We deserve better. That was my conclusion after visiting two grand new public (well, semi-public) spaces in New York. After two years of absence from the city—the longest I have been away since I was a kid—I was appalled not only at the state of disrepair in which much of our largest metropolis seemed to be, but also by the billions of dollars we have spent on structures that are clunky, kluged-together messes. If this is the best the government and the architects they hire can do with all that money, as well as the opportunity to celebrate metropolitan culture, perhaps we need to rethink the whole process.
The structures I visited were LaGuardia Airport’s new Terminal B and the Moynihan Train Hall. They are the most visible evidence of a considerable amount of investment in transportation and resilience infrastructure in the New York region. Still on the docket are not only the further streamlining of LaGuardia, but a new terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a redo of Penn Station, and a new 42nd Street Port Authority Bus Terminal—though how much of all that will be built and, how well-built, is unclear. The images released for the designs for these proposed new structures do not fill me with much hope. More promising are the now partially open Freshkills Park built on top of a massive former garbage dump, and the plans for a necklace of parks disguising huge sea-level rise levees around Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.
The disconnect between good design and the making of what have become our most-used public spaces, namely those for transportation, is not solely a New York issue. None of the airport expansions in the United States that have been built in the last several years, or have plans to be built— examples in Salt Lake City, Houston, and Los Angeles come to mind—are anything to write home about, especially if you compare them with the exhilarating spaces that are currently serving as transport hubs in China, such as the Beijing Daxing International Airport by Zaha Hadid Architects (pictured below), the Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport by Fuksas, and the Hong Kong West Kowloon Station by Andrew Bromberg Architects, and in Europe, such as Arnhem Central Transfer Terminal by UN Studio and Charles de Gaulle Airport.
So, what is wrong with these buildings? It is just a basic clunky-ness. The terminal at LaGuardia—a design/build project in which design credit (if you can call it that) goes jointly to the Stockholm-based construction firm Skanska and architect firms HOK of Chicago and WSP of Montreal—has more light and air than the cramped and badly worn, if elegantly detailed and conceived, original. What it does not have are places that have a focus; are clear in directing you in your movement; invite gathering at various scales; or have any sense of rhythm that emphasizes the relative importance of the various pieces. The spaces are just there, as big as they need to be according to whatever formulas bureaucrats use. They are clad with the kind of metal panels that seem to have become the basic bricks of banal Modernism. Where the structure is visible, it is clad in more of that slick skin, with no emphasis on what all those trusses, arches, columns, and beams are actually doing. Escalators have to be found with the help of signage, rather than presenting themselves to you in a logical manner. Balconies and mezzanines, with little or no view, turn into funnels that lead to more endless corridors and, when you finally arrive at the waiting area, you find a single-loaded version of a shopping mall atrium that, now and then, has nice views of planes taking off, landing, or, mainly, waiting.
Yes, it is impressive that they shoehorned all of this into the available site and yes, the amenities are certainly an improvement. Yes, I know that shopping and security rule in such spaces these days. But can’t we at least avoid what I call the “bald spot problem,” of looking down at those endless pods of Starbucks and Hudson News from above and seeing their undesigned roofs? And couldn’t somebody have taken hold of this basic and yet intricate plan, with all the demands it answered, and massaged it into something that has the exposition of structure, the logic of movement and scale, and the beauty of a public space that good architecture should have as its focus?
The problem is even worse at the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Moynihan Train Hall. Here the restraints were mainly the existing building. It might have seemed like a genius move to turn New York’s block-filling former main post office into a new train hall for Amtrak and a few other uses, and to do this by converting the sky-lit sorting hall at the heart of the structure into the waiting room so that it could perhaps remind us of the grandeur that was the original Penn Station, but it just does not work. First, the more ambitious plan Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had supported was dumped because of cost, and with it went a courtyard skylight structure that might have been elegant. Second, that waiting room is imprisoned inside the structure, and the renovation architects completely failed to use what spaces they could open under landmark restrictions to create the kind of sequence and flow that are a large part of what made the original Penn Station so successful, and that is also missing both in the current version of that station and at LaGuardia. The new materials and forms used have the same kind of new car body slickness as all our modern transportation hubs (although without the curvy bends that make some of those automotive forms beautiful), and the various ramps and stairs that slice through the spaces are awkward and confusing.
Then there is the atrium itself. There is nothing there. What benches are to be found are tucked away to the side. All you have is a big space to stand in and watch for the announcement of your track.. There is nothing to admire, either, as the trusses are so ungainly in their proportions and their pieces as to make at least this critic avert his eyes in disgust.
Both the train station and the airport have Art, with a capitol “A,” but it does little to alleviate the pain of public banality. I was particularly disappointed by the Moynihan’s installation by the Berlin-based artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, who are usually both thorough in the spatiality of their pieces and provocative in subject matter. Here all we get is an upside-down, train-set version of Manhattan hanging over our heads like something between a chandelier and a fragment of Inception’s set.
New York has hundreds of new skyscrapers, and more are on the way. City density is not only reaching ever further into the sky but is also spreading to the other boroughs at a remarkable scale. A growth of that sort needs the anchors that define and refine public space if the city does not want to be just a collection of pencil towers for the super-rich and shopping malls for tourists. A proper start would be spending a few more dollars to renovate what it just built into something worthy of a great New York.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.