Home Arts for Transit The sounds of a gentler commute

The sounds of a gentler commute

by Benjamin Kabak


The art installation at the new 96th St. stationhouse has been designed by Antenna Design and Urbahn Architects.

The New York City subway system is not known for its gentle sounds. Rather, the screech of metal on metal, the incessant whir of air conditioners struggling to work, the feedback loops produced by sub-par public address systems and the constant exhortations to “stand clear of the closing doors” provide a dissonant soundtrack to our daily trips underground.

What if, though, our wait for a train wasn’t marked by the rush of an express but rather the chirping of crickets and the sounds of the good old outdoors? Can art in the subways actually serve to calm harried New Yorkers? If the MTA gives its approval to an Arts for Transit plan, the new stationhouse at 96th St. and Broadway set to open late next year will feature a soundtrack of sounds from nature and other elements designed to slow down frantic straphangers.

Michael Grynbaum, new transit writer for The Times, has more on this unique installation:

By the fall of 2010, when construction on the station is expected to be complete, subway riders will enter an arched glass-and-steel structure housing an exhibit that is a striking contrast to the traditional tile mosaics and sculptures that populate the underground rail system.

Nearly 200 stainless-steel flowers will hang 12 feet above the turnstiles, mounted in staggered patterns across seven ceiling beams. The flowers, weighing about three pounds apiece, will be allowed to sway slightly, creating the effect of a shimmering garden levitating above the stairways that lead down to the platforms.

The nature noises, which are pending final review by the authority’s staff, would be focused by directional speakers on small areas of the station, allowing riders to “walk through” the sounds.

The modern garden and its accompanying soundtrack are a tribute to the geographic provenance of the 96th Street station, which was built in 1904 in a neighborhood known as Bloomingdale, after a Dutch word translated as “vale of flowers.” Although the station now sits amid rows of high-rise apartment buildings and noisy intersections, the hilly area was once known for its picturesque natural landscape.

“The installation is a memento of nature past, so that subway riders may be reminded of a time before the area became an urban neighborhood,” the designers, Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa, wrote in an introductory note.

Now, before New Yorkers not used to change in their morning routines get all bent out of shape, the two designers — working under the name Antenna Designs — are veterans of the subway system. They have designed the R142, R142A and R143 cars currently in use on various Transit lines, and for better or worse, they produced the MetroCard Vending Machine designs as well. They promise that this new exhibit will fit in perfectly.

Before the MTA can sign off on it, they have to ensure that the chirping crickets are ADA compliant. The sounds can’t be too loud so as to block out important — and not-so-important — public address announcements in the station, and the visually-impaired must be able to hear the MetroCard Vending Machines’ automated instructions.

Still, with a sound installation in place on the B/D/F/V platform at Herald Square, this latest proposal is probably heading for approval. After all, we could use a few more crickets in New York City anyway. A screaming siren and the screech of brakes aren’t the most comforting of sounds.

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Jason July 7, 2009 - 7:12 am

Think this is decent idea, they have something like this on the St. George terminal on the SI Ferry (believe its birds chirping, triggered by a motion sensor or something). Question is will these hanging pieces of art be easily cleanable or will they be just as difficult to maintain as the intricate mosaics and wall friezes installed in the original system.

In any case, that station needed this overhaul badly so any and every improvement is greatly appreciated

Scott E July 7, 2009 - 8:36 am

Whether the sounds of the subway are crickets or screeching brakes, they’ll all be drowned out by someone’s noisy iPod anyway.

Actually, I heard of a study (can’t cite it though) where they piped in elevator music on the Amtrack/NJT/LIRR platforms at Penn Station in the morning, and people were actually happier and more pleasant when the music played than when it didn’t. I don’t know if cricket-sounds were part of the study though.

JP July 8, 2009 - 6:41 am

More noise is more noise. It might make some parts of the stations more pleasant in already quiet areas but it won’t noisy areas quieter. Decibels are cumulative and I remind you there are already too many excessively noisy places in the system.


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