The Phantom Tollbooth Inspires Jordan Geiger in Inaugural ARPA Journal

Proposed “sink”, a public space to serve as accessible pond access in the summer, wintertime ice skating, and a blank canvas for other grey zone activities.

By Madelyn McClellan

Published August 11, 2014

This past June, Jordan Geiger, assistant professor in architecture at UB, was selected to contribute to the inaugural issue of the Applied Research Practices in Architecture Journal (ARPA Journal), a public forum for debate based at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.  The first ARPA Journal issue, “Test Subjects,” was focused on the application of research in architecture and the complications resulting in the use of research in design.  Geiger’s research article, “Niagora: The Netherworld of the Phantom Tollbooth,” discusses the changing dynamics of toll plazas and border crossings, as well as their potential for the development of new land uses which could foster significant social interaction.

Beginning with a reflection on the quintessential tollbooth, Geiger describes it as a human experience that grants travelers a point of reference, allows for social interaction, and often stands as a gateway into a new place, very much like the children’s book, “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster.  He notes that, from the dawn of the automobile to today, the substantial increase in vehicular traffic has resulted in widening of highways and the multiplication of tollbooths and lanes, ultimately increasing the land requirements necessary for toll plazas.  Now, technologies like RFIDs, toll passes, and NEXUS cards allow people to pass through even faster resulting in a place with little consequence to the traveler – or, as phrased by Geiger, “social inversions of plazas of yore.”  Additionally, he goes on to discuss, with such technologies, “the plaza grows ‘un-tolled – unprogrammed and left to tell or host new stories.”

Geiger’s proposed Niagara River Observatory, floating on pontoons as part of the “bi-national ‘grey-zone.”

Geiger argues that, contrary to the blight these social interaction “vacuums” have created, there is potential for the already allocated land. These plazas “offer an immediate and emergent chance to transport us to new netherworlds: not merely into the city but to transitional zones at the hazy boundaries of cities and even nations, where the ecological and social fallout of last century’s infrastructure can be rethought and remade with new digitally inflected public space interactions,” Geiger states.

In the instance of the border crossing at the Peace Bridge between Buffalo, NY, and Fort Erie, Ontario, where land has already been allocated to the plaza, Geiger proposes a “bi-national ‘grey zone.” It would be here, much like international waters, where people can interact with their environment and other people, not defined by their passport. 

Geiger’s article discusses this location as a case study because of its high traffic flow, country-to-country border condition, and the vast land allocation. Additionally, the Peace Bridge is currently being studied for future change by the United States and Canadian governments, potentially opening a gateway for the implementation of research-based designs.