Unlikely as it may seem, the 100th anniversary of the New York City subway system was the impetus for a handsome book, Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture & Design in the New York City Subway
. Produced by the New York Transit Museum, this abundantly illustrated design history traces the origins and development of subway cars and stations, including ceramic and metalwork detailing, ticket booths, signage, route maps and advertising. Treated in a merely dutiful way, this material would probably be of interest only to subway buffs. But Subway Style
boasts high-quality photographs, an inviting design, and a succinct and wryly amusing text that relates subway developments to other cultural happenings and isn't too proud to explain specialized terms. It's the kind of book that makes the evolution of turnstiles sound fascinating. With a contractual mandate to instill "beauty" into "a great public work," the IRT--the first of three subway lines--originally featured elaborate Beaux Arts ceramic detailing displaying historical scenes or symbolizing local landmarks. Gracious bronze grilles served as ticket windows, and station names were painstakingly spelled out in glass mosaic tiles. Succeeding generations morphed these features into increasingly streamlined versions utilizing the latest technology and design trends. Wood station seats gave way to cast terrazzo perches cantilevered from the wall, then to molded fiberglass, polyurethane and finally back to wood. Usable maps were a long time in coming. In 1958, 18 years after the three lines were united, the Transit Authority finally published a single guide showing the entire system. Massimo Vignelli--whose bold, color-keyed station signage was a major innovation--later produced an abstract, all but useless map that was, as the book says, "emblematic of New Yorks 1970s retreat from urban life." The chapter on subway ads is (naturally) the most fun, ranging from Amelia Opdyke "Oppy" Jones' expressive cartoon characters--caught in the act of dropping gum wrappers or propping their feet on the seats--to head shots of women hoping to be voted "Miss Subways." Cathy Curtis
From Publishers Weekly
This fascinating, smartly executed volume should intrigue and entertain anyone with affection for New York City's "amazingly complex, largely uncelebrated environment," in the words of critic Giovannini. Given a legacy of three separate systems built during different decades and untidily unified in 1940, the 100-year-old subway's multitudinous elements today uneasily harmonize in "systematic uniqueness." Thematic chapters cover ceramic designs, fare collections, signage, advertising and more. Squire Vickers, an architect who served as chief architect of the system from 1906 to 1942, wanted to celebrate the subway's industrial character, yet at the same time used colored tiles to add cheer. A marvelous chapter traces the evolution of subway maps, including the 1972 example of minimalism that turned subway lines into 45- and 90-degree angles. Another surveys subway cars through the years, including rattan upholstery and the beginning of hard fiberglass polyester seats. There's much delight in the old: metal grillwork from the 1930s, the three-dimensional ceramic at Brooklyn's Borough Hall station. There are also stirring signs of the new: freshly commissioned tile mosaics in Chinatown; a restored 1904 station house at 72nd Street and its respectful but better-fed newly built cousin across Verdi Square; funky cast-bronze sculptures at 14th Street. The subway's grittier side is treated somewhat glancingly; a picture from 1970 shows the clutter that led to the ban on vending machines; the new turnstile's design is described as a deterrent to fare-beaters. But this book reminds us that the achievement of the subway, even today, is to function under pressure, above ground and below, with unexpected elements of artistry and grace.
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