Terminal design: New York's Penn station

3 January 2014

Five decades on from the controversial demolition of New York’s iconic Penn station to make way for Madison Square Garden, the city’s Municipal Art Society has invited four leading architectural firms to put forward plans for a daring redevelopment.

"Until the first blow fell, no one was convinced that Penn station really would be demolished, or that New York would permit this monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age."

So said the New York Times when, in late 1963, demolition began of Pennsylvania station's iconic head-house and train shed. Razed and replaced by the squat brown cylinder of Madison Square Garden (MSG) arena and two bleak office towers, the original beaux-arts structure was one of the largest and most beloved public spaces in the city: to many of its citizens, the destruction felt like
a personal affront.

Five decades on and New Yorkers' outrage at Penn's demolition not only continues, it is escalating. Along with ongoing controversy surrounding the decision to favour a more functional, modernist building over the original station's ornate marble Doric columns and 150ft-high vaulted ceiling, practical concerns about passenger safety and overcrowding have emerged.

Putting Penn to paper

Currently running at over twice its intended capacity, Penn station is becoming intolerable for its commuters; a report from The Alliance for a New Penn station warns crowding is now raising safety issues. The problem is also expected to worsen as ridership grows on the Northeast corridor and developments on Manhattan's West Side continue apace. The contrast between the old building's grandeur and today's crammed reality is summed up by Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully who wrote: "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."

Attempts have already been made to rebuild Penn. In 2008, Related Companies and Vornado Realty planned to move the MSG arena one block west and transform the station. But political torpor, the financial crisis and the sheer size of the $14-billion proposal meant the project never got off the ground.

In April this year however, the Municipal Art Society of New York invited four leading architectural firms to redesign the area. Though purely hypothetical, the light-filled spaces envisioned by these practices have already received an unexpected boost: three months after the competition was launched, the city council voted to extend MSG's permit by only ten years. The owners had originally requested a permit in perpetuity.

The various stakeholders of the land will now spend the next decade trying to develop a relocation plan for MSG and a feasible design for Penn station. Perhaps one of these bold new visions will catch their eye.

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