New York City is not known for an abundance of untapped real estate. And yet, down on the lower east side of Manhattan, beneath the bustling streets, sits a massive, abandoned trolley terminal.
For James Ramsey of the New York-based architecture and design firm, Raad Studio, the unlikely discovery of this space sparked a very big idea (one measuring about 60,000 square feet). The concept in short? "That we can use advanced solar technologies to transport sunlight down into this abandoned trolley terminal under lower Manhattan," explains Ramsey, "and use that light to actually grow stuff, and transform that long-forgotten space into a public area for the community, and the city, to enjoy."
This all might sound hard to believe—if it weren't coming from the lips of an erstwhile satellite engineer. "I used to work in a lab at NASA," Ramsey says, "and we were playing with all sorts of optical components to look at spectrometry and what elements existed on different planets in our solar system." It was while engaged in these interstellar endeavors that the bones of his plan began to form. "It's really the combination of this crazy concept with the discovery of this enormous space under the Lower East Side, that really kind of served as the seed that lies at the heart of the Lowline."
It's named in honor of the High Line, a park situated on an old stretch of raised train track on Manhattan's's west side. But before even attempting to take over the space, Ramsey knew he had to test out his theories. Could he actually pull off these crazy tricks with light? And, even if he could, would he be able to keep plants alive underground? And so, the Lowline Lab was born, which Ramsey aptly describes as "a test facility in a blacked-out warehouse near the actual site of the Lowline."
Walking around the Essex St. Lab, he stops to point up to a translucent glowing tube hanging from the ceiling. "That's sunlight right there," he says. "Basically, the idea is this: we use a set of precision optics to trap the sun, and concentrate sunlight down to 30 times its normal brightness. In doing so, we also remove the heat—so we're not creating a death ray or something." Once the light is distilled down to this pure beam, Ramsey uses a set of tubes and lenses to send it wherever he and his team need it. "In this instance, we're sending this concentrated light into the core of our exhibit," he explains, "where we then spread it out to grow stuff."
With over 3,500 plants and over 100 species currently in the lab, the Lowline team has a lot of data to work with. "In general, we're sort of treating this as an active experiment," says Ramsey, "and we're constantly learning. We're swapping out plants that aren't doing so well, and swapping in plants to see if they like these conditions, with the ultimate goal that, at the close of this experiment, we'll have a good idea of what our toolkit is, what sort of plants we'll actually be able to deploy in the Lowline."
A native New Yorker, Ramsey had moved with his family to Maryland by his high school years—but he'd never stopped thinking back fondly on the city, and always felt a deep emotional investment with his hometown. "High school, college... I spent almost all of that time just kind of longing to come back to New York," he says, wistfully. "It's the city I love." He pauses a moment, then his face lights up. "Actually, in a lot of ways, the Lowline is an homage, or a love song, to New York. New York has all these amazing little details and undiscovered pockets and undiscovered spaces. By employing this kind of technology and design to draw some attention to something completely forgotten, it's a way of pointing out to people: Hey, you know what? There's all this amazing stuff still hiding down there. Wouldn't it be cool to explore, and discover it?"
For more on the Lowline project, and the Lowline Lab, see thelowline.org.