A New Penn Station for New York

A few months ago I got some advice from a classmate who was a year ahead of me, and in the process of finishing up his own M.Arch. thesis. He emphatically told me to do something small and non-urban. So naturally, I've decided to design a new Penn Station for New York.

Some of you may recall an earlier thread in which I discussed changing my M.Arch. thesis topic from something transportation-related (my big passion) to something housing-related (something I thought would be more useful in professional practice). Having taken an extra year before starting my thesis year and an extra co-op term in New York City over the summer, though, has inspired me to go back to my original topic and design a new Penn Station.

As you no doubt know, the original McKim Mead and White structure was demolished fifty years ago this year, despite outrage from preservationists and the design community. It was replaced with a confusing rat maze of dingy corridors, situated beneath Madison Square Garden and a drab 30-story 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 the busiest rail hub in the United States. Vincent Scully famously quipped, "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."

A number of developments have converged to put the idea of a new Penn Station into the public consciousness lately. The operating permit for Madison Square Garden expired this year, and there is a serious movement afoot 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 the street 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.

The Municipal Art Society of New York recently invited four firms to submit their own ideas for the future of Penn Station and its environs. SOM, DS+R, H3 Hardy, and SHoP Architects each submitted schemes that approached the problem from a variety of angles.

For my thesis, I've decided to tackle the problem for myself, more or less following the objectives set by the MAS in their design brief:

The work and argument could consider some or all of these questions:

1. How could a re-conceptualized district improve transit access;

2. How might Penn Station be integrated into the urban fabric to address the congested urban traffic;

3. What is the evolving relationship between Hudson Yards and the Midtown Core;

4. How could Penn Station be conceptualized as an urban symbol. More broadly, how Penn Station is a site that expresses the re-integration of the design and engineering professions. What would the experience of visiting this new Penn Station be;

5. Where MSG might belong and how it can integrate into a new site and generate more qualitative value and improve livability in the surrounding area, and

6. What cities across the world might we look at to sort through this problem? What do we need to learn?

Obviously that's a lot for one person to tackle for a thesis, so I'll necessarily have to narrow the focus. For my own purposes, I'm most interested in tackling items 1, 2, and 4. One aspect of the project will most likely involve a "big picture" master plan and a very schematic design scheme, but I'd also like to hone in on a few key moments that occur in the process of arriving at a big train station in a major city, and develop them in further detail.

Some key aspects that I'm looking at:

1) Tying 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 City. What 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.

If nothing else, this should certainly keep me busy for the next year. I may well find myself wishing I had taken my friend's advice and designed a small cabin in the woods for my thesis.

So, does it sound like I have a decent approach here, or am I headed for a train wreck? Any aspects I'm neglecting, or am I already biting off more than I can chew? Any resources I should take advantage of, or any people I should talk to while I'm here in NYC? (I understand there's a design studio at UPenn that's exploring this exact topic.)

Finally, what are your thoughts about the four schemes that were presented to the MAS? I have my own thoughts, but I'm curious as to what others here think.

Jun 3, 13 10:46 pm

1. SHoP

2. DS+R

4. SOM and H3


SHoP's proposal is the best, not only because it's the most buildable, but also because it's the best at connecting the fabric of the city to Penn.

DS+R's proposal seems under cooked - they might have been too focused on finishing their most recent book, and dealing with other, more likely constructable schemes.

SOM's, my god, Hugh Ferris mashed up with some futuristic Lucas Films models?

H3, so boring, as to make me ask PE to finish my comments.

Jun 3, 13 11:30 pm

^ Pretty much my thoughts as well. Calatrava was originally invited to participate, but when he bowed out H3 was brought in. (Given the massive cost overruns at Calatrava's WTC PATH station, he may have been persona non grata anyway.) Looking at H3's presentation, I'm still unclear as to what they were actually proposing. A site plan would've been helpful.

SOM's and DS+R's schemes, while visually compelling (DS+R certainly cranked their Rhino machine up to 11) have the air of a purely academic project that was never meant to be actually built.

SHoP, by contrast, took the project seriously and was in it to win it. Given Vishaan Chakrabarti's involvement in re-visioning Penn Station over many years, it's clear that SHoP intents for this project to be built, and have identified ways for it to actually happen.

Jun 3, 13 11:45 pm

Is critiquing the four proposals a part of the thesis - maybe part of your research - or is the thesis just to do the project?

You've been interested in transit for so long it only makes sense that your thesis be transit-related.  Are you sure you want to take on NYC, though?  It might be very hard but helpful to think about why Penn Station being rebuilt is sort of considered a logical project by everyone, while every mid-sized city trying to improve transit has to fight tooth and nail with the libertarians to get acceptance and funding.  How does the appearance/experience of the current station impact all those anti-transit folk who expect anything transit-related will be run down and reek of urine? How does the romanticism of the tragically long-lost station influence those of us who support transit? Is there a way that the brief for Penn Station can be used to explore a smaller city looking to build/enhance transit, say, oh I don't know, Cincinnati? ;-)

Jun 5, 13 10:24 pm


It's been interesting watching the reaction to the MAS presentation among some of the bloggers I follow, most of whom are transit advocates, urbanists, and urban planners rather than architects. I agree with them about most of the hot topics of the day, but I tend to part ways with them when it comes to architecture. Many of them are heavily invested in New Urbanist ideals and have a strong knee-jerk aversion to anything that resembles modernism, because any urban environment that doesn't resemble a historic brownstone neighborhood is immediately suspect.

The transit advocates seem to fall into two camps. There are the train enthusiasts who are still bitter because steam locomotives are no longer used in regular service, and they seriously think it's somehow possible and desirable to rebuild the original McKim Mead & White station exactly as it was. There's no point in even trying to reason with them.

Then there are the more pragmatic types, who want to see Penn Station upgraded, but their idea of an "upgrade" (which is never really defined) is always completely divorced from architectural questions, as if the architecture is just window dressing that gets applied after the fact. They want more train platforms, but they also want all the train platforms to be wider. (There's only a finite amount of space; something has to give.) They want the station to be free of the dense forest of structural columns, but they don't want Madison Square Garden to be relocated. (The columns are what's holding up the Garden.) Or they'd rather see subways improved instead, as if it's a zero-sum game in which a rebuilt Penn Station must necessarily come at the expense of transit service throughout the city.

To them, I'd argue that the questions of functionality as a transportation facility is at its heart an architectural question. Applying some fancy architectural features without upgrading the functionality of the station would be putting lipstick on a pig (which has pretty much been the M.O. for any improvements at Penn over the past 50 years). Upgrading Penn Station's functionality without addressing the broader architectural issues is a physical impossibility.


Jun 5, 13 10:27 pm


The thesis will consist of two parts, a written research document and a design project. (Not my choice; it's a DAAP program requirement. The focus changes each year, but I suspect this year will see less of an emphasis on the document and more emphasis on the design. There's already a movement among some faculty to ditch the document requirement altogether.) I'll certainly reference the four proposals in my document and most likely include some critiques, but I don't see it being a major part of the project. My main focus will be on the new design.

That said, I'm particularly drawn to SHoP's proposal, and may use that as a starting point. They developed a master plan that encompasses several city blocks in every direction with a relocated Madison Square Garden, an expanded High Line, and quite a few large office towers. For my purposes, I want to focus on the station building itself, and perhaps design one that fits into their larger-scale master plan.

As for looking at a smaller city, my original thesis idea was to design a new concourse for Cincinnati's historic Union Terminal to replace the one that had been demolished in the 1970's, and some other improvements that would've tied into what I designed for my undergrad thesis which was basically a rapid transit master plan for Cincinnati. It had the potential to be a good project, but I found myself having a hard time getting very passionate about it, for a number of reasons.

For one, due to the site and the configuration of the existing facility, the parti of the new concourse was already fairly self-evident (i.e., pretty much just how the old concourse was), and IMO not as much of a design challenge. New York and Cincinnati have opposite problems: NYC has a huge amount of passenger rail traffic but a terrible facility, while Cincinnati has a spectacular facility but no passenger rail traffic. NYC's dilemma is in much greater need of an architectural solution; what Cincinnati needs is a policy solution, not necessarily an architectural one.

Also, I've spent the past four years heavily invested in Cincinnati's transit advocacy scene, and to be frank, I'm pretty tired of it all. I still support the streetcar project and I think it will be a success, but after seeing firsthand the deeply-imbedded institutional hostility to even modest improvements to the city's transit system at the state and local levels, I'm pessimistic about rail transit's future there. I think I'd have a hard time trying to motivate myself to spend a year on a thesis topic that would amount to little more than bashing my head against a brick wall. Penn Station certainly has its political challenges as well, but at least the libertarian crackpots are vastly outnumbered and marginalized in New York, and there seems to be a critical mass gaining momentum toward a new Penn Station.

In short, I find myself much more passionate about Penn Station's challenges and opportunities than about Union Terminal's.

Jun 5, 13 11:05 pm

You seemed to indicate that you weren't particularly interested in the problem of Madison Square Garden, but I think that it would be important to address it at some point in your project, even if it is a side issue rather than your main point, since it seems to be one of the inherent critical problems of Penn Station.

Jun 6, 13 2:00 am

For the purposes of my thesis, my primary interest in Madison Square Garden is seeing it relocated to a different site. The design of the new MSG could easily be a thesis topic of its own (and then some), and it will be necessary for me to make decisions about what is and what isn't included within the scope of my own thesis topic.

A number of nearby sites have been floated as the location for the new MSG:

1) Within the shell of the western half of the Farley post office,

2) Adjacent to or in place of the Javits convention center on the waterfront, and

3) On the superblock site currently occupied by the USPS's Morgan sorting facility, southwest of the Farley post office.

SHoP goes with option 3 in their master plan, and proposes a new MSG that's nicely integrated with an extended High Line. This idea has tons of potential, but for the purposes of my thesis, I'm happy to let somebody else tackle that issue.

Jun 6, 13 7:05 am

David......sounds like a road trip is in order!  Nothing like visiting NYC for a little urban understanding.

Jun 7, 13 9:13 am

As luck would have it, I'm in New York for my summer co-op, and I've already spent considerable time poking around Penn Station. (And it happens that I'm headed down to SHoP in a few minutes to meet with them and take a look at their scheme. Score!)

Jun 7, 13 12:42 pm

Great Job DAVID!  

Jun 7, 13 1:25 pm
Erik Evens (EKE)

Spend some time poking around Grand Central if you want to see something truly masterful.  

Jun 8, 13 11:03 am

Done and done. I've also been poking around Newark Penn Station, Hoboken Terminal, and Philly's 30th Street Station.

Some other precedents I'll be studying: St. Pancras and King's Cross stations in London, Helmut Jahn's Chicago & North Western Station in Chicago, and possibly one or more airport terminals as well.

Jun 8, 13 11:46 am

David you better go to the googie....for a light show if your in town.

Jun 8, 13 12:43 pm

The Municipal Art Society of New York has released a video about the Penn Station design challenge:

Jun 17, 13 12:49 pm

Bumping this thread to pose a question to the peanut gallery:

The main angle I'm hoping to explore in this thesis is what it means to "Arrive", and how that sense of arrival can be enhanced or detracted by the physical spaces in which it takes place.

In your travels, what are some of the spaces or experiences that have indicated to you that you have arrived someplace important? And what was it about those spaces that made you think, "Wow, I'm actually here!"

An anecdote from my own life to help get the ball rolling: Back in late 1995, I was a freshman at UIC and a pink-faced intern at Perkins+Will. During that first school year I was still living at home way out in the suburbs, and taking the Metra commuter rail into Chicago for work and classes. My door-to-door commute was a grueling 2 hours each way, but it wasn't without its benefits. A few short months earlier I was driving a beat-up Chevette to a terrible job at a Circuit City store in Vernon Hills while taking a few evening classes at the local community college. But here, all of a sudden, I was part of the mass of humanity commuting into the Chicago Loop for real office jobs, and it was a thrill to be part of it.

Every morning, my train would pull into Helmut Jahn's Chicago & North Western Station (since renamed Ogilvie Transportation Center, regrettably), and disgorge its passengers. The sea of commuters would join the flood of people disembarking from other trains in the station and flow through the soaring blue concourse of Helmut Jahn's building and make their way to their destinations. Even then it seemed like a much more fitting way to enter the Loop than via the mostly-underground rat maze of Union Station a couple blocks south, even though Union Station handles vastly more commuters.

Similarly, I had the pleasure of visiting Paris a couple summers ago, during a short side trip from London via the Eurostar train. Upon disembarking the train at Gare du Nord, there was that moment when my jaw hit the floor and a voice inside my head said, "Holy shit, David, you're actually in Paris right at this moment."

So, what are your own stories of Arrival with a capital "A"? What was it about the spaces you were in that conveyed the message, in no uncertain terms, that you have arrived someplace important? (It doesn't necessarily have to be a train station; I'm interested in this question from the broadest possible angle.) Conversely, what spaces have been gravely disappointing, and why?

Jun 23, 13 11:04 pm

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