Elegant 3-D Drawings Show NYC Subway Stations Are Places, Too
Subway stations are generally considered to be places of utility. Stand here to get on this line; stand there to get on that one. For most, subways are waystations to be tolerated, annoying intervals between origin and blessed destination.
But subway stations are also places, argues Candy Chan, a New York City-based architect. “I call the subway system ‘the city under the city’,” she says. “The richness, the culture of the city extends below ground.” Which is partly why Chan started drawing 3-D representations of New York’s upside down. The other reason: She was lost.
Though Chan has now lived in the city for eight years, the complex arrangement of its stations—that you might get off the 4 at Borough Hall, make a wrong turn through a tunnel, and end up on the R line’s Court Street platform—can still leave her befuddled. Take a look at Chan’s newest crop of sketches, her third in a larger series called “X-Ray Station Clusters”, and you can see why.
Despite the complexity, Chan starts her sketching process with just pen and paper. She hoovers up information from Google and Apple Maps, which give her a rough idea of how the stations are arranged in space. Then, she hits the tunnels themselves, walking through the stations and snapping photos to understand how they fit together. What she’s found is that stations have their own hidden tricks. For instance, New York has some subtle hills and slopes, a topographical challenge last century’s subway builders had to finesse. Then there are confounding issues of inconsistency: “It gets so trippy when you see that in this station, a blue line is on your left, and red is on your right, but in the next station it’s flipped,” she says.
After the exploratory pen-paper-pedestrian stage, Chan takes to the computer, where she uses design and drafting software like AutoCAD, Rhino, and Adobe Illustrator to come up with the final product.
The result is a more true-to-life representation of what subway stations really look like. Especially compared to the classic subway map, which, like all functional transit maps, must elide detail and perfect geographical accuracy for the sake of usefulness.
Even so, Chan—just like those who created the ancestor of today’s official Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway map back in 1979—has to make some compromises for the sake of visual legibility. Just like New York, subway stations are too varied, too nuanced, too strange, to be described in just one drawing.
Chan joins a long line of graphic designers and artists who have tried to explore—and explain—mass transit systems through visuals. Last year, cartographer Andrew Lynch, who goes online by the name Vanshnookenraggen, published a “complete and geographically accurate” map of the New York City subway’s tracks, which Chan says she references while working on her own drawings. The makers of the app Exit Strategy NYC give riders the ultimate New Yorker info: where exactly to stand on the tracks so you’ll end up right in front of the correct platform exit for your final destination. And the book Cities Without Ground, published in 2012, is over 100 pages of exceedingly detailed drawings of Hong Kong’s streets—including its subway system.
Like those projects, Chan is hoping the maps serve as gentle intros to the world under the streets. She thinks of the x-ray drawings as less maps to follow then schematics that force riders to start thinking about subway stations as locations of their own—not just slightly smelly stops.