June 2013

Around the end of my pre-thesis year at the University of Cincinnati I got some advice from a classmate who was a year ahead of me, in the process of finishing his own M.Arch. thesis. He emphatically told me to do something small and rural, such as a retreat cabin somewhere in the mountains of Oregon. Never one to take advice, I decided to design a new Penn Station in New York City.

New York has been my on-again, off-again place of residence since 2004. One year I took Amtrak down to North Carolina to visit my family for Christmas, and after several days of living out of a suitcase in their guest bedroom, I was anxious to be back in my own apartment again. After a long journey up the Eastern Seaboard, the train finally pulled into the dungeon-like bowels of Penn Station late at night, and as I stepped onto the platform with my luggage in tow, I distinctly remember thinking how good it felt to be back home.

What made that moment memorable was the fact that, despite several years of living in New York, it was the first time that I had really come to think of New York as Home with a capital “H”, and not just the place where I happened to be receiving mail at the time. I also remember thinking that it’s a shame that moment took place on a grimy train platform underneath Madison Square Garden and not someplace more befitting of the occasion, such as the stunning main concourse of Grand Central Terminal a few blocks away.

I have always had a strong interest in transportation design and means of conveyance, particularly rail transit. My professional experience includes work on transit-related projects in the New York City region, and I am a former volunteer at the Illinois Railway Museum outside of Chicago, where I helped restore and operate vintage streetcars and rapid transit rolling stock. (My ability to identify nearly every class of New York City subway car always makes me the life of any party.) My strongest interests lie where transportation and architecture converge, and there is perhaps no other situation where the means of conveyance and its architecture are as tightly-integrated as with rail transit. A car or bus typically sits in an adjacent parking lot or garage, or passes by on the street. A plane may be temporarily tethered to an airport terminal via a jet bridge, but remains apart, out on the apron. But when a train arrives in a station — with tolerances measured in fractions of an inch — it literally enters the building and becomes just as much a part of its architecture as the elevators and escalators.

For my undergraduate Advanced Project at DePaul University, I proposed the creation of a rapid transit system for the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Region, and developed schematic designs for typical underground and above-ground transit stations. My original plan for this thesis was to design a new concourse at Cincinnati’s Union Terminal to replace the one demolished in the 1970s, and propose other improvements that would tie into and incorporate elements of the master plan I had developed as an undergraduate. However, I worried that I was beginning to pigeonhole myself professionally as “the transit guy”, and the project was quickly becoming more about urban planning than architecture as the scope expanded to the surrounding neighborhood. My frustration mainly centered around the fact that Union Terminal’s problems are the opposite of Penn Station’s: New York has a massive amount of rail traffic that must be accommodated in a decrepit facility, while Cincinnati still has a spectacular train station that sees only six passenger trains per week. Union Terminal still has most of its magnificent architecture intact; its problem is the lack of trains to serve it. Penn Station’s problem, by contrast, explicitly demands an architectural solution.

About halfway through the quarter before leaving Cincinnati for an extended co-op in Los Angeles, I made the decision to do a housing-related thesis instead, and did some minimal research in that direction. It was a more pragmatic choice for a number of reasons, but my heart still wasn’t really in it. However, taking an extra year before starting my thesis and an extra co-op term in New York over the summer of 2013 — now my third time living in the city — have re-kindled my interest in transportation design, and current events in New York have inspired me to tackle the problem of Penn Station. It’s a problem that stirs up my passions in a way that my previous topics haven’t, and perhaps just as importantly, New York is home.

Demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station began fifty years ago this October, despite outrage from preservationists and the design community. The monumental beaux arts edifice by McKim, Mead, and White was replaced with a confusing rat maze of dingy corridors, situated beneath a hulking Madison Square Garden and a drab office building. A piecemeal hodgepodge of improvements have been made over the years — some new finishes here, a new entrance there — but it remains a claustrophobic, confusing mess despite being by far the busiest rail hub in the United States. Upon the destruction of the original structure, Vincent Scully famously quipped, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

In recent months, a number of developments have converged to advance the idea of a new Penn Station into the public consciousness. The operating permit for Madison Square Garden expired this year, and there is a serious movement led by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman and the Municipal Art Society to renew it for only 10-15 more years, giving the city time to make decisions about the future of the Garden and the station. Construction is underway across Eighth Avenue at the historic Farley Post Office to convert a portion of it into a new ticketing hall and concourse for Amtrak. In the longer term, the Gateway Project promises to add two additional tunnels under the Hudson River and additional tracks at Penn Station by expanding the station one block to the south. What architectural form that expansion will take, and how it will be incorporated into the existing facility, have yet to be determined. The Municipal Art Society recently challenged four leading New York firms to submit their own ideas for the future of Penn Station and its environs. SOM, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, H3 Hardy Collaborative, and SHoP Architects each submitted schemes that approached the problem from a variety of angles.

The MAS design brief encouraged a “big picture” view of the issue, and the four firms responded by proposing schemes that were as much about urban planning as architecture; the scope of the proposals included potential new locations for Madison Square Garden, integration with the nearby High Line and Hudson Yards, and the redevelopment of parcels located up to several blocks away from Penn Station itself. Of the four, I found SHoP’s proposal the most compelling as well as the most realistic, and saw an opportunity to use it as a starting point for my own thesis project.

I’ve been warned that the design of a new Penn Station might be overly-ambitious for an M.Arch. thesis, but I feel that by using the SHoP scheme as a master plan to build upon and develop the station building itself in further detail, I can avoid the temptation to redesign all of Midtown West. Additionally, this will fundamentally be a project about simplification; the current facility doesn’t work because what it lacks above all else is clarity and simplicity.

Even so, it will be necessarily to narrow my focus. Given the scope of the project, one could easily make a substantial thesis from any of the following topics:

1. How to tie together diverse transportation modes (intercity rail, commuter rail, subway, bus, taxi, bike, pedestrian) and other functions (retail, dining, etc.) into a cohesive whole with intuitive, self-evident circulation pathways.

2. The sequence of spaces encountered by arriving and departing passengers, and their phenomenological aspects.

3. Creation of an iconic urban space that serves as an appropriate entry foyer for New York. What would it means to enter the city “like a god” once again?

4. How to appropriately pay homage to the original structure and memorialize what was lost, while resisting the knee-jerk impulse to replicate it.

My own research will, by necessity, touch upon all these areas and more, as each topic cannot be looked upon in isolation from the others. That said, I hope to focus primarily on circulation and the experiential aspects of the space, as those are the most pressing priorities in the design of any transportation facility. Much of the design may remain in a very schematic state, but some key moments in the project will be developed in much greater detail.

Above all else, though, my hope is that this project will constructively add to the ongoing discussion among New York’s design community, policy makers, and general public about the future of Penn Station, and help articulate the role that architecture must play in that future.