These days, it seems New York is where big plans go to die. The latest blow to Big Apple ambitions is the scrapping of the $10 billion plan to create yet another edge city-type development in the inner city, this time around Penn Station—just a few blocks from the latest stalled (but at least partially, if blandly) designed clump of crystal, Hudson Yards. On the face of it, this might not be such a bad thing, given how bad the previous scheme for office towers and a new station was. Also, in the former plan, quite a few existing buildings would have joined the concrete– and brick–filled piles of rubbish piling up perennially around big cities like New York. If only the new, considerably more modest proposal were better.
If the new proposal is approved, what we will now get is a shopping mall masquerading as a skin job. It is being envisioned by a subsidiary of ASTM Group, an Italian firm that makes its money off toll roads and other infrastructure concessions. The plan, the cost of which so far has not been released, entails building a glass box around Madison Square Garden and filling it with stores, restaurants, and bars, as well as providing some new space for commuters to wait for their trains. The new façade would hide the Garden’s round shape which, although indeed monstrously ugly, at least has the advantage of being the only non-orthogonal building for miles around.
The spaces inside would be, if the few renderings that have been released are anything to go by, perfectly fine in the same sort of it-could-be-anywhere, barely functional clean-lined style that we got in the redo of La Guardia Airport, not to mention the thoroughly disappointing Moynihan Train Station right next door. Would it be an improvement for all the millions of commuters squeezing through underground tubes and their connectors to subways and streets? Probably, though it appears not by much. Moreover, as critics, including the head of the MTA, have already pointed out, the design is backwards: Its major entrance and, what is more important, light well, is on Eighth Avenue, rather than facing the city and its connections on Seventh Avenue.
The compromise is just the latest capitulation of vision not only in New York, but also farther afield. Just before the announcement of Plan B, New York governor Kathy Hochul threw in the towel on finally connecting LaGuardia to the rest of the city with public transportation in a meaningful way. The city’s other airports, JFK and Newark, are getting fix-ups that are (or promise to be) as generic and minimal as what we can witness at LaGuardia. Take Amtrak out of the Moynihan, and you find yourself traveling by a string of stations that look like they are afterthoughts to urban development. Some, like Newark’s are so old and untouched they could be good noir movie sets, while others, like Union Station in D.C., are shopping malls with a grand old husk of a building over and in front of them. At least two of them—Philadelphia and Baltimore—are subject to becoming buried in a forest of high-rises in a manner that their New York cousin has now been spared.
Look around the country, and the picture is not much better. The renovations to airports from Chicago’s O’Hare to Kansas City, Mo., to Charlotte, N.C. promise to be slightly better boxes that actually take away whatever character those once proud examples of public infrastructure had. The engineers have taken over and decreed that there is only one way for people to flow through these facilities, and that, as they shuffle in, out, and about, they must be contained by containers that are standardized. No longer will we have either the Neoclassical grandeur of the first wave of American connectivity, nor the slick, gestural, and idiosyncratic experiments (think the TWA Terminal, now a terminally hip hotel) that marked the first era of air travel. And, by the way, these are just about the only public structures we get. We no longer build new civic buildings or places at any scale or of any merit.
On one level, that is probably for the best. I seem to be the only person I know who actually enjoys flying in and out of Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris; I love its expressive and even exhilarating architecture, never mind that I have to walk a few extra yards to get from one terminal to the other. (Apocryphally, Philip Johnson once said, “I would gladly walk the length of Chartres Cathedral to use the bathroom.”) We want our public spaces to be forgettable and functional at the same time, and that is probably for a reason: Without any strange and site-specific elements, we know exactly where to go and how to behave anywhere and everywhere. I note that Snøhetta has turned even Johnson’s own odd public space—the “Galleria” behind the AT&T Building in midtown Manhattan—into an, again, perfectly pleasant place for lunching office workers with seating space maximized through the clever use of curves.
Controlled curves, strategic angles, and measured quantities of daylight: That is what the public apparently deserves and gets in a continuum dominated by corporate outfits such as HOK, AECOM, and Gensler, three firms that designed or are slated to design the bulk of the facilities I mentioned above. The resulting behemoths masquerading as benign people–movers surrounded by shopping opportunities are easy to figure out, easy to clean, and easy on the eyes. They are also dominated by commercial uses, but have no connection to place or culture.
Next time we have the opportunity to build grand new public space—which these days almost inevitably means some sort of transportation facility, as we no longer believe in a true polity that brings us together and stands for us—let’s instead have a competition. When we do so, let’s exclude both all firms not based near the site and those that have already designed such structures. Whomever then wins the competition can, if necessary, partner with a big firm to handle the scale and complexity of the development. But first, let’s get some vision that comes from and is of the place.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
Read more: The latest from columnist Aaron Betsky includes reviews of Edward Hopper's show at the Whitney, Jean Nouvel's new monograph, and an exhibition on architectural image-making at A83 in New York.