Connie Zhou

This is the year of the train station in New York City. Santiago Calatrava, Hon. FAIA’s showstopper, 13 years in the making, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, finally opened to the public today. And the project we’ve been waiting for even longer, a rebuilt Penn Station, on the verge of happening several times over the past two decades, is once again a top priority, according to a January announcement by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

When you follow one of these sagas for a decade or more, it’s always a little startling to finally see a project reach completion. The place you know from endless renderings and glimpses through the construction fence is, in real life, an uncanny mixture of familiar and alien, of old and new. Last week, for example, I was standing on a marble floor so virginal and white that it looked like ice, beneath a 168-foot-high A-frame, composed of snow-colored steel ribs, that forms the instantly recognizable heart of Calatrava’s magnificent invention. I felt very much like I was going back in time. In part this was because Steven Plate, the chief of major capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—in essence, the guy who built the place—was telling me about “the wedge of light.”

Exterior before the opening
Connie Zhou Exterior before the opening

As you may recall, in early 2003, when Daniel Libeskind, AIA, was anointed the master planner of the new World Trade Center (WTC), there was a lot of talk about the “wedge of light.” The notion, put forth by Libeskind in his original proposal for the site, was that there would be a plaza where the “sun would shine without shadow” every September 11, between 8:45 am, when the first plane struck the Twin Towers, and 10:28, when the North Tower fell. But the conceit, however poetic, had a fatal flaw. Eli Attia, the architect of the Millenium Hotel that sits directly across Church Street from the WTC, pointed out that his tower, 56 stories tall and due east, would cast a shadow on a significant portion of Libeskind’s proposed plaza during the designated hours. Rather than simply acknowledge the problem, Libeskind gave a response that, as reported by The New York Times, was all but incomprehensible: “The effect is not linear, he said, but ‘a three-dimensional phenomenon’ that is ‘about the ambience of light and the reflections of light between the buildings.’ ”

After that, no one talked much about the wedge of light, or about Libeskind for that matter, at least in connection with the WTC. But all these years later here was Plate telling me that the entire Calatrava-designed complex, all $4 billion of it, is not situated perpendicular or parallel to the street grid as you might expect, but at an angle, its east end canted slightly further south than its west end. “We turned the whole building to capture the light at 10:28 am [on September 11] when the North Tower fell.” The long slit of a skylight where the two sets of ribs nearly meet at the top of the building is a revival of Libeskind’s wedge concept, something most of us forgot about over a decade ago: “It didn’t go away,” said Plate. “We baked it into the design.”

Detail of the skylight
Connie Zhou Detail of the skylight

The WTC Transportation Hub is clearly an artifact of the emotionally charged atmosphere in which it was conceived. Standing inside the grand hall, known as the Oculus, takes me back to the moment in January 2004, when Calatrava presented his design to a packed house at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden. He stood at an easel and sketched a child and a bird: “The idea of a child releasing a bird and making a gift are the models for the design,” he told the audience. The architect got a standing ovation.

I was as moved as anyone in the room. Since that time, delays, cost overruns, and value engineering have made me, like many New Yorkers, cynical about the project. It was initially scheduled for completion by 2009, with giant mechanical wings that would flap to open the long skylight atop the great hall, but it doubled in cost (like many of the buildings on the WTC site) and became somewhat less ambitious. The skylight still opens but the wings are stationary. Plate, who works for the agency that built, owned, and was headquartered in the old WTC, and which lost 84 employees in the attack, remains a true believer: “This is a labor of love for all of us. In an emotional sense, it’s the heart that was ripped out on that fateful day.”

Exterior detail
Connie Zhou Exterior detail

Calatrava’s maximalist creation is every bit the 21st century equivalent of the kind of big gesture that Beaux Arts architects specialized in a century ago, an approach that brought us the starry 100-foot-tall ceiling above the concourse at Grand Central Station and the soaring Roman baths of the late Penn Station. I have seen Calatrava’s design in renderings a thousand times, but visiting the Oculus for the first time, it occurs to me that I also have never seen anything quite like it. The audacity of the thing—the great tapered room formed by a gigantic white skeleton, the spiky armature that rises above the plaza outside—will surely win over many detractors. It is, in every sense of the word, an icon.

Last week, Calatrava, who appears entirely blissed out by the fact that the place is finally done, was eager for me to enter the building from the Memorial Plaza, which leads you onto a balcony near the top of the rib cage. From there you can see the way the structural members line up to form a gentle curve. It’s not a child releasing a bird—there is no heedless innocence here—but a work of intensely obsessive formalism. “Open the door and you’re immediately in the space,” Calatrava told me. “It’s part of the street. It’s part of the city.”

Interior detail of the rib cage
Connie Zhou Interior detail of the rib cage

I have some issues with the Oculus—most notably the fact that the stairway/escalator cores at the east and west ends appear to spring from a much clunkier aesthetic universe than the rest of the building. And I don’t love the fact that the train platforms are not directly off the great hall, but in a separate part of the complex.

But the real problem has nothing to do with the design. Rather, it’s the notion that some of those billions of dollars would have been better spent elsewhere. The WTC Transportation Hub will primarily serve 50,000 daily commuters who ride the PATH train from New Jersey to lower Manhattan. It will also feature well over 300,000-square-feet of retail space, including an Apple store, a branch of Eataly, and a familiar line-up of fashion labels. In addition, by summer of this year, a passageway will open that will connect the Oculus to the nine subway lines at the nearby Fulton Center, a sprawling transit interchange that was redesigned by Grimshaw Architects and reopened in late 2014 (with its own oculus by glass expert Jamie Carpenter). Calatrava’s hub will also connect directly to all of the WTC site’s other buildings, so that somewhere between 150,000 to 200,000 people will pass through the space daily. “This place is much more than a railway station,” Calatrava insists. “I believe this will be a kind of core to the development of Lower Manhattan.”

The West Concourse
Connie Zhou The West Concourse

I don’t doubt that it will be, but in a saner world, absent the emotional upheaval caused by September 11, some of those billions (and much of that passion) would have been better used in the rebuilding of Penn Station, the universally detested midtown transportation facility that serves some 650,000 daily commuters, more than any other train station or airport in the country.

The old Penn Station, the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece demolished in 1963, was replaced with Madison Square Garden (MSG) and some undistinguished office towers, relegating rail travelers to subterranean purgatory. In the 1990s, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan realized that the lost landmark had a still extant twin: the Farley Post Office building, immediately to the west of the station and across Eighth Avenue, designed by the same architects as a bookend to the station. The post office, essentially an industrial building, was built for the era when mail was transported by trains, so it sits directly over the same rails that serve the passenger station. By the 1990s, the huge, 1.4-million-square-foot complex had lost much of its original purpose (there’s still a retail post office located on the Eighth Avenue side of the building) and Moynihan came up with a brilliant chess move: a plan to restore the grandeur we had lost by relocating passenger rail service to the commodious old building. In 1995, he set up a Pennsylvania Station Redevelopment Corporation, but President Clinton, who supported the project, failed to secure the necessary funds to build the station by the time he left office. And train stations were not a priority in the next administration—except, of course, for the one at Ground Zero (which was heavily funded by grants from the Federal Transportation Administration).

Penn Station, 1962
Cervin Robinson/Library of Congress Penn Station, 1962

In 2007, after years of wrangling, the United States Postal Service (USPS) sold the Farley complex to the state of New York, and a deal, backed by then Governor Eliot Spitzer, was hatched to award Farley’s millions of square feet of unused development rights to two prominent real estate entities, Vornado and Related Companies, in exchange for rebuilding Penn Station. This plan, valued at $14 billion, theoretically funded with a mixture of city, state, and private dollars, and involving two jumbo train halls, hinged on moving MSG off the top of the existing station to make room for an intensive commercial development plan. The deal fell apart when the Dolan family, who lease the Garden, refused to budge. (It didn’t help that, as the plan began to unravel, Governor Spitzer was driven out of office by scandal.) By mid-2008, the project of turning the post office into a glorious new train station was once again a lost cause.

So it was it was a pleasant surprise in January when Governor Cuomo announced a $3 billion proposal to build what he’s now calling Moynihan Train Hall within the post office building and, in a second phase, rehab the existing Penn Station. Collectively, the two parts will be known as the Empire State Complex. The renderings that accompanied his announcement were by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which has done several versions of the project since the 1990s. SOM’s current design uses the original steel trusses that once held Farley’s great skylight (covered over during World War II) to support a series of catenary arches, dramatic glass structures that give the historic building a 21st century élan.

View of redeveloped Penn Station from 8th Avenue
New York State Governor's Office/SOM View of redeveloped Penn Station from 8th Avenue

The overall scheme is logical: since the same tracks and platforms run under Farley that run under Penn, passengers can access their train from either building. And the fact that people now buy their tickets online means that most passengers don’t have a compelling reason to go to the specific corners of the station currently assigned to each of the three railroads that use it: Amtrak (the station’s owner), the Long Island Railroad, and New Jersey Transit. By building the new train hall—roughly the size of Grand Central Terminal’s famed concourse—the passenger load can be “decanted” to the new facility, as a source close to the project told me. That would open up space in the old station, making it possible to widen corridors and find strategies (including removing a theater that sits above the station, adjacent to MSG) to let daylight in. Unlike plans from the 1990s that assumed all of Penn Station’s functions would be moved west to Farley, in this scheme much of the post office structure would be devoted to profitable non-railroad uses, such as hotel rooms, offices, and shops. The facilities of the current station will be enlarged and improved, but not replaced.

Aerial of the new Penn Station complex
SOM / Image courtesy Governor Andrew Cuomo's office Aerial of the new Penn Station complex
A rendering of the Farley building side of the new complex
SOM / Image courtesy Governor Andrew Cuomo's office A rendering of the Farley building side of the new complex

There are a couple of reasons this long-stalled project may actually begin this year. For one thing, work is well underway on Hudson Yards, a 17-million-square-foot, 28-acre development directly to the west of Farley. Midtown Manhattan is moving westward, but so far the only transit west of Eighth Avenue is a single subway station on the 7 line. Pushing the train station a block west would help to connect the far West Side. But mostly it’s that Governor Cuomo has developed a taste for legacy projects. Last year he mandated a reconstruction of the deplorable LaGuardia airport, including a rail connection to Penn Station (indeed, Cuomo predicts passenger load in Penn will double in the next 15 years). And now he’s issued an RFP for a private developer (or developers) to remake Penn Station. “The governor seems incredibly focused on getting this to happen,” a source close to the project told me.

It’s not clear whether the design that SOM is currently showing on its website will be used by whatever developer lands the deal. But the firm's scheme for the Moynihan Train Hall seems about right: It’s a likable balance between an overtly contemporary glass structure and a much cleaned up, historic courtyard (formerly a mail sorting room) with a laudable focus on maximizing access to the train platforms below. SOM’s design doesn’t have the audacity of Calatrava’s Transportation Hub, and it is, arguably, less a product of passion than of a long deferred obligation. But it does have an emotional component: the Penn Station overhaul has the potential to make a lot of people—some 650,000 woebegone daily rail riders or, eventually, 1.3 million if you believe the governor—very, very happy.

The new hall in the renovated Farley building
SOM / Image courtesy Governor Andrew Cuomo's office The new hall in the renovated Farley building

Rendering of the renovated Penn Station
New York State Governor's Office/SOM Rendering of the renovated Penn Station

Rendering of proposed entrance to the new station in the Farley building
SOM / Image courtesy Governor Andrew Cuomo's office Rendering of proposed entrance to the new station in the Farley building