A few weeks ago, I was staring up into the roof of an impressive station building which forms part of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. But I wasn’t looking at Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus. I had been, an hour or so earlier. Now, I was at another Subway station which straddles the divides between art, architecture and engineering, just as the Oculus does. Linked to the Oculus by an underground passageway which opened in 2016, connecting “The biggest boondoggles in mass transit history” as the New York Post put it, the Fulton Transit Center is much smaller than the brain-meltingly massive Oculus but is still full of similar wonder and drama. The New York Post wasn’t quite so polite, terming the latter “stegosaurus-like” and the former “doughnut-domed”.
Like the Oculus, the Fulton Center was redeveloped as part of wider post-9/11 improvements to the Subway stations in the lower Manhattan area around the World Trade Center. Replacing an awkward collection of interchanges between Subway lines, and with the addition of a new surface building, the story of the Fulton Center’s construction has other similarities with that of the Oculus. Just like the Oculus, the Fulton Center went through a series of budget crises and design adjustments during a lengthy and awkward gestation.
First announced in 2002, it was 2014 before the station finally fully opened. The various Subway platforms under the ground were refurbished (though many retain their splendid early tiling), and the addition of a new mezzanine improved interchange between the different lines. But it is the Fulton Center’s surface building which is the most obvious aspect of the project. It is the work of architecture practice Grimshaw Architects.
Despite the similarities in their backgrounds, the Fulton Center is quite a contrast with the Oculus. The Fulton Center building is a lot smaller than the Oculus, and while the latter is curvaceous and white, the Fulton Center is angular, with black and grey the main colour palette. The surface building is a simple but very dramatic cube, with an internal height of 34m giving an impressive sense of space. It has dark glass walls on three sides, while on the south-west side the historic Corbin Building, a late 1800s brownstone office building, has been retained. A new entrance into the Fulton Center’s main building has been inserted through the Corbin Building’s ground floor.
Inside, escalators at the north, east and west corners of the building feed passengers straight down to the Subway concourse. Eschewing the wilful twists and turns of the staircases which lead passengers down into the Oculus via its viewing balconies, the Fulton Center takes a more straightforward approach. It is a highly efficient machine, designed to suck passengers in from street level and take them down to the Subway platforms below. It handles some 300,000 passengers a day doing just that.
Unless, that is, they are diverted by the shopping opportunities the Fulton Center provides. Arranged around circular galleries, the retail units occupy a large structure which in plan is a square with rounded corners and edges; essentially a building within a building. A striking spiral staircase and associated lift (in the south corner of the Fulton Center) connects the retail galleries and leads down to the Subway concourse, giving rise to an appearance not unlike a vast Tardis control room, should the BBC ever decide it wants a Tardis featuring galleries of shops, that is.
The circular tiling on the upper floor of the Subway concourse is a rather neat touch. But, to be quite honest, none of these aspects of the Fulton Center’s design are going to be the thing most passengers remember. Instead, it is the building’s most dramatic feature that lingers in the mind, a huge conical dome at the top, with a circular skylight at the top, which brings daylight down into the building, through the central core and down to the lower level of the Subway concourse through a circular hole cut in the floor (protected by a glass-walled balcony). The typical architectural definition of an oculus is a circular skylight at the top of a dome; the irony here is that Fulton Center has an oculus, while the Oculus itself doesn’t have a typical oculus at all.
The Fulton Center’s dome is rendered even more dramatic by the inclusion of an artwork which lines the cone. The largest ever commission by the MTA’s Arts & Design programme, Sky Reflector-Net is by James Carpenter Design Associates in association with Grimshaw and Arup and features a grid of nearly 10,000 triangular stainless steel panels, which reflect and direct light down the cone.
Contrary to the New York Post’s assertion, there is nothing “doughnut-domed” about it, except that both doughnuts and the Fulton Center’s skylight are delicious.
For passengers, the Fulton Center might lack the overwhelming physical drama of the Oculus, but it is still an impressive building. Perhaps more sober to experience, it is nevertheless very satisfactory. Readers familiar with the heroic industrial aesthetic of stations on the London Underground’s Jubilee line will much that is familiar here. Meanwhile, the retail offering seems rather more suited to meet the needs of typical trips on the Subway than the high-end stores on offer at the Oculus. At the Fulton Center, Shake Shack rather than Dior is the order of the day. Nevertheless, the commercial space is managed by Westfield, as an extension of its mall operation at the Oculus.
The Fulton Center has been rather overshadowed by its near neighbour the Oculus, perhaps inevitably. But it has much to commend it as a highlight of the New York City Subway in its own right.
How to find the Fulton Center
Bibliography and Further Reading
Grimshaw’s project page for the Fulton Center, here
James Carpenter Design Associates project page for Sky Reflector-Net, here
Westfield’s Fulton Center webpage, here