If you’re an urban spelunker, a New York City history buff, a techno-design nerd, or a futurist of either dystopian or utopian stripes, you’re probably pretty excited about architect James Ramsey’s plans for the Lowline—a subterranean park buried deep beneath the base of the Williamsburg Bridge in a repurposed, historic trolley-car turnaround.
While other cities around the world have explored the potential of some forms of public space, there’s really no precedent for anything like the Lowline, anywhere in the world. Except maybe in science fiction.
“The intention for [the Lowline] is to serve as a prototype for colonizing the underworld,” says Ramsey, half-jokingly. “In so many places there’s literally no more room—but there is a lot of unused underground infrastructure. The current model of throwing a park on top of a building strikes me as lip service. How do you draw people underground instead?”
Cultivating this curiosity is a major challenge—how do you extend the public’s relationship with the aboveground streetscape to the ground beneath their feet? By peeling back a layer of the sidewalk to give a glimpse of what’s down below.
“When you descend the steps to the Lowline, you’ll be able to see the strata of the history of the street itself—you’re literally passing by the history of New York City,” explains Ramsey. “You’re passing the cobblestones, the electrical system, the plumbing. We want to make that a fun process that stimulates people’s curiosity.”
Finding the space itself was a combination of misfortune (the great economic slowdown of 2008) and dumb luck. In the middle of the recession, Ramsey found himself with a lot of time on his hands, which he used to explore an interest in urban archaeology in the abandoned and forgotten corners of New York.
It was during this stretch that former Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) engineer Jack Applebaum shared with Ramsey stories of 1970s New York, when the MTA was discovering subterranean tunnels beneath neighborhoods like Chinatown. Applebaum introduced Ramsey to the space beneath the Williamsburg Bridge.
“I dug up the original plans for the tunnel at the MTA,” says Ramsey, who used to work for the transit agency as an engineer. “I got a tour and was just blown away. It’s just a huge, cavernous, brooding, dark space . . . that experience directly informed the whole idea of the Lowline, and of the feeling or mood I want to create.”
Ramsey’s original set of designs was based on his earliest glimpse of the underground space. The initial images were bright, luminous, and cheery. But the current renderings (created using AutoCAD and 3ds Max), Ramsey explains, “try to encapsulate how the space feels right now. Brooding, mysterious, with dark pockets.”
A shadowy, subterranean, modern park illuminated by pools of natural light—the whole endeavor sounds impossible, like trying to combine the experience of being in a park in the day and at night at the same time. On top of that challenge, how does an architect remain authentic to a historical locale’s past while presenting a vision that’s fresh and forward-looking?
This paradox seems to delight Ramsey. “I want to re-create a sense of exploration and discovery,” he says. “It’s important to me that the existing steel and rivets of the previous age exist in tension with the futuristic stuff. It’s a tension that we hope will end up accentuating this existing space.”
The Lowline aims to give jaded urban dwellers of today a gentle shake—a reminder to pay attention. “New York is so forward-thinking, we’ve done so much erasing of our past already,” Ramsey laments. “It’s not Boston or Philly, where everything is preserved in amber. We need to take a step back and appreciate the layered complexity of the city.”
That is all well and good, but what will the experience of the Lowline really be like? Remote skylights will provide a simulation of the sky aboveground. Darker nooks will be interspersed with areas of brilliant natural sunlight and various types of foliage. Exploring the Lowline will be, in Ramsey’s words, a sequence of experiences.
“The nature of the space is big enough that we can embrace a number of different things. Parts will feel very open, well lit, and flexible, like most parks. At the same time, there are areas where we can start to get a little bit more playful, shaping visitors’ experience—with thicker or denser plantings, or more sunlight, like a crazy underground jungle.
“Urban spelunkers will have the opportunity to wander around tall columns reminiscent of trees,” he continues. “We want to evoke an almost rambling forest experience, but underground. It’ll be unlike anything in the world—psychedelic and surreal.”
From a design standpoint, the Lowline isn’t just a novelty project, an underground gimmick. As Ramsey stresses, it has the potential to reshape the entire ecosystem of the built environment. “How we approach the intersection of aboveground and underground space with solar technology has the potential to address a million issues. Hopefully we can completely transform that space in a way that knits together what’s currently a scar in the urban fabric.”
If the entire prospect of the Lowline seems risky, maybe even a little crazy, that’s because it is. Ramsey is approaching the challenge with clear-eyed aplomb. “The whole project is bold and audacious. We’d fail if it wasn’t.”