When you walk into the Lowline Lab, the first thing you taste is oxygen. The Lab is hidden in an old warehouse, two blocks away from where the Lowline, a proposed underground park, is slated to open in 2020. The Lab is its prototype — part testing ground and part public sneak peek at the paradise that may one day grow under Manhattan's streets.
Stepping through the Lab's inconspicuous door and finding a rainforest is simply surreal. I stopped by for a visit just a few hours before the space opened to the public last weekend, and was immediately blown away by how much freaking foliage the landscape architects stuffed into a whimsical package. At first, I felt like I'd walked into a Dr. Seuss cartoon, with oddly-shaped trees towering over colourful, hard-to-identify flowers.
The daylighting rig is essential a super mirror that beams the sunlight down into the lab.
It turns out this unexpected diversity of plants is a central idea in the project. Lowline creators James Ramsey and Dan Barasch aim to create a unique eco-system underground using cutting-edge daylighting technology to grow dozens, if not hundreds, of plant species normally found in disparate habitats all over the world. Now that the project has developed the infrastructure to pipe in sunlight, they need a testing ground to see which plants thrive in the new environment.
"We're sort of challenging ourselves with plants that are harder to grow like strawberries and pineapple," Barasch told me on my tour of the unexpectedly lush space in the Lower East Side as, he pointed out a pair of cute little softball-sized pineapples.
One of said pineapples during the planting phase
There are currently over 3000 plants growing in the Lowline Lab, all fed by a custom daylighting rig that transmits rays above the building down a tube and onto reflective surfaces. The sunlight is then dispersed across the 464-square metre space. (The final Lowline will be 10 times this size, at 4645-square metres.) The plants themselves live in a cleverly terraced structure that both holds the soil in natural-seeming mounds and distributes water to all the plants.
The structure that supports the unique urban ecosystem is beautiful in and of itself. You can only catch a few glimpses of the wooden layers peeping through the foliage, but it's part of a complex geography that undulates along with the reflective panels that bounce sunlight down from above.
The Lowline Lab during construction with the reflective tiles above and the habitat below
As I walked around the Lowline Lab chatting with Barasch, I couldn't get over how fresh the air felt and tasted. The plants had just been misted before I arrived, so they glistened under the reflected sunlight. There were flowers from all parts of the world, more types of moss than I could count, and something called "Variegated Snake Plant" which is apparently part of the asparagus family.
"This is very much a real life science experiment," Barasch told me. "So far we've seen really incredible results."
You normally don't see this lush scenery in the Lower East Side
The more I explored, the more I imagined how this type of innovation would apply to different indoor spaces. Barasch says the daylighting setup will work in any dark, abandoned space. Can you imagine if underground train stations were lined with lush jungle?
When the late afternoon sun dipped behind the Rivington Hotel, the room darkened before a set of auxiliary lights powered on to keep the space bright. It was time for me to go, I realised, as a local TV crew set up to interview Barasch for the nightly news. This experiment was really just getting off the ground, and I'm eager to go back to check the progress.
It's like an urban fairy tale…
I took a few last gulps of fresh air and stepped out into the autumn air. It felt like stepping out of the forest and into the crowded, cough-inducing city street where respite's hard to find. Indeed, that's exactly what the Lowline is meant to be: a place for New Yorkers to escape in any season. I honestly can't wait five more years for such a park.
The Lowline Lab will be open to the public for the next months. On Saturdays and Sundays, passersby can stop in and explore the habitat; during the week, there will be educational sessions and events in the delightfully naturally oxygenated warehouse space.
Photos via Lowline Lab / Adam Clark Estes