[M4] Sightseer Booths
Moved, a meditation on American railroading
In 1979, Amtrak began furnishing their long-distance routes with the Superliner 1: a bi-level construction featuring dining rooms, sleeper cabins, and most affectionately, an observation car called the Sightseer Lounge. I have to wonder if, at the time, the architects and interior designers knew they were ace social engineers.
The Sightseer Lounge is where passengers of all classes train-wide freely congregate. Panels of glass tower up and over the facade so the great American landscape floods in, and collapses any sense of separation between inside and out. Single seats face these windows and make movies of meandering miles, of mountains and marshes, morning meadows and bird migrations. And then there are the booths: two rows of four four-seater tables in parallel.
The sum value of long-distance railroading can be quantified by the Sightseer, its flattened social hierarchy, and specifically, these booths. What stages the magic like my time with Marie and Jim rests on the convergence of two terribly uninteresting, yet enlightening facts: the orientation of the body and available seating.
Other forms of public transportation considered – whether a bus, a plane, a subway train – surrounded you are by strangers. But we are relieved by our reticence and can avoid an interaction quite naturally thanks to the compositional geometry of seating—it generally has us shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers. It is the forward-facing constraint of the Sightseer booths that illuminate how the objects in our field of vision furnish our reality with concepts and story, vacuum our attention, and – save for a tempting sound or sight in the periphery – restrain its flee. And because there is a disproportionate ratio of passengers to seating in the Sightseer, if one wants to sit in a booth, one likely won’t be doing so alone.
For the last four decades, this pair of constraints cooperate to become the point of the Sightseer's interior design strategy in my estimation. Vis à vis you’ll find Your Stranger, whose eyes rove yet make spontaneous contact, whose items on the table or adorned to their body make an affectionate offer of their nature—a book or the paper, a deck of cards, their bed head, a pack of smokes, a Fruit Loops tee shirt worn unironically, a pair of binoculars, their diary.
One begins to feel they are not just sedentary in a train booth. In fact, it's something closer to a therapist's chaise longue. The booth is personified – spectacles at the bridge of its nose, yellow legal pad at hand – it nudges encouragingly and up come the constellation of underlying fears, and the chance to move the needle on repairing what someone long ago once made you believe about yourself.
The booth is gently inviting you both to be long on time, to workshop a gab, to break the silence still. Who's it going to be?