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Subway Art

Jan 4, 2012 12:04 PM | 0 comments

There are transit buffs and then there are transit buffs...and then there is Philip Ashforth Coppola. Coppola's beautifully illustrated and obsessively compiled multi-volume masterpiece, Silver Connections: A Fresh Perspective on the New York Area Subway Systems, is probably my favorite set of books in our collection. And for anyone interested in the history and aesthetics of our city's transit system, they are essential reading, covering as they do the design and artwork of numerous city subway stations. There really are no other books like these.

Cover of Volume 1

Cover of Volume 2

Self-published in limited editions, Coppola's books are lovingly and carefully arranged. The intricate covers are thermographically printed on heavy paper and, where hand-lettering is not availed of, the text has been typed out on an IBM Selectric II with, as noted in the back of each volume, the Delegate element. Throughout the volumes custom rubber stamps have been used to number drawings and enliven title pages with a dash of red.

The Four Oceans Press logo. Stamp created by Acme Rubber Stamp Works, Maplewood, NJ.

Mixing the hand-made vernacular of the amateur with the comprehensive and meticulous eye of the expert, Coppola's work could easily fit into a family tree of artists and tinkerers like Red Grooms or Rube Goldberg. Indeed, Coppola's four volumes could serve as a handy schematic counterpart to Grooms' 1975 installation Ruckus Manhattan, seeing as how both projects, albeit in different ways, seek to reconstruct the city before our very eyes.

Coppola's work fleshes out the New York we know, but, by its careful attention to details otherwise overlooked -- like the light fixture above and the tile pattern below -- asks us to look again at our all-too-familiar built environment.

But all aesthetic considerations aside, these books are also chock full of information. Want to know what role Brooklyn's Hecla Iron Works played in the construction of the Manhattan IRT contract 1 line? Just turn to page 480 in book 2 volume 1 where you'll read the following:

Hecla made all 133 kiosks. The entrance kiosks had sort of four-sided onion dome roofs, and the exit kiosks had four-sided step-pyramid or ziggurat roofs -- at least, they were supposed to according to a plan which I saw on display at the Transit Exhibition (as of 7/28/78). But I don't believe that that plan was ever carried out; I think that all the kiosks -- whether they said 'EXIT' or 'ENTRANCE' -- had the same style domes over their stairwells.

Accounts of things as mundane as kiosks -- for who, really, could make a kiosk sound interesting? -- are, if not made riveting, at least sauced up with a splash of something more personal. We can see Coppola at the Transit Exhibition soaking up the plans for onion-domes and ziggurats, saucer-eyed and fantasizing of a city studded with exotic kiosk roofing solutions. Readers might also catch a glimpse of Coppola's imaginative feeling for the life of the transit system in the title page of his chapter on the Fulton Ferry-York Street-Hudson Avenue Elevated; not only is it richly illustrated, but, with that word "demise," Coppola eschews the dry civic tone which usually accompanies stories of infrastructural renewal for something bordering on the narrative oomph of a comic book. Somewhere down in that dockyard scene you feel like you might find heroes and villains.

Though covering the transit system throughout the city, there is plenty in these pages that focuses specifically on Brooklyn. If you want to see Coppola's drawings of towerside lamps on the Williamsburg Bridge, you'll find them here; looking for depictions of Hoyt Street station columns? look no further; or how about fancy signs in the control house at the Kosciusko Street station on the Broadway Elevated line? Those fancy signs are here. Everything is here. Everything and then some, and we have it all for your perusal. In the meantime, check out Jeremy Workman's short documentary about Philip Ashforth Coppola or read a New York Times article from 2000 on this subway maestro and his pursuit to document our city's depths.  

Stamp appearing at the end of Vol. 3, beside which reads: "Look for this seal when making your purchase. Beware of imitations; accept no substitutes."