To get to the New York Auto Show, I took a 7 train to the still-new end of the line at Hudson Yards. To get from the train to the surface, I took the long escalator. As I always do on that escalator, I felt dizzy and nauseated all the way up.
That nausea is the work of Dattner Architects, who did the station design work and who include the escalator in their portfolio of work. The professional designers made a simple, specific bad design decision, which makes the escalator miserable to ride.
What they did was to decorate the walls of the escalator tube with a regular series of vertical metal strips between horizontal rows of tiles—but they oriented the strips and tiles to the slope of the escalator itself. The horizontal elements are tilted forward, parallel to the escalator; the verticals are perpendicular, tipping backward from true vertical.
The eye reads the whole setup as if it’s a flat people-mover running along a level hallway, while the inner ear and the rest of the body’s natural positioning system still feel true up and down.
Once you’re fully inside the long tube, those visual cues are the only available reference. The result is that the eye reads the whole setup as if it’s a flat people-mover running along a level hallway, while the inner ear and the rest of the body’s natural positioning system still feel true up and down. The two readings are irreconcilable. It feels as if you’re constantly toppling backward—or, on the ride back down, toppling forward. If you tried to stand upright to match the “upright” elements passing by you on the walls, you would, in fact, fall over.
In an interview with Curbed, the Hudson Yards station designers said they were inspired by the “distinctive flattened-oval profile” of Washington D.C. Metro stations. It’s true that I always felt a little uneasy riding the long escalators up out of the D.C. stations too—but there, at least, the segmented pattern of the tunnel walls is subtle and widely spaced, the natural product of their concrete construction. At Hudson Yards, they turned what had been a disquieting background effect into the dominant visual motif. It’s a basic misunderstanding of form and function. Someone should get a plumb bob and a can of black paint and de-design it by putting some true vertical stripes on the walls.