4 Glamorous New Penn Station Designs (That Shouldn’t Be Built Yet)

Later this year, for the first time since it was built in 1963, Madison Square Garden’s operation permit is up for renewal. This means that the fate of New York’s most-loathed transit screwup, Penn Station, is also suddenly up for discussion. This week, four architecture firms presented sparkling, well-rendered concepts for the Penn Station of the future. But are they doomed to repeat history?

Madison Square Garden sits on the site of what was once the largest railway station in the world: Pennsylvania Station, or “Pennsy”, a grand neoclassical temple built in 1910 that was demolished in 1964, after only 53 years in existence. The public outrage that followed spurred the creation of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, though it did nothing to change the building’s fate. “If a giant pizza stand were proposed in an area zoned for such usage, and if studies showed acceptable traffic patterns and building densities,” critic Ada Louise Huxtable acidly said at the time, ‘the pizza stand would be “in the public interest,’ even if the Parthenon itself stood on the chosen site.”

The proverbial giant pizza stand built in its place — a windowless entertainment mecca and a cramped, dank cavern of a transit hub — was, at the time, imagined as a very futuristic architectural solution to the problem of an ageing city. Today, the most tangible problem is Penn Station’s size: the number of passengers that move through the cavernous space has tripled since the 1960s. It’s a void in a piece of urban fabric already dense with featureless facades and billboards. Sarah Goodyear points out that Vincent Scully Jr, the architectural historian, probably said it best: Through the old Penn Station, “one entered the city like a god”. Through the new Penn Station, “one scuttles in now like a rat”.

So the opportunity to give it another shot — third time’s a charm, right? — is tantalising. To get the conversation started, the Municipal Arts Society invited four New York firms to imagine what Penn Station Part III could look like. Look is the crucial word here, though: the problems of Penn Station are more complex than what it looks like. So why are we talking about it in terms of aesthetics? Everyone loves an image of a glimmering, sunlit building of the future. But are beautiful renderings a sound basis upon which to solve a problem that involves civil engineering, transit, zoning, and economic development? Wasn’t that exactly what got us into our current situation?

New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman has the most sensible solution to the problem, of course. Rather than jumping into design, he suggested last week, why not renew Madison Square Garden’s operation permit for 10 years? A decade would give us time to come up with a more thoughtful plan, involving stakeholders, experts on all fields, and case studies from other sites. And the architects, of course, who shouldn’t be vilified for their optimism. Such a plan makes sense — the question is whether we’re capable of the restraint needed to do something so sensible.

The editors of TIME, in 1950, didn’t think so. Writing about the second Penn Station, they described the city’s unique metabolism for architecture: “Nothing makes a New Yorker happier than the sight of an old building rich in memories of the past; unless it is tearing the damn thing down and replacing it with something in chromium and plate glass, with no traditions at all.” Check out the four proposals below.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with Josh Sirefman, describe their formalist proposal as “a city within a city, a porous and light-filled civic structure filled with diverse new programs that reflect the hybridity of contemporary urban life.” In scope, it’s similar to the transit hub planned for San Francisco. Whether or not the sinuous curves and elastic structures support a well-design system is up for debate.

Skidmore, Owings and Merril

“A central, transparent Ticketing Hall is placed at the centre of the site, with dedicated vehicular drop-off and radial, pedestrian connections to the city surrounding it,” explain the architects at SOM. “With all of these networks intersecting at Penn Station, its central hall would become the iconic gateway for nearly every visitor around the world… The design will fully exhaust its potential air rights but preserve the full four block ground-plane exclusively for Public use. The natural location for Madison Square Garden would be adjacent to, but not on top of, the major transit hub.”

Penn Station 3.0 by SHoP Architects

“SHoP imagines an expanded main hall of Penn Station as a bright, airy and easily navigable space that defines a centre of a new destination district, Gotham Gateway,” explain the architects. “In addition to striking public architecture, the project proposes significant security and rail capacity improvements that address major needs at the existing station.” The pros? The core focus is connecting the High Line to the pedestrian areas around the station, which would improve access. The cons? The “tower-in-the-park” typology hasn’t been very successful in New York thusfar. Public plazas in Midtown tend to end up as ghost towns.

Proposal by H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture

H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture would relocate Penn Station to a pier on the Hudson River. Their proposal is the only to lay out the problem in terms of actual transit-users, which is a heartening thing to see. “The New Penn Station, including an eight-track high-speed rail expansion to the south, accommodates increased capacity and integrates community and traveller amenities, including a new three-acre public park, retail complex and two-acre roof garden,” the architects write.