Few places inspire the kind of mean-spirited public ballyhoo that Penn Station and Madison Square Garden do. The Garden sits on hallowed ground–the site of the original Penn Station, which McKim, Mead, & White famously designed in 1910 (it looked like a giant Doric Temple) and tragically demolished in 1963. In exchange for air rights, a new, smaller Penn Station was built beneath the Garden for free and given a stake in the complex.
Ever since, grassroots campaigners, cultural figures, and enlightened politicians have tried to reverse that “monumental act of vandalism” (charges a New York Times op-ed of the day) by various means of agitation and politicking. Now, perhaps for the first time, conditions are ripe for change.
But surely not change like this. The Municipal Art Society (MAS) recently invited four architecture firms to reimagine how the site could be made afresh. That includes both a rebuilt or reconfigured Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, though the ideal arrangement would be the relocation of the former and a new, iconic entranceway for the latter. The designs the architects came up with are “flashy,” “futuristic,” and, perhaps more accurately, “unbuildable.”
Proposals by Skidwell, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), SHoP Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), and H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture offer different solutions to the same objective: Without any economic, planning, or political barriers, how would they transform Penn Station into a vibrant central hub for commerce, transit, and innovation?
The greatest barrier–Madison Square Garden–was conveniently swept aside. This year, the Garden’s 50-year operating contract expired, opening up a swell of opposition that wants the sports arena gone and Penn Station back to its former glory (or something akin to it). Last week, the New York City Planning Commission shot down a bid by the Dolan Family, owners of the Garden, to extend their rights to the property “in perpetuity.” As a New York Times report stated, the unanimous vote prolongs the Garden’s stay by 15 years, in which time the Dolans would have to lay out a plan for evacuating the site or staying and making significant improvements to the area.
Needless to say, not all were pleased with the commission’s decision. Some, like the Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, felt that the ruling, which needs to be ratified into law by the City Council within the next 60 days, didn’t go far enough. They noted the apparent vagueness of the commission’s call for improvements, the specifics of which have been irresponsibly left to the discretion of the Garden’s owners. Critics wanted to see the extension shortened to 10 years and the city apply pressure on the Garden to actively seek a new home.
MAS has called Penn Station’s facilities “grossly inadequate” and, given its structural ties to the Garden, ultimately unsalvageable. They argue that the issue is being seen the wrong way round: The Garden serves 20,000 patrons on a daily basis, while Penn Station serves 640,000. Yet, Penn Station can’t be moved, while the Garden very well can.
The four architectural proposals unveiled Wednesday all support that thesis. Each of the plans moves the arena offsite to make way for more ambitious (and high-contrast) light-filled urban complexes. Some are spread out over the site and, in the case of SOM’s plan, even include skyscrapers; others, like DS+R’s scheme, are contained in a single complex, a “city within a city,” as DS+R principal Liz Diller put it.
Naturally the owners of the Garden don’t agree. They issued a statement timed with the MAS event, calling the architects’ renderings “pie-in-the-sky drawings” with little understanding of the complex issues (read: interests) involved. “It’s curious to see that there are so many ideas on how to tear down a privately owned building that is a thriving New York icon, supports thousands of jobs and is currently completing a $1 billion transformation.”
Well, let’s take a look at each. H3’s scheme erects a new Madison Square Garden on Pier 76, just off of West 34th Street. The architects turn the pier into a floating landscape overlooking the Hudson, complete with a 16-acre park with pedestrian and cycling paths. Their design for a new Penn Station would expand the site’s current footprint to include an eight-track high-speed rail, a three-acre public park, and a robust retail complex. The site would be surrounded by 24 million square feet of private development.
SOM’s project matches and perhaps outdoes the firm’s preposterous UFO-themed proposal for Grand Central Terminal (exhibited earlier this year) in sheer scope and absurdity by envisioning “a commercial development the size of Rockefeller Center.” Four towers enclose a sloping lawn four times the area of Bryant Park and a glistening glass dome rises from its center.
SHoP Architects presented plans for a new “Gotham Gateway” extrudes Penn Station’s footprint upwards to create a vast main hall that recalls the original station in its airy and generously lit spaces. The complex is anchored to the east by a shard-like skyscraper that challenges the Empire State Building in height. The architects also propose extending the High Line to cut across midtown, thus connecting a new Madison Square Garden located two blocks west and the revitalized Penn Station.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro curiously plop Madison Square Garden on the backend of the Farley Post Office Building, located just across the street from the Penn Station site. In the Garden’s absence, the architects would construct a large sponge-like structure with a web of criss-crossing platforms; the negative space between those platforms would consist of atriums or public spaces. “Penn Station 3.0”–the least image-conscious of the bunch–is a micro-city with exposed layers of transit, shopping levels, and offices, and a dense web of pedestrian paths passing in-between.
None of the projects claim to be workable designs. They are public displays–some flashier than others–of possible futures for the kind of Penn Station New York deserves. That would be a Penn Station that could “improve the lives of millions of [the] people” who pass through its halls every year.