Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dimensions vs. Aesthetics

A friend sent me the link to a page on Design Boom that catalogues great metro rail station designs from around the world. A lot of them look gorgeous, or at least zoomy. But it hit me that the dimensional aspect of design is much more important than the aesthetic aspect (and, of course, the overall "usability" of a system and its stations is more important than anything else). In the long term, once the novelty of beautiful aesthetics (or the glaring ugliness, as the case may be) of a station wears off, I think what's still going to affect us are the overall dimensions. I have to wonder if there isn't a measurable psychological impact at play – if, for example, standard signs of stress don't appear as we enter a cramped space, as compared to positive or zero signals appearing when we enter spaces that are spacious, "legible," etc.

Take, for example, the New York subway system. For the most part, all the tarting up in the world can't make it more pleasant. In New York, you will always feel like a rat fighting your way up and down narrow staircases, scurrying down cramped corridors, and inching along a three-foot-wide segment of platform next to a staircase, all the while trying your best not to bump into people. Even London, with its cramped Underground trains, has wide staircases and sometimes downright grand stations and platforms. In Paris, the entrances are almost ridiculously wide. In these places you feel like you're treated with respect!

Zoomy designs and artwork are icing on the cake. As I look at the photos on Design Boom's page, it's their spaciousness that jumps out at me.


AXG said...

I've been thinking along similar lines - there's a newly built-up section of nether Williamsburg clustered around Flushing between Broadway and Bedford, and while the buildings are so bad that my eyes bleed, there is something incredibly satisfying about the overall scale of the place. Their massing and height, along with the width of the streets and sidewalks, feels just right - almost Parisian if you squint!

Iver Peterson said...

I agree that you can't say much good about either the aesthetics or the humane-ness of the NYC subway. But I still feel good rushing through it, knowing my way through those impossible spaces, like getting to the 7 train, plunging deeper into the bowels of the city. Maybe it's the memory of trailing my doubting kids down those stairs and connecting galleries on our way to Shea, or just shuffling down in Times Square and coming up - where? Someplace a long way away. Cut and cover was not a great way to build, but it was all they could do with steam and manpower back then; given the high level of service, the amazing grid, I think I can live with it.