The Great and the Good

Any future for Penn Station must make use (and reuse) of its past.

New York City has the best of everything. Except buildings. Here, block by block and despite the antic charm of its skyline when seen from a great distance, New York punches pathetically below its weight, especially in comparison to its little neighbors Boston and Philadelphia, which give us Bullfinch, Sert, Cobb, Kahn, Pei, Gropius, Rudolph, Richardson, Sullivan, and the work of all their students and schools plus the extraordinary vernaculars that were spared conflagration or avaricious demolition—all in casual abundance. The greatest city in the world, on the other hand, is mostly tenements and Hudson Yards and Duane Reades.

Here, on the rare occasions when we do achieve skillful and hospitable architecture, especially in the public realm, it happens in one of two ways. First, there is the splendid but narrow way achieved by would-be-Vasaris seeking their Medicis, artful designers who by a vicious species of talent and courtiership are able to provide a building grand enough to flatter those clients but also good enough to serve the city and its people—Mies van der Rohe and Natalie de Blois on Park, Marcel Breuer on Madison, Pier Luigi Nervi in Washington Heights, Pei and Saarinen here and there, Roche and Dinkeloo at the Metropolitan Museum. Secondly—and, because it depends rather less on individual genius, more promisingly as a future template—there are projects in which serendipitous convergences of middling journeymen, tempered by long experience and responding with radical competence to constraints of labor, capital, material, and code, manifest something that is both great and good. Great in appropriately reflecting the scale and stature of the city. Good in contributing to its appallingly limited humanity and urbanity. The quintessential example is Shreve & Lamb’s 1931 Empire State Building—merely, for how it meets both sky and ground, and despite its snow-globe quality of fame, the city’s deftest work of architecture and urbanism. Like Casablanca, it somehow surprised its previously uncelebrated makers by becoming the greatest thing that they ever made—and one for the ages. The Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, and the United Nations complex are all the same sort of phenomena—all fraughtly collaborative and collective in their making, but ultimately brilliant in meeting their moments and enduringly achieving their intended effects.

Today, for the city’s inglorious Pennsylvania Station and its lower Midtown surrounds, a small group of architects, advocates, and private developers, though perhaps suspecting themselves of the genius required by the first way, may be quietly achieving the second. Emphasis, pending good governance, on may.

YOU KNOW THE WRETCHED HISTORY. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the advent of diesel fossil fuel enables trains to run through long tunnels untenable in the age of steam, including new ones under the Hudson River that allow the Pennsylvania Railroad to link the city to its network to the south and trump its rival, the New York Central Railroad, which famously terminated in Midtown Manhattan. Because diesel engines no longer occasioned the monumental glassy train sheds of the steam age, the railroad instead went for a landmark waiting room—those ersatz 1910 Roman Baths of Caracalla with their sixty-foot Corinthian columns by McKim, Mead & White, suspended forever in sunlit sepia after their casual destruction only fifty years later when jets and highways seemed—falsely, it turned out—to be obsolescing intercity rail. (Note the same fifty-year interval of generational contempt that today sees us destroying so many Brutalist masterpieces and squandering all their embodied energy and cultural capital.) The demolition has the felicitous effect of inspiring New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which became a prototype for a national movement in public policy. Warren & Wetmore’s rather more middling 1913 Beaux Arts Grand Central Terminal—the spare—avoids the wrecking ball. But the loss of old Penn Station has the less beneficial effect of condemning to reflexive contempt the blameless replacement design developer/architect Charles Luckman’s urbane New Formalist riff on Lever House (for which in a previous career at Lever Brothers, he was the executive who dealt with the architects). With the baptistry-to-campanile composition of an arena and an office tower above a low and sweeping and airport-departure-gate-inspired concourse, Luckman deftly wove together infrastructural and cultural and commercial programs, with circulation at human and urban scale, in a manner that anticipated the work of Rem Koolhaas at its brief apex. Penn Station has long been, in its own way, a wonderful place.

But, over fifty years, the new Pennsylvania Station has been blamed for its own willful neglect, even as its crowd of commuters and travelers flowing through the twenty-one-track facility grew from 200,000 to some 600,000 or more a day and the station at the center of the Northeast Corridor became the busiest in the country. The place was cruelly vilified for its inadvertent usefulness—as if that were a vice and not a virtue—as an enclosed and populated built landscape, to an unhoused and otherwise dispossessed constituency of New Yorkers whom state and city government has failed to provide basic rights and social services. The complex eventually came mostly under the administration and influence of New York State officials and so may have suffered from those officials’ awareness of a degree of racist and classist contempt by their upstate suburbanite constituents for the millions of cosmopolitan urbanites who rely on subways and commuter trains and attend basketball games at the Garden. In piecemeal ways over the years, Penn Station and the Garden have been made worse and better by various renovations and interventions. Most recently worse by an unnecessary re-skinning of its modest skyscraper in reflective glass to make it resemble the slick and bloated towers of nearby Hudson Yards. And better by a modest repurposing, to a 2020 design by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (which had also pioneered the envisioning and documentation required for conservation and conversion of the entire block between Eighth and Ninth) of the backstage of that other McKim, Mead & White classic, the neighboring 1912 James A. Farley Post Office Building, into the smallish but merrily skylit 250,000 square foot Moynihan Train Hall. This hall now accommodates waiting Amtrak passengers, despite a despicable absence of public seating to repel those maximally transitory New Yorkers most in need of it, and despite the substitution of monumental pixelated advertising for the robust functional signage that should be one of the great consolations and entertainments of travel.

That legacy of contempt and neglect continues to the present day. “Penn Station is a terrible place,” reported New York magazine classical music critic and architecture critic Justin Davidson in April of this year, adding inaccurately, “about that nobody’s arguing.” Governor Kathy Hochul shamefully slandered Pennsylvania Station as a “hellhole” in her advocacy of an instantly obsolete thirty-acre, $7 billion–plus proposal for destroying and displacing much of the complex: the preliminary renderings, with visible reluctance in their details, allowed for the accommodation of the 20,000-seat sports arena and 5,600-seat concert hall at Madison Square Garden but seemed more to express a wish that it might waft away—perhaps toward the nearby former site of the Hotel Pennsylvania, another recently destroyed McKim, Mead & White design. The whole was leveraged and financialized by the prospect of building as many as ten supertall skyscrapers to provide 13 million square feet of increasingly unnecessary office space (plus a risible 540 units of putatively affordable housing), with tax breaks in the billions for its private developers, and the slated demolition—by now tragicomic—of the last remaining survivor of the original McKim, Mead & White design, the stately 1908 granite palazzo on West 31st Street that served as the complex’s power plant and that I continue to insist is just begging to become the new home of the American Folk Art Museum.

HAPPILY, THAT VENTURE FADED AWAY in February of this year, as Vornado Realty Trust, a significant local landowner that had pledged to develop the scheme, recalculated in the face of Covid-era realities. In March came a slick alternative proposal from the Italian private equity firm and infrastructure specialists ASTM Group, New York City–based corporate architecture firm HOK, and the singular person of Vishaan Chakrabarti—once a partner in the tasteful and famously private-development-savvy architecture firm SHoP who by virtue of long persistence and the aesthetic charisma of “Penn Palimpsest,” a speculative vision commissioned in 2016 by his fans at the New York Times, has acquired a degree of local fame. The proposal balances a measure of aesthetic conservation of the midcentury modern and New Formalist elegance of the existing Penn complex—plus the material conservation of all its embodied energy and carbon—with opening up its now-ten-foot-ceilinged circulation areas to lofty fifty-five-foot-high promenades full of light and air. It manages this by leaving Madison Square Garden in place but removing the Theater, which hangs below the arena like a marsupial pouch. This affords a new Eighth Avenue entrance addressing the old post office and Hudson Yards to the west, and a 105-foot-tall atrium connecting West 31st and 34th streets midblock, fulfilling the potential of an area that Luckman conceived of as a primary entrance but is now a sclerotic muddle of arena loading docks, opportunistic parking for various public and private officialdoms, and post-9/11-style barriers.

Programmatically, ASTM’s is a commonsense and clever scheme: those who tell you that a functional and beautiful Penn Station is impossible without also removing Madison Square Garden from right above, as if it were some kind of cursed cloud, ignore entirely that the mutually supportive dependent confluence of public transportation below and public entertainment venue above—dense, dynamic, and lively as a city should be—constitutes precisely the urbanity and ingenuity of the whole complex, and the single way in which the 1960s design significantly improved over its 1910s precursor. “The plan doesn’t involve moving the Garden,” noted New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman in his July coverage, “That dream, I’m afraid, has gone the way of Betamax and Blu-ray.” Whatever one’s taste in vintage digital media, this urbane hybridity of program, with all its opportunities for serendipity and multiplicity, is exactly what makes Penn Station so dreamy.

The changes between ASTM’s renderings released in March and those released in June serve as a barometer, calibrated by those apparently very finely attuned to it, of evolving public taste. Or of the taste of influential private individuals who may have to contend, if only in a court of public opinion, with the public. ASTM’s March design encased the lower half of Luckman’s cylindrical drum of Madison Square Garden in a bulky glassy podium—resembling the already dated-looking shiny plinths that enclose prim and silent mall space, antiseptic food halls, and the husk of a defunct department store in nearby Hudson Yards.

Keeping Madison Square Garden in place is not only socially hospitable but ecologically responsible.

That older scheme, in all its glassiness, also bore some resemblance to the parallel proposal by the team of FXCollaborative Architects, engineers WSP, and the British firm John McAslan + Partners, which had been selected from some hundred request-for-proposals applicants in September 2022, to visualize the transit architecture bits of what was then mostly—lest we forget those ten supertalls—a vast private property development venture. FXCollaborative and WSP, minus McAslan, had previously been—surprise!—behind a year-long, “strategic re-envisioning process,” for the so-called Empire Penn Station scheme, which was one of many problems inherited by the former lieutenant governor Hochul and her associates when in August of 2021 they rather suddenly took over from disgraced former governor Andrew Cuomo.

None of the visualization work produced by either incarnation of that design team seems to have been especially skillful. There are ponderous precast canopies, all curves and creases, east and west, rearing up like megafauna versions of the sorts of things Thomas Leeser and Neil Denari drew in the 1990s. The canopies were awkwardly and impatiently shoved into existing building fabric, as if their designers would have preferred that said fabric just go away. There was the no-brainer north-south atrium down the middle of the block between Luckman’s skyscraper and Garden drum—this one a glass vault in a now overfamiliar diagrid steel frame, asymmetrically leaning eastward, perhaps to indicate that it was contemporary. The insides looked, as usual, something like a squashed airport—this time maybe one in Indianapolis or Kansas City. All the scattered new bits seemed to share no big idea other than the continuation of all the piecemeal insertions and reskinnings already inflicted on the complex since the 1990s. In their insistent stylization to appear futuristic these designs were instantly dated. John McAslan + Partners seems to have been added to the team on the strength of its 2012 design to update London’s King’s Cross Station, Lewis Cubitt’s sturdy 1852 brick essay on a Roman Arch—mostly by ripping out some abject 1970s annexes and placing, over a banal waiting and shopping concourse, a mushroomlike semicircular canopy (there again, courtesy of Arup, is a glass-and-steel diagrid) that perhaps knew a little more than it should about Norman Foster’s 1999 renovation of the courtyard of the British Museum, only a fifteen minute walk away. McAslan’s influence, between earlier and later incarnations of this team’s work, seems to be in painting all the steel white.

Speaking of Britannic inspirations, ASTM’s June design, mostly to its benefit, looks very much like a lesser work by David Chipperfield. That’s the elder statesman British architect who won a Pritzker Prize this year for his sensitive integration of fraught historical fabric with contemporary reuse, eased by his tasteful synthesis of modernist minimalist styling with classical-adjacent stone piers and columns realizing the tacit and explicit neoclassical tempers of those two architects of whom Chipperfield has made a lifelong study: Mies van der Rohe and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Just like Chipperfield’s might, HOK’s June renderings show deep but slender granite-veneered fin-like piers, which viewed from an oblique seem solid but when seen head-on still allow all that putatively commercially friendly glass infill. These elements, vertical and horizontal, sketch out a sort of classical order that is sympathetic in scale and proportion and materiality with the old Farley Post Office building. Up above, a finer vertical scrim of stone fins adds a thick layer of classicizing icing to the cake that is the old Garden. Inside, with swoopy uplit ceilings and a palette of pinkish beiges, the new concourses resemble the airline terminals of today—HOK has been notably responsible for some of the better-received contemporary updates to New York City’s long-unlovable LaGuardia Airport—as much as Luckman’s concourses willfully evoked the jet-age lounges and gates of yesteryear. It’s tasteful. It’s functional. It’s fine.

The strong echo of Chipperfield brings with it, perhaps even not entirely intentionally (and despite the retrograde of a semiclassicizing retrofit to a once-forward-looking building), one way of signifying an aura of humanism and monumentality appropriate to our great metropolis. Kimmelman, an apparent admirer of Chakrabarti since reporting in meticulous detail on the architect’s “Penn Palimpsest” proposal, likes the touch of class—comparing it with the original 1830 Schinkel Altes Museum in Berlin, though not with the museum’s renowned and more closely similar 2009 and 2019 Chipperfield renovations and additions; suggesting that in the ASTM design, “dignity and circulatory logic replace the rat’s maze beneath Madison Square Garden”; and noting that “a gateway worthy of New York … needs to offer more than high ceilings, clear signage, and hot bagels.”

BY THE REDUCED STANDARDS with which we are obliged to evaluate public-facing architectural projects in New York City, a good enough design of the kind ASTM offers—sufficiently dutiful and sufficiently competent, addressing daily human experience and landmark urban scale—would be a great triumph. The bathetic, banal, and bloated redevelopment of Ground Zero—in which it was possible to believe that there was a unique and unfulfilled ethical obligation for design excellence—demonstrates that in our city the achievement of even this minimum standard is by no means guaranteed. The quants at ASTM assert that, given a green light by all the public and private stakeholders, they can do it in six years and for a billion or so less than those MTA plans rendered by FXCollaborative and descended from late Cuomo and early Hochul-era development schemes. ASTM will even, as part of an intricate private-public financing arrangement that sees it managing the joint for the next fifty years, front the first billion dollars itself.

What’s poignant about whether and how any of this will actually happen is that the outcome will not be, in any kind of straightforward way, based on a transparent determination by the people’s representatives of the quality of design offered by our culture’s most talented and well-intentioned technicians and artists. New York’s late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan not only gave his name to Penn Station’s new bijoux train hall, but, back in the Kennedy era, as a young bureaucrat in 1962, authored a brief but epochal memo to the president about government office space called “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” These principles snowballed into the Design Excellence Program of the General Services Administration, the executive body responsible for public buildings at the federal level, a movement that influenced masterpieces from Charles Murphy’s 1964 FBI headquarters to Harry Weese’s 1969 stations for the capital’s Metro system, to John Warnecke’s 1967 design for President Kennedy’s grave at Arlington. “The belief that good design is optional,” Moynihan wrote, “does not bear scrutiny.”

No such statutory obligations to goodness, either the goodness of competence or the goodness of virtue—and no associated mechanisms of public accountability and oversight for that obligation’s enforcement—seem much to pertain in the various corridors and back rooms in which are determined the built landscapes of New York City. This is why, mostly, they suck.

The shame is that this may be more a matter of correlation than causation. Enough very terrible places have been inflicted on New York by very skillful people.

Instead, the fate of Penn Station will fall to what the British—them, again—call the great and the good: those operators and establishmentarians whom many have been accustomed to thinking of as very important people. That fate will leap and stumble through a geographical, political, and commercial terrain Balkanized by various conclaves and covens: of public agencies; stakeholders and landowners, fiefdom chieftains; billionaires and their whisperers; and the kind of private equity guys who become deputy mayors, and vice versa. To read press accounts of Pennsylvania Station’s fate is to be told of Hochul signaling her interest in both the HOK design and a rump version of the FXCollaborative design, now explicitly “decoupled” from all those previously ostensibly necessary office towers. And it is to hear a chorus of otherwise obscure but strangely significant state senators, plus any number of anonymous politicos, all pronounce themselves “open-minded,” “intrigued,” “concerned,” and other words from a thesaurus of tactical posturing and positioning.

These accounts indicate, for example, that it’s a big deal that ASTM hired former MTA bigwig Patrick J. Foye as its new North American chief executive. But current MTA chief Janno Lieber, apparently affronted by the artful angling of a private developer into an already-underway public-ish process, appears to find himself obliged to continue to advocate for some incarnation of the haphazard FXCollaborative vision, even without its previously attached supertalls—vocally objecting to the substantial payment for demolishing that pesky theater that ASTM would allocate to the owners of Madison Square Garden. Those owners, in turn, recently saw their own vintage 1963 operating permits renewed for only three years in an April advisory vote by Community Board 5—which some oracles saw as an indication that not only the theater but the arena itself was ever more likely to evaporate from lower Midtown. Amtrak, the quasi-public corporation running what’s left of the nation’s passenger train networks, owns most of the relevant land, but what happens to the buildings on that land is determined also by the states of New Jersey and New York through their joint administration of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which through its Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) runs the subway and the Long Island Rail Road (not to mention NJ Transit). Internal correspondence reported by Gothamist this summer revealed a high official at the MTA calling Amtrak’s Jeannie Kwon, bearer of the ungainly title “vice president of stations – capital delivery,” and we quote, “silly.” Thus, in Kwon’s reply, “further eroding my confidence in the MTA’s commitment to acting in the best interest of all railroads rather than exclusively their own.”

All railroads, under ASTM’s proposal, would also each pay a quarter of a billion dollars a year to run their trains through it all. Jimmy Dolan, that storied villain of sports radio and owner of the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, would collect half a billion for losing his theater, but would be obliged to pay for all that new granite wrapping his arena. New York City, apparently, also has a mayor; but both by the office’s political jurisdictions and the officeholder’s personal inclinations, the current one doesn’t seem much interested in all of this. And on and on.

SORRY I MADE YOU READ ALL THAT. It’s so urgent yet so boring. It’s by nature a shaggy dog story. All this standard operating procedure—with its marginalization of technocratic expertise, of democratic sovereignty, and of the art of architecture—is why, as the saying goes, we can’t have nice things. Good Governance doesn’t, as Moynihan posited, guarantee Design Excellence. But it helps. To be sure, and for now, the private interest apparently most skillfully navigating all those corridors and conclaves happens to be doing so in the service of a design proposal that appears to be just fine: tasteful, sensible, doable, not that original but with a credible sparkle of sunlight and genuine public-spiritedness. The shame is that this may be more a matter of correlation than causation. Enough very terrible places have been inflicted on New York by very skillful people.

What may eventually elevate the HOK design scheme from merely good enough—in terms of the experience that it may provide its users—to good, and even to an object lesson for best practices potentially on par with the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge, is the extent to which, unlike the FXCollaborative proposals, it doesn’t seem to begrudge the enduring presence of Madison Square Garden and does embrace the programmatic hybridity and diversity of the entire complex, of this city within a city, of this common ground.

Yet perhaps, uneasy with the motley and piebald, it embraces all too smotheringly. What the HOK scheme now requires is a kind of value engineering: not of capital but of embodied energy and material geography and carbon, in which it can be asked if the whole thing needs to be quite so enrobed, for example, in so much fresh stone and steel. That heavy stuff is so energetically and environmentally costly to extract, transport, panelize, and install. Maybe a few thousand fewer fins? Maybe none? Maybe fewer mullions that hold only datums? Maybe leave the stone in the ground and treat the existing building as a quarry: so full of useful iron and silica to be rearranged with surgical precision.

All those old byways and corridors of power, as venues for private interest in public service, shall no longer suffice. The architecture of adaptive reuse is not the architecture of fiefdoms and borders and gerrymanders, but of common ground.

In this way, strangely, the HOK design has much to learn from the otherwise lesser proposals by FXCollaborative: because that work takes a visibly desultory attitude toward the existing structure, it does the least amount possible in its service. There is nothing more added than is absolutely needed—a quick periscope and snorkel threaded into a submarine. In this haphazard way it is, ironically, precise: only what is absolutely necessary has been undertaken. Though this is a lightness born perhaps of the willful suspicion that it isn’t worth appreciatively accommodating the great rotunda of the Garden if it’s going to be destroyed, the resulting economy of means is exactly right: surgical, ecological, casually but effectively deferential, and with a legibility of historical sequence that also supports everyday wayfinding. You enter at the shiny bits. It’s terrific, in FXCollaborative’s renderings, to see Luckman’s great floating cast panels, enduringly ringing the Garden like the oversized plastic and elastic Brutalist bracelet around the wrist of a 1971 jet-setter, looking so good.

For now, the HOK scheme has done exactly half the work, by leaning into the urbane programmatic hybridity of a new-old transit hub smushed under an old-new sports and culture venue. This neighborly accommodation of difference—and conservation of the ready-made—can be understood as essential to any responsible architectural response to the climate crisis. Most of any new construction’s energetic and carbon impact is through extraction, transportation, construction, and demolition, and only a relatively trivial proportion in its lifetime operations. So we must dehabituate ourselves from what once seemed like inevitable cycles of destruction and construction in the built environment—which were in fact a gratuitous luxury of human civilization’s brief 300-year energy surplus achieved by burning, at the additional expense of sending greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and triggering our current global burning and sixth Great Extinction in the history of the planet, a finite supply of 300-million-year-old algae fossils as fuel. So we must make do and mend. While grandeur and granite may help you in a mysterious backroom war of attrition fought by, among other things, picturesque architectural renderings, it may be that for an architecture of sufficiency, of ecological and economical and hospitable responsibility, all we need are (to reuse a beautiful and readymade phrase) “high ceilings, clear signage, and hot bagels.”

The architecture of repurposing, renovating, reusing, and so of conserving all the embodied energy and carbon of the built environment of the past: This is the architecture of the future. This is an architecture of studied accretion, of default to conservation, of intricate intervention. It will not be shiny and smooth. Or it will not be only shiny and smooth. Keeping Madison Square Garden in place is not only socially hospitable but ecologically responsible. As skillfully as Charles Luckman once wove together cultural and infrastructural programs at Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s (including the retention of a surprisingly large portion of the 1910 original), so must any project of the ambition of this next Pennsylvania Station find new collective and cooperative reciprocities and duties between not only its components, but their users and their makers. And among those makers, as at Rockefeller Center or the United Nations complex, in its realization it must find new community not only between motley teams of journeymen architects and engineers, but between everyone literally and figuratively invested in its places. All those old byways and corridors of power, as venues for private interest in public service, shall no longer suffice. The architecture of adaptive reuse is not the architecture of fiefdoms and borders and gerrymanders, but of common ground. This architecture of the future requires this kind of social innovation that for New York City—absent the legacies of those Quakers and Pilgrims who may have helped our neighboring stops along the Northeast Corridor to do better—would be, at last, best.

Thomas de Monchaux is co-author, with Deborah Berke, of Transform: Promising Places, Second Chances, and the Architecture of Transformational Change, a new book about the pasts and futures of adaptive reuse. Like you, he’s learned that if you have to take the subway to the LIRR at Penn Station, of course you get off the 1 Train at 28th Street.