The spaceship underground

I loved this article from the Atlantic by Alexis C. Madrigal:

On the surface of Toronto, the air is cold. Life survives, but in the winter months, it is just barely in the habitable zone.

So, the humans of the city have burrowed underground. It began in the early part of the last century. Then, as the towers of the downtown core exploded upward, the underground labyrinth expanded, tunnels finding each other, the whole thing turning into a four-million-square foot city within a city.

Some 100,000 people regularly commute through this place, including 2,500 people who work down here. There are 1,200 stores. Access to PATH is worth about $2 per square foot to the office owners in the towers above.

Landscape architect Pierre Bélanger describes the system as a set of nodes—shopping pavilions, food courts—connected by axes. And, also like the Internet, it’s a public-feeling space that is actually privately held. Ken Jones, who has studied the retail establishments of the space, describes PATH as “a retailing subsystem that is directly linked to the corporate city of enterprise” that “serves the residents of the white collar city of privilege.”

The most mundane way to think about PATH is that it is simply an “alternative grade” pedestrian walkway. It’s one of about 50 large systems throughout the world.

But I like to think of it as a spaceship underground. After all, the available square footage is greater than the Constitution-class Starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek.

Given the state of the space program, The HMCS PATH is about as close to a spaceship as you’re likely to board in your lifetime. We are talking about a completely climate-stabilized, surveilled, artificially lit human-maintained system.

There are design guidelines that keep things consistent down there. For example, the city of Toronto does not like high lighting-contrast, presumably because it’s disorienting. They, in fact, have an artificial light to darkness ratio that they suggest following: “Avoid glare and/or shadowed areas, and maintain a uniformity ratio that does not exceed 4:1 (i.e. the ratio of average maintained level of illumination to the minimum level of illumination).”

For safety’s sake, they tell architects to avoid blind corners around which one could get jumped. If there are areas that seem dangerous, they ask that for convex mirrors to be installed, not to mention security cameras for low pedestrian flow areas.

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The spaceship underground

Michelin House is still standing proud

Michelin House

I’d somehow completely forgotten about this building, so it was a real pleasure to stumble upon it again in Chelsea the other day. Here’s a potted history from Wikipedia:

On 20 January 1911, Michelin House was officially opened. The building offered everything the motorist of the time required. Fitting bays at the front of the building allowed motorist to have their tyres speedily changed by Michelin fitters from the stock of over 30,000 stored in the basement. Tyres were brought up on a lift and rolled to the front of the building along the purposely sloped floor. To the left of the front recipient, a ‘Touring Office’ provided maps and writing implements for the keen motorist to plan his or her journey.

Within a year of opening, work started on an extension to the building to provide additional office space and included a second floor. The extension was built along the Lucan Place side of the building. A further extension was built in 1922, ten years after the first. Located where a garage had stood, it reached three floors.

In 1927, Michelin built a factory in Stoke-on-Trent using the firm of Peter Lind & Company of London. The factory started producing the first British made Michelin tyres and in 1930, the company moved their head office to Stoke-on-Trent. Michelin continued to use the basement and the ground floor of the building, but over two-thirds were left empty. Between 1933 and 1940, the upper storeys were let as a furniture warehouse, a workshop and offices for the Air Ministry.

In 1940, because of the risk of bombing, Michelin removed the three stained glass windows. They were carefully packed into wooden crates and sent to the Stoke-on-Trent factory for safe keeping. After the war, Michelin returned its headquarters to London. The reduced staff meant only the front original part of the building was occupied, while the rest of the building was leased. In 1950, a long term lease was signed by a new tenant which consisted of the space created in the 1912 and 1922 extensions. In 1952, an extension was added for the tenant. A steel frame construction, it extended part of the second floor and added a third floor along the Lucan Place side of the building.

In 1960, Michelin and their tenant began a modernisation programme for the interior of the building. The programme went along with the general taste of the time. Although the work concentrated on the interior of the building, the possibility of update the exterior of the building with a cement rendered facade was one option considered. The modernisation involved splitting up the open plan office and the heavy use of wood panelling.

On 15 April 1969 the original front section of the Michelin Building was given a Grade II listing. Despite this, outline planning permission was granted to demolish all but the listed part and build a ten storey office block. Michelin instead decided to spend the money on a new factory in North America.

I’m thankful for that, because it’s restored and still there. I think it might be my favourite building in London.

Michelin House

Michelin House is still standing proud

A 26-story history of San Francisco

I really enjoyed this epic article on the history of San Francisco as seen through the windows of 140 New Montgomery, an Art Deco 26-story building in the SoMa district. The writer is Alexis Madrigal. Read it now!

The building looks like it is made of stone, perhaps granite blasted out of the Sierra Nevada range to the east. And at the very base, there is stone.

But it ends about five and a half feet up the facade. After that, it’s terra cotta to the top: clay.

The company that made it is called Gladding, McBean, headquartered in Lincoln, up north of Sacramento. They made the cladding for many of the buildings at Stanford. They’re still around.

Their work is ubiquitous in the old downtown core of the city. In the 1920s, Gladding McBean averaged work on more than 20 buildings a year in San Francisco. By 1928, the year after 140 New Montgomery was completed, the San Francisco Examiner declared “with clay from a hole in the ground in Lincoln, California, the modern city of San Francisco has come.”

Nonetheless, the point remains: the building isn’t made of stone. It just looks that way.

Recently, a company that makes software to manage computer memory moved its headquarters to the 15th floor. It’s called  Terracotta.

Read the rest.

A 26-story history of San Francisco

The age of infrastructure

From the Center for an Urban Future (via Marginal Revolution):

Building in the United States today, for example, requires navigating a thicket of environmental, zoning and aesthetic regulations that vary not only state by state but county by county. If building a house is difficult, try building an airport. Passenger travel has more than tripled since deregulation in 1978, but in that time only one major new airport has been built: Denver’s. That airport is now the fourth busiest in the world. Indeed the top seven busiest airports are all in the United States, not so much because we are big but because without new construction we are forced to overcrowd our existing infrastructure. The result is delays and inefficiency. Meanwhile, China is building 50 to 100 new airports over the next 10 years.

…Our ancestors were bold and industrious. They built a significant portion of our energy and road infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be almost impossible to build that system today. Could we build the Hoover Dam today? We have the technology. We seem to lack the will. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.

The age of infrastructure

The art of bridges

Humber Bridge by Annie Devereux

I spotted the following quote on Russell Davies’ blog, and thought it made sense to illustrate it with some images from this collection.

“I think art is overrated, and bridges are underrated. In fact, I don’t understand why bridges aren’t art. It seems to me they’re penalized for having a use.”
– Max Barry – Machine Man

Sydney Harbour Bridge by SantaPhilly
Tyne Bridges by robstoke
Newcastle bridges by patric
Hoeg Brök – Maastricht, The Netherlands Bridge desgin: René Greisch (Belgium). Opened on December 18th 2003.
Forth Bridge Mid summer, mid night by David Richardson
Snowy Trestle in Washington The view from the back of a train as it crosses a trestle in the northern Cascades of the US state of Washington by purplearth
The art of bridges

The Flatiron Building of New York City

When my brother works in New York for the publisher Macmillan he’s based in the Flatiron Building. I can’t say I’m not a little jealous. It’s an iconic landmark in city full of them, and has some brilliant quirks. From the New York Times:

On the 20th floor, windows are placed much higher up, the bottoms nearly at chest height. “I have an incredible view,” said Charles Bozian, Macmillan’s vice president for finance and administration. “But not unless I stand up.”

The small bathrooms alternate by floor, men on even, women on odd. “And the bathrooms are not very nice, either,” said Alison Lazarus, the president of Macmillan’s sales division. When important guests visit, she has them use the spacious bathroom on the 18th floor, by far the building’s best, offering a view all the way to New Jersey.

Because the building is narrow, it is flooded with light. Most employees have windows — big windows, which is a plus for the most part.

John J. Murphy III, director of publicity for St. Martin’s, remembers when he bought new glasses and then came into work. “I was sitting at my desk, and everyone kept coming in and looking at me oddly,” Mr. Murphy said. He then realized that because of all the light in the building, his tinted lenses never turned clear. “I looked like some Greek shipping magnate or shady drug dealer sitting here at my desk,” he said.

Edward Steichen (1904)

The Flatiron Building of New York City

Life after death for the Paris Métro ghost stations?

I love this kind of stuff. From the always brilliant Atlantic Cities:

The Paris Métro, opened in 1900, extends over more than 200 kilometers of track, serving more than 300 individual stops. But there are 11 more stations that, though once built, now stand nearly abandoned. Many of these “ghost” or “phantom” stations shuttered after the occupation during WWII. Two of them, Porte Molitor and Haxo, never opened at all.

Parisian mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet has a bold plan for these phantom stations. The center-right candidate, known as NKM to her supporters, has argued that these abandoned spaces should be reclaimed for the city’s residents.

To envision what these future public spaces could look like, NKM teamed up with architect Manal Rachdi and urban planner Nicolas Laisné. They drew up a few crazy-looking renderings to get started, starting with Arsenal, a 4th arrondissement station closed since 1939. She has pledged to solicit more inventive ideas if elected (though her opponent, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, is the frontrunner).

Life after death for the Paris Métro ghost stations?