By Vanessa Quirk
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Usually when one studies architecture, one does architecture. But that’s just not enough for some people. James Ramsey, most famous for the sci-fi-like renderings of the Low Line, an underground park which has captured the imagination of thousands, is one of those people. An architecture grad from Yale University, Ramsey went on to be a satellite engineer for NASA, before coming back to architecture and starting up his own design studio, Raad Studio. Oh yeah, and along the way he came up with a fiberoptic technology that would allow you to bring natural light (and thus grow plants) underground.
So -for the first part of our new series “Disruptive minds”, that will feature people who are challenging Architecture and Design combining creativity, technology and the public interest- we decided to talk with Ramsey and find out.
How does this techy background influence his design? But we soon realized that Ramsey’s style has just as much to do with science as his other distinctive traits: his passion for New York City history, his unusual propensity to innovate while he’s asleep, and his favorite childhood activity: fossil hunting. In fact, Ramsey considers the Low Line not an Urban technology, but an Urban archaeology, a futuristic space where you can discover and experience an era of New York history often hidden from view.
Caught between past and future, the Low Line will be a space designed to suspend modern-day reality, to just discover, explore, and maybe even recapture our lost sense of wonder.
You have an interesting background as both an architect and a satellite engineer – what do you think your technological knowledge gives you as a designer that you wouldn’t have had otherwise?
Let me start by saying that the Low Line itself stands at the intersection of a great many things. It’s not just design, it’s not just urbanism, it’s not just strictly technology either, it also incorporates an element of urban archaeology – in a lot of respects the Low Line has a lot to do with my personal interest in studying New York City history and archaeological exploration. It certainly spans a great many fields, that project in particular.
Now, how does a science and techy background actually begin to inform what we do? Well, for one thing I’m pretty staunchly in the category of believing in futurism. You know, we have any number of problems that are confronting us as a city, as a society, and I think often times we can look to technology to begin to solve some of those problems.
From a design-process standpoint, I think the ability to just take a step back, to experiment a little bit, and to begin to apply different techniques in terms of the way that physical materials and elements actually interplay, from a very engineering and practical standpoint, is something that we embrace as a firm.
I like what you said about “Urban Archaelogy” and your interest in New York City history. Were you a history buff at one point?
Absolutely. All of the research stems directly from my personal interest in uncovering the past of New York City. NYC is a very forward-looking city: we’re always trying to maximize real estate, just knock things down and build over things, and, as a result, the surface of the city seems…I don’t know, we don’t fetishize the past like other cities do. So, I think that on the surface you could certainly read New York that way, but in actuality, this is a pretty ancient city as far as American cities go, and it’s actually a city on top of a city on top of a city on top of a city.
If you begin to know where to look and begin to peel away its layers, New York City will surprise you with how rich its history is and how prevalent its built relics are.
That’s closely related to the High Line – since they uncovered a piece of history and then, in preserving its history, they turned it into something for the future as well.
Yeah, I think that taps into another element we’re looking at. Given that we have this shared history that really still exists (it’s still all over the city even though you don’t even notice it), you can use design and technology to actually link the past and the future.
In the case of the Low Line it’s quite literally a bridge between our shared, collective past and the future. We’re basically using technology as a tool to travel through time.
When you were a kid, what did you wish you would be doing when you “grew up”? Do the same things that intrigued you then, intrigue you now?
Absolutely. When I was a kid – even apart from doing artistic things, like designing things – all of my main interests veered towards fossil hunting, paleontology, amateur archaeology. I still do all those things. And just to sort of extrapolate a little more broadly – the sense of wonder and mystery that’s embodied in the act of discovering things and exploring things, it’s something that we try and embrace in a lot of our work. It’s not always possible, obviously, but if you create an experience for people where they’re actually exploring and discovering things, interacting with a space or an object in that way, I think it makes it so much richer, experientially.
I can definitely see that in the Low Line – that sense of going underground and exploring things…
Yeah, who would even know that it’s there? There’s Delancey Street – the biggest, widest, busiest street in New York, and little does any one know that underneath it is this silent, beautiful space. And there’s a ton of these spaces too.
But if it’s this silent, beautiful space, it obviously wouldn’t be like that towards the end – you’d inject life into it, right?
Sure, if a lot of people go there, you can re-inject life into it. But I think that one of our goals design-wise with this is to actually try and maintain some sort of sense of its actual quality – the fact that it is this big cavernous, breathing space and make that something that you can interact with to experience a little bit of that awe and sense of wonder as you discover it.
I didn’t realize you have this interest in fossil hunting and paleontology. I would have thought you were going to say was that you were interested in space and going into space. So I guess you feel that it’s just as exciting going underground as outer space?
I think you can find that sense of discovery in many places, be it looking up or looking down. For example, we’re working on a hotel right now, but one of the things that we’re trying to infuse into the design of the building, which is quite large, is the sense that you have to discover it as you go through it – it’s not all just sitting there on the surface. It will eventually reveal itself via surprises – unmarked doors, hidden areas, little jewels that you have to happen upon and find yourself.
It’s kind of the idea of making somebody work for it, but in the guise of play.
Yeah, exactly. It should be fun. I mean, what a pleasure if you’re walking through Grand Central Station, say, and you didn’t know the Campbell Apartment was there, and you turn the corner and it’s like “Holy Crap, look at this thing! Isn’t that cool.”
And when you start to discover things like that, it leads you to start thinking of what else you haven’t I discovered, and it gives spaces or objects or buildings the sense that there is more to them. It makes them seem infinitely complex, even though they may not be.
Intellectual discovery is one of those things you can actually code into the DNA of a building.
What is your creative process like? Where does your creativity come from? What are your inspirations?
To be honest, I devour books, mostly non-fiction, whether it’s history or archaeology, ancient history, science, astronomy, whatever, I just try and read as much as I can about what I find interesting, and the creativity just kind of follows.
In actuality, I feel like I do my best work when I’m asleep. I’ll just wake up suddenly with an idea in mind, or I’ll wake up with a solution to something I’ve been mulling about. I think that when you’re sleeping, the altered state allows you to explore avenues that you wouldn’t normally in waking hours.
How did the LowLine begin? Did you have one particular inspiration?
It happened in fits and starts. The idea that you could manipulate light in certain ways was something that, again, occurred to me in a dream, and I began experimenting with various techniques, building prototypes with friends.
This was out of work?
This was during the Economic turndown of 2008, so it gave me ample time to sleep. Sometimes a slow down can be a good thing, you can explore things that you really care about.
In the period in which I was experimenting with this stuff, I was also reading a lot about “Ye Olde” New York, 19th century New York, and one of the engineers I was working with told me about all of the lost spaces that he had come across when he was working for the MTA. The Low Line is just one of many of them, there’s something like 13 acres of unseen spaces, and that idea really got me thinking, reading, delving into old archives and researching the stuff.
And then, I think it became a pretty natural confluence of ideas. Wouldn’t it be cool…
To meld these two?
Yeah, because the ability to perform these tricks has such wide-ranging applications. One of the first ones that occurs to you is – “ok, I can bring sunlight underground into a basement.” And they’re all kind of basements in a way, these lost spaces, so it was a natural flow of ideas.
And the design itself? Was there an influence to that? Because the resulting renderings have a sci-fi type look.
I would say that there’s three forces at play. First of all, there’s the quality of the space itself, which I’ve been lucky enough to see. Once I developed the idea that you could apply this technology to a space and use that to grow plants, there was no visual in mind – just the theory. And then moving from there, I was actually able to see the space and realize, wow, you could really juxtapose the sci-fi element with this really ancient, filthy, craggy, archaeological element. So that’s one element that shaped the design.
The other one was a purely engineering-based solution. The sort of psychedelic shaped ceiling that you see in the renderings is very much just an expression of how you could deploy the light. And that went through many manifestations.
I had the great fortune to sit underneath “The Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park, and saw just how much people were enjoying the experience. That Anish Kapoor sculpture very literally translated to a lot of what I had envisioned already, it really clarified how that might feel.
But what was it exactly about “The Bean”?
I mean, it looks like…There’s a movie from the 80s called Flight of the Navigator, it was a Disney movie about space travel, and it had this strange liquid metal spaceship that was flying around the suburbs – this was something that visually tied very much into the way the surfaces might behave when you deploy the technology.
So, looking at the Bean really drove it home, because it was a real life version of that visual affect – it was pretty influential. There were some early versions of the Low Line that looked pretty different; discreet cells in the ceiling deploying the light, but the idea that you could tie everything together with one architectural feature was something influenced very heavily by that strange Disney movie, that Anish Kapour sculpture, etc. etc.
What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in attempting to make the Low Line reality?
My partner, Dan Barish, and I have spent a lot of energy just trying to get people accustomed to the idea, because it’s pretty far afield, it’s from a bizarre universe. The fact of the matter is that the Lower East Side is filled with old hippies, hipsters, it’s a working-class neighborhood, and this is the intent of this project – it’s an urban solution to knit a community back together where it was once knocked down. So, sort of weaving the community together has been exciting and fun, but of course an on-going challenge.
In Robert Hammond’s TED Talk about the HighLine, he talks about the interaction between people that makes the High Line special. On the High Line, he says, New Yorkers actually hold hands. What kind of interaction would you like to see happen on the Low Line?
I think that what Robert is describing is a trait that’s common, in large part, to the existence of public spaces; people behave differently and interact with each other differently in public spaces in general. So, in the instance of the High Line, it’s a promenade, so it’s an opportunity to take a stroll and it’s obviously linear.
The Low Line is obviously different. Rather than having the uniting element of the shared activity of strolling arm in arm, I would hope to create an experience where the shared activity or shared experience is one where you’re in an environment that begins to push your boundaries and make you question what you’re used to, and begins to set you off in exploration, in that mode of discovery – that can be the shared experience that unites people.
What happens if the Low Line does get built, say, 30 years down the line, and it’s no longer cutting-edge? What if it’s almost standard?
That would be something. I’ve personally been approached by the mayors of other cities, not in America, about the possibilities of doing something like that. The specter very much exists that a city with much less bureaucratic hurdles may end up doing this first. I think that’s actually a distinct possibility.
And it could be something that is fairly standard, but I don’t know how likely that is. I think that spaces like this, and the unique experience that the Low Line is presenting, isn’t as simple as just being an underground space with trees in it. ‘Cause you could put lights in a tunnel and grow a tree – there are a lot of shopping malls in Japan that do that. This has many more layers, I would think – it’s unique and special in a way that I’d imagine would be difficult to replicate in other places.
But your dream would be for it to be in New York?
I think so. I love New York, I was born here, and, like I said, I’ve been studying New York history obsessively and it’s amazing. That said, if another city asked me to do that in another space, I’d probably take it, it’d be an interesting design challenge. My love of New York would not preclude me from doing something like that in another place.
Last question: If you were asked to give a TEDTalk, what would it be about?
Personally, if I were asked to give a TEDTalk, I think I’d like to take a step back and not just look at the cool idea of inserting natural light into a space like this, but actually look at it in the broader context of what it means in our modern day and age to get lost.
We have all these new technologies in all of our pockets; we can find out any information instantaneously. I think collectively we’ve lost our ability to be surprised by anything, to discover things and explore things, to get lost for that matter. I think we all sense that we’ve lost that experience, a beautiful experience that we no longer have.
I think that a lot of the resonance that the Low Line has found has to do with the fact that it’s almost emblematic or representative of the idea that there is a little bit out there that hasn’t been totally catalogued and organized for our easy access. There are things out there we don’t know about and can actually explore and discover in a fresh way. I think it’s worth talking about.