Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Terminal, Threshold and Rebirth

The Birth of Venus
Sandro Botticelli 1482-6

After recently riding various subways, I began to feel more than ever that exiting underground stations is a very powerful event. Crossing the below/above ground threshold strongly foments most of our senses. The artificial lights of the underground give way to daylight. The sheltered and controlled environment below gives way to natural fluctuations of weather. Wind and rain or heat or cold.  Sounds change. Smells too.  Suddenly, our intimate and protective surroundings, give way to a much more spacious and volatile world. I believe that crossing this threshold is as close to a rebirthing experience as we get in contemporary urban life.

The physical motion too is similar to being born. As this diagram shows, when we enter the world above, our heads is first revealed and then slowly working down to our feet, the rest of our bodies become exposed. This phenomenon is reciprocal. When exiting the underground, our line of sight starts at the top. The sky is first revealed to us, then the tops of our surroundings, working down to the ground. To the passenger, his surroundings too are being born.
Birth to Highline
Ben Samson 2011

This series of pictures from my visit to the Highline demonstrate such a vertical threshold. Here, at first nothing but a bright dot at the end of the stairs can be seen of the world above. As we move upwards, the surroundings are revealed from the sky downward. Finally, when we reach the final step, we become a part of this elevated world.

When thinking of this above/below ground threshold as rebirth, it induces many design questions. It seems that there is real opportunity to create some significant sensory experience. Should this transition be amplified or depressed? How should the design manipulate the senses? Conversely, being born in this process also suggests that traveling underground is somehow related to being encased by a womb. Eero Saarinen tried to capture the comfort and protection of a womb in his famous Womb Chair. Should the designs of the cars and underground spaces reflect this maternal peacefulness? Additionally, when we enter the world aboveground at a station, (especially for the first time) we are often disoriented and estranged, much like a newborn. Should there be orienting devices in place? And perhaps most importantly, because this threshold gives us a first impression of the surroundings of the area, how should this new world present itself? 
Yana P. Yaseva

Womb Chair
Eero Saarinen

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