A Visit to the Sky Reflector Net at the Fulton Street Transit CenterGita Subramony for Zondits, December 19, 2014
After more than a decade of planning, the Fulton Street Transit Center in lower Manhattan opened to the public this past November. The center connects several New York City Subway lines – the A, C, J, Z, 2, 3, 4, 5, and R – and provides access to the E and 1 lines as well as to the PATH train. In the past, the Fulton Street stop was notorious as an unnavigable maze of platforms and mezzanines. The new Fulton Street Transit Center hopes to spur economic development in lower Manhattan in the post-9/11 era, to provide an inspiring piece of public art, and to help riders transfer between lines more easily.
From the outside, the transit center is underwhelming. But the inside, where escalators carry passengers into the central mezzanine area, is another story. Rising above is a transparent column scored by metal wires – the oculus and sky reflector net that were designed through a collaboration of Grimshaw Architects, ARUP, and James Carpenter Design Associates.
The designers sought not only to bring in direct sunlight but also to diffuse light into the lower levels of the transit hub in order to enhance passenger experience in the station. This architectural feature acts as a giant light collector, maximizing the use of natural light for the transit system: it’s daylighting on a grander scale. The designers of the project studied how the sun’s path and the surrounding buildings would change the lighting on the site. Even on a cloudy day the sky reflector net offers ample natural light for this subway entrance. However, a ring of digital advertising displays (likely featuring LEDs) surrounding the mezzanine detracts from the cleanness of the natural light and makes the entrance area feel a bit like a suburban mall.
Clearly, energy efficiency was not the primary goal for this project. Still, the sky reflector net shows that creative architecture does not always have to be at odds with design solutions that also offer energy efficiency. Zondits has written on net zero energy buildings and how efficiency does not necessarily have to be expensive. But there can be a natural tension between current architectural tropes and efficiency and cost (e.g., glass curtain walls). For megaprojects such as the Fulton Street Transit Center and the nearby Calatrava-designed WTC transportation hub, efficiency will never be the main driver of the design. These projects opt instead for awe-inspiring, grand architectural gestures.
Is there a space where aesthetically exciting and creative design can merge with efficiency? A quick browse through the New Buildings Institute’s database of net zero energy and high performance buildings indicates that it can. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) building in Colorado is a great example of a net zero energy building that integrates efficiency with unique design elements; daylighting is a key energy-saving strategy for this building that also adds to the user experience. National construction firm DPR also has a few buildings in the NBI database – their headquarters in San Diego as well as their Phoenix office – that also feature interesting architectural details. DPR’s headquarters feature the use of Solatube daylighting systems to bring natural light into interior spaces.
While the Fulton Street Transit Center is not a marvel of energy efficiency or cost-effectiveness, it does remind us that daylighting and other innovative efficiency technologies exist and can be put to use in aesthetically creative ways. Buildings can be functional, efficient, and awe-inspiring at the same time. Although achieving this trifecta is not the goal for many buildings under development at the moment, it is something that the architecture and efficiency fields can strive towards.