflect off of swimming pools), the recognizable smell of fertilizer conjures the distinct feeling of walking through a sewer.

A few steps further and a turn around the corner, however, and the change is night and day. On the other side of a dark curtain, a miniature meadow appears; bright sunlight shines down onto a Japanese maple and a small mound of living, breathing ferns, mosses, and delicious pearl oyster mushrooms. Oh, so this is what we came to see. (It's also where the smell is coming from.)

The sun isn’t pouring through a skylight; instead, a system that involves a system of panels on the roof that catches the light of day and funnels it through lenses on the ceiling, where hexagons of reflective material shine it on the room below. The exhibition is the culmination of a year's work and the product of an unexpectedly successful Kickstarter campaign that not only exceeded fundraising goals — $155,000, when they had aimed for $100,000 — but also grabbed the frenzied attention of the media. That, plus a partnership with Audi, allowed Ramsey and Barasch to put on a much more elaborate show than they had originally envisioned.

“We planned something really modest, where people could wander into this warehouse, poke their head behind this curtain, and see this sculpture,” Ramsey told ARTINFO. He still foresees another five years of work ahead, including fundraising (to the tune of $30-$50 million). The technology shown here is not the exact technology that would be used in the park, nor are the plants the exact plants. At least a year of research needs to be done in the actual proposed space — just a block north of the exhibition — which is more humid and has a different chemical composition than an above-ground warehouse.

Though the exhibition is only the first step and fairly small in scale, it accomplishes its main goals. It 1) illustrates the sensory details of the proposed subterranean park, from sight and feel to sound (a laughtrack of children’s voices plays in the background), and 2) shows that a living, growing, plant-filled park could exist underground, and actually be pleasant — once they fix the pungent aroma, which Ramsey assured us can be offset by more agreeably woodsy cedar oils and a company called Big Ass Fans.

“Imagining the Lowline” is on view at the Essex Market Building D from September 15 through the 27th.