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Monday, June 03, 2013

Four Visions for Penn Station

In April the Municipal Art Society (MAS) invited four architects—Diller Scofidio + Renfro, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, SHoP Architects, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—to envision designs for a new Penn Station. The reasons for doing so are clear, given the miserable design of one of the busiest transit hubs in the world, the oft-regretted demolition of McKim, Mead & White's original Penn Station in the 1960s, and cries from Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times to move Madison Square Garden (MSG), which sits atop the station's concourses and tracks, and rebuild the station to better accommodate the hundreds of thousands of passengers each day and elevate one's arrival into New York City. MAS's invitation also comes a few months before the City Council's vote on renewing the permit for MSG—in perpetuity, as the arena's owner demands, or ten years, as MAS is recommending; as of writing, the City Planning Commission voted for a 15-year permit, to be voted on by the council in mid-June. On May 29, the four architects presented their designs at the TimesCenter, followed by a panel discussion with Michael Kimmelman. Below is some discussion of the proposals in alphabetical order.

Penn 3.0, the scheme of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), uses "intense layering" to add functions that aim to make a visit to Penn Station and the process of waiting enjoyable; currently the place is someplace to leave rather than stay, much less look forward to. They propose moving MSG to the west end of the James Farley Post Office building, across Eighth Avenue to the west, freeing up the two-block site for a "large, sponge-like mass" that is a complex network of platforms and ramps whose legibility is aided by its openness. Through the addition of cultural, office, and leisure activities to the vertical building, DS+R see Penn Station as a "city within a city."

Of the four schemes, DS+R's proposal is the most avant-garde, or at least the most formally complex. It does not try to recapture the grandeur of McKim, Mead & White's large hall, instead providing a circuit of spaces and pathways that give glimpses of the various activities stacked within the building's volume. The design is all about putting the various secondary functions—theater, art gallery, library, etc.—on display. Without a hint of repeated stacking within the building (each floor plate is unique and only marginally related to the ones above and below), the building would probably be the most expensive to realize. But given that the event was about ideas rather than practical solutions, the idea of stacking multiple uses above the station is an appealing one, especially if those uses are public and give people more to do than just shop. (See photos of DS+R's presentation in my Flickr set.)

H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture was not one of the original four teams invited by MAS in early April to reimagine Penn Station, but after Santiago Calatrava declined involvement Hugh Hardy and his team took on the challenge with a shorter time frame. Their proposal moves Madison Square Garden to an enlarged pier in the Hudson River a few blocks west of the station, connects to the High Line with a new walk/bikeway, and adds a bus terminal and 7-line subway loop in this part of Midtown. Penn Station itself is fronted by a plaza with bioswales on Seventh Avenue, is open and airy inside, and features tiered roof gardens overlooking the Farley building on Eighth Avenue.

While H3 Hardy's design for Penn Station is the most mundane, resembling an airport concourse, it has one thing going for it: Moving MSG to a pier in the Hudson River would go a long way toward making the river an important part of the city, combined with the recreational activities of Hudson River Park and any modifications to Jacob K. Javits Convention Center that could remedy how it turns its back on the water. Throughout the presentation, an emphasis on the bigger picture prevailed, such as how to envision the river, how to connect to other transportation networks, and how to use Penn Station as an opportunity for other improvements in the area. That the building was a bit boring did not detract from the valuable ideas found at a larger scale. (See photos of H3 Hardy's presentation in my Flickr set.)

SHoP Architects was the only firm to bring a presentation model, wheeling it out at the beginning of their presentation, and later unfurling a banner to impress the audience at the TimesCenter; unfortunately, the three presenters from SHoP never used the model to help explain their scheme, as it just sat there in front of their slideshow. In their proposal, MSG is moved to what is now the Morgan Postal Facility, and the High Line is extended to provide entry to the arena and to link the elevated park to "Gateway Park" on the Eighth Avenue side of Penn Station. They envision the station as a large open space capped by an undulating trellis that filters light to the interior; more than the other teams, SHoP strove to recreate the grandeur of the McKim, Mead & White Penn Station, though without any classical references.

Along with H3 Hardy, SHoP expended a good deal of thought and energy on the location and design of MSG. SHoP argued that snail mail's imminent demise and a large single-block tenant make the old postal facility an ideal place to move MSG; it will still be served by transit but will not sit atop a train station. But I agree with Charles Renfro, when he said in the panel discussion following the presentations that the High Line is a place of repose and shouldn't be used as an entrance to a 30,000-seat arena. The station itself—transformed into a shed with a magic carpet-like roof over it, has many apparent qualities. Renderings like the one below will probably capture the public's (and City Council's) imagination more than other schemes, because it harks back to the old station, even as stone is eschewed in favor of steel and glass. (See photos of SHoP's presentation in my Flickr set.)

The proposal of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) moves MSG to a block south of the Farley building, thereby enlarging the site of Penn Station from two blocks to four. A large glass dome anchors the center of the station over new high-speed rail platforms. Surrounding the dome is a green roof and four towers that anchor the corners of the station. A habitable, bridge-like structure spans from tower to tower across the whole site, also topped by a green roof.

Of all the schemes, I found SOM's to be the most outdated. It harks back to a time of megastructures and tabula rasa developments spanning multiple blocks. Yes, each scheme clears land in one way or another to build or move parts of the Penn Station-Madison Square Garden puzzle, but this one double's the station's footprint and then oppresses the public below massive towers and building-size bridges. Even though they point to development rather than elements that make up the station itself, these heroic pieces of glass-skinned architecture are a huge distraction from what is going on underneath. Though, as mentioned, what is happening with the station is well out of scale with what should happen on the site. (See photos of SOM's presentation in my Flickr set.)

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