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Because Life As a Mole Person Might Not Be That Bad

Lowline on the Lower East Side  

On a bright day on the Lower East Side, the architect James Ramsey opens a metal door and ducks into a dark warehouse that, in a TV drama, would be frequented by dead-eyed mobsters. Ramsey, the founder of the architecture firm Raad Studio, steps into a pool of intense light beneath an aluminum sky and strolls around a miniature Eden. Pathways wind through a contoured chain of tiny mountains, densely furred with ferns, herbs, ground cover, and other flora. The overhead glare floods one verdant hillside and peters out at the edge of the luminescent cone. The energy that pours from the ceiling is honest-to-goodness sunlight, harvested 20 feet above our heads and piped in fiber-optically. Welcome to the Lowline, the future of urban nature.

It’s a dry run for Ramsey’s ultimate goals: to convert an abandoned trolley station below Delancey Street into a park and cultivate the much-further-reaching technology he’s developed. In fact, the city has a fine tradition of indoor nature. In 1855, New Yorkers gaped at a giant sequoia that had been chopped down in California, re-erected in the Crystal Palace, and billed as “one of the vegetable wonders of the gold regions.” A little over a century later, the Ford Foundation on West 42nd Street provided office workers with a glassed-in bower in its 12-story atrium. In 1988, the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden opened, a barrel-vaulted nave with palm trees for columns. But those precedents depended upon daylight cascading through glass; the Lowline captures it in one place and carries it to another. Ramsey takes me up to the warehouse roof, where one large and two small collectors stand like telescopes, tracking the sun. The prototypes, designed by the Korean company Sunportal and equipped with lenses hand-polished in Germany, cost between $50,000 and $100,000, but they look like overgrown versions of something a high-school science club might bolt together. For the final Lowline, Ramsey envisions erecting 200 of the things, some posted atop nearby towers to avoid ever being in shadow.

There’s something vaguely postapocalyptic about porting sunlight into a cave — it’s the sort of desperate trick you can imagine Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut resorting to in The Martian. This part of the Earth’s surface remains habitable, for now, so does New York actually need an underground park? Obviously no. Would the green-deprived Lower East Side benefit from its own year-round arcadia? Maybe. But Lowline fantasies suggest another, broader future for the city’s subterranean layer. Until quite recently, descending from street level meant entering a grim urban Hades of mildewed tiles, leaky ceilings, and flickering fluorescent tubes. Rockefeller Center managed to make its sunken plaza festive, but GM’s Fifth Avenue hole-in-the-ground was little more than a restaurant graveyard — until the Apple Store arrived in 2006. By then, Whole Foods had opened beneath the Time Warner Center, glamorizing underground food shopping with its selection and ample aisles and its non-sepulchral lighting. Suddenly, New Yorkers seemed willing to burrow, at least for gizmos and food.

Right now, architects design tall buildings to absorb the maximum daylight, which usually means coating them with glass. But if future versions of the Lowline sun-catchers became compact and cheap enough, they could make subterranean New York more habitable, redeem dreary homes, and funnel sunshine into the fattest skyscrapers, improving cubicle and mailroom days immeasurably. Part of the installation’s charm is that you experience only a brief Huh? moment before the whole thing seems perfectly, well, natural. After all, anyone who’s ever watered a spider plant in a dark New York apartment has some indoor survivalist skills, and we have all accustomed ourselves to indoor burrowing out of simple necessity. The Lowline asks us to take the next step and descend below ground for pleasure, simply because it’s nice down there. Already on the Lowline, the plantings have begun to compete. (The mint is insurgent and threatens to take over.) If plants can be fooled into thinking they’re outdoors, perhaps the human body can too.