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New York's Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway Paperback – November 22, 2002
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About the Author
Christopher Payne is an architect with Weiss Manfredi architects. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Christopher Payne has done his best to record the contents of these buildings before they are gone forever. His efforts are perfect examples of what industrial archaeology photography should look like, well lit, straightforward and content rich images with fortunately no angled shots, no out-of-focus areas merging into darkness or meaningless close-ups. These photos really tell a story and being well printed (200dpi) on quality paper helps, too.
As well as the fifty-four main photos there are others taken by him and several historical ones in the essay describing the workings of the subway electrical supply (some of the technical drawings included in the essay could have been larger though) and like his photos Payne makes the world of rotary converters, transformers, bus boards and potheads come alive.
All in all a super little book and a good example of how a tiny part of industrial America can become fascinating with well-written words and elegant photography.
Well written interesting text, superb high quality photographs and professional architectural drawings. A great buy for anyone interested in the subject.
Amazon's rapid response to my order was also impressive. This is the first time I've ordered from Amazon. The book was shipped from stock and arrived just a few days after I placed my order. Excellent service.
Christopher Payne's new book answers this question and reminded me of my experience so many years ago. This handsome volume, one of a series of studies published by Princeton Architectural Press ("Grain Elevators", "Wood Burners", "Bethlehem Steel"), is a fascinating look at a building type that developed from the site specific infrastructure within one city, the power supply for the New York City Subway system. The appeal of this book is its combination of history, personal interest, photography, as-built plans, and hand sketches done by the author. This is a fine example of what is called a typology study, a monograph whose subject is a particular building type or function. Typology studies can be dry affairs loaded with minutia that would appeal only to academic types. This series though, and "Substations" in particular, aims for a broader audience with an abundance of images, clear illustrative drawings, succinct background narrative, and affordable pricing. Although I think the publisher has targeted students with books like these, the general public would be entertained by them as well.
Generally speaking, the Subway system is a fascinating subject. Famous and infamous, it is the largest system in the world and the second oldest (after London). The star of many films, shows and books, it can elicit fear for people not familiar with it, an frustration for many who use it. Legendary for being filthy, noisy and covered with graffiti (for me in the late 70's), it is the most efficient way to get around New York today. Mr. Payne's study takes on an integral part of the system that is completely unknown to the general public.
Although the substations housed power supply for the "third rail" of the subway system, what has always intrigued me, as a former New Yorker and an architect, is the exterior appearance of these silent buildings. Although many of the stations were lavished upon with striking terra cotta and glazed tile ornament, these buildings are just as architecturally important and significant. Their appeal comes from their place within the urban fabric of the city, and how they project a benign presence of a vital infrastructure. Nestled within the city streetscapes, the substations generally were of a modest size and built with quality materials. Their proportions always seem just right. A dead giveaway to their presence was the large centrally located archway (or archways) surrounding the main entry to the building.
One could guess that the size of these archways was related to the equipment housed within, but I had no idea of the massiveness of the transformers. Mr. Payne's photographs of this equipment are beautiful. The square format, luminous black & white tones, and practical compositions make even the most derelict interior (of which there are many), look captivating. The appeal of this book is its combination of history, personal interest, photography, as-built plans, and hand sketches done by the author.
As urban archaeological artifacts, one only hopes that all these structures do not disappear as they are taken "off line". I would think the landmarking significance of these structures is high due to their integration into the streetscape, their symbolism of the transit system, the high quality of the construction, and the reusability of the structure. A book like this will shed light on this building type, perhaps as a group landmark
This is a welcome addition to the series of studies on some unusual building types. I have only minor complaints about this book. I would liked to see more of his hand drawings. These sketches provide a window into what he saw and why he needed to draw certain things. Architectural sketches can be interesting images in themselves. I also wish there was concise appendix list of all the substations with information on construction, location, present use. Mr. Payne makes mention that some substations were either "gutted" or "torn apart" soon after he visited them. Knowing if one of these was the building on West 26th Street would have completed a circle for me.