Yesterday at TimesCenter in midtown Manhattan, four of the city’s top design firms presented visions of what New York’s Penn Station could become. The four firms were invited by the Municipal Arts Society to participate in an exercise that would give the public a taste of what a world class transit hub in New York might look like. Participating were Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SOM, SHoP, and H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, the latter of which stepped in at the last minute after Santiago Calatrava withdrew. As part of the exercise participants had to find a new home for Madison Square Garden, New York’s famed arena, which sits atop the current Penn Station.
All four teams chose to relocate the arena elsewhere. Two placed it nearby whilst the other two teams placed it farther west and closer to the water. But it was the transit hub that drew the 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from the crowd. New York is one of the largest cities in the world but sadly it has been without a proper transit hub since 1963 when the storied train shed designed by McKim Mead and White with its monumental waiting room based on the Baths of Caracalla was demolished, an act widely heralded in the press as 'an act of vandalism' that was so egregious that it led to the making of the New York City Landmarks Law.
H3 Hardy Colloboration Architecture, known for its theatre work in the city, moves the entire complex, transit hub and arena, westward to the waterfront at 34th Street. Hugh Hardy, who led the team, told the New York Times that he saw the exercise as an 'opportunity to do more than just fix things'. As part of its solution, Hardy’s team engages Pier 76 and transforms it into a new 16-acre park.
Diller Scofidio & Renfro have used contemporary architecture to create a porous transit hub that engages the city. Like the former Penn Station it is a cavernous space lit from above with lots of connecting skybridges. It is a place to ‘see and be seen’ and Liz Diller told The Times that the idea is to turn one's waiting time for a rail connection into a positive virtue. The space is re-envisoned as a 'city within a city' chock full of amenity space for things like a theatre and a spa.
SHoP 'stole the day', said Architectural Record reporter Fred Bernstein, with its over-the-top presentation that trumped the others. While most teams presented images on screens, ShoP built a massive physical model that wowed the crowd along with Vishaan Chakrabarti and Chris Sharples' eloquent presentation. ShoP’s proposal features a lightweight concrete structure punctuated with many skylights, a scheme meant to evoke the spirit of the old Penn Station.
Last up was Skidmore Ownings & Merrill (SOM). Of all the teams it has the most experience designing complex transit facilities. SOM’s proposal doubles the footprint of the current station and proposes a park on the scale of Bryant park. Its a massive mixed use project with what The Times characterized as having 'housing twice the size of Tudor City, more office space than Rockefeller Center and more cultural spaces than Lincoln Center'.
All plans presented in MAS’s design challenge for a new Penn Station evidence a better future for Penn Station, which is the point of the exercise. But without political teeth and a public mandate they are at the moment just visions. Let’s hope this exercise gets beyond the rendering stage and manages to be a real first step toward giving New Yorkers what they truly deserve...a world class gateway to their world class city.