Hold the MSG: SHoP’s design for new Penn Station outclasses rivals’
In a few months we will celebrate, if that is the word, the 50th anniversary of the annihilation of the old Penn Station, McKim, Mead & White’s Beaux-Arts masterpiece. If, in the normal course of a city’s life, anything could possibly be more catastrophic than that demolition in October of 1963, surely it was the ensuing construction of Madison Square Garden, which opened to the public in the very spot once occupied by the old Penn Station building on Feb. 11, 1968.
Madison Square Garden is the perfect example of bad architecture that leads to even worse architecture, or at least to a coarsening of the surrounding cityscape. A century ago, this part of Manhattan’s West Side was a rather fashionable place, as it remained until after the Second World War. In addition to the old Penn Station, it was graced by such distinguished structures as the James A. Farley Post Office Building and Macy’s department store.
Obviously, the degeneration of the area had many causes, and the new Madison Square Garden was as much a consequence as a cause of that decay. But once this drearily conceived and poorly fabricated, sludge-colored drum went up, everything in a four-block radius was inevitably sucked into the black hole of its ugliness. It is somewhat shocking to consider that in less than five years, it will have been around even longer than the jewel it replaced.
The architect of the atrocious new building was Charles Luckman, a well-connected and unfortunately rather prolific mediocrity, who is remembered these days mainly in the curses of those citizens of New York who still haven’t gotten over what was done to the majestic building that once occupied that site.
Almost from the day when the new Madison Square Garden opened, New Yorkers have dreamed about and debated what should be done to atone for its construction. The recent and unanimous vote of the Manhattan Community Board 5 against renewing in perpetuity Madison Square Garden’s permit is certainly a step in the right direction toward its goal to build a new Penn Station in its place.
Recently, the Municipal Arts Society solicited contributions from four eminent architectural firms — H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture; Diller Scofidio + Renfro; SHoP Architects; and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill — to reconceive either Penn Station, Madison Square Garden, or both. Each of their designs, revealed to the public in late May, call for demolishing the existing Garden and moving the arena elsewhere.
At this stage, there is a certain pie-in-the-sky feeling to all the submissions. That said, my favorite of the proposals is that of SHoP Architects, which alone of the four submissions looks as though it could actually be built. This firm proposes relocating Madison Square Garden to Hudson Yards and constructing a rather pleasant-looking box of a building whose interiors — with their lofty ceiling and expansive curtain walls, propped up by pillars — come close to suggesting, in a post-modern vocabulary, the effect of the original Penn Station, with its openness and generous proportions. This feeling is enhanced by the exterior, where a park would be constructed facing the Farley Post Office. The new structure — like all the others proposed — cannot compete with the grandeur of the original, but it would gain in functionality and pleasantness what it lacks in design.
SOM’s contribution looks, in many respects, splendid. If there were any realistic chance of its being built (and I didn’t have to pay for it with my tax dollars), I’d be all for it.
Guided by one of the firm’s principals, Roger Duffy, SOM’s design recalls in cross-section that astounding ancient structure, the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Palestrina. It is conceived as a superblock with four curtain-walled and rectilinear towers (the usual SOM fare) at the corners, with a crazy amalgam of structures in the center, looking like a cross between a whirlwind and a partially docked spaceship.
Far below these two in every respect is DS+R’s design, a city-within-a-city concept that is not especially adventurous, with a clamorously deconstructed exterior that recalls several of the firm’s other efforts around the city. It is so loathsome that, were it ever built, we might one day come to regret the loss of the present Madison Square Garden. The equally deconstructed interiors are scarcely better, with their hyperactive criss-crossing sky-bridges and multi-leveled, oddly angled floors that seem to implode into one another.
But at least it’s not boring, which cannot be said of H3 Hardy’s design. The façade along Seventh Avenue, a flat expanse of curtain wall and clerestory windows with an awning supported by visually insufficient pillars, looks as drab as the sort of mid-century Modernism that inspired many a postwar American embassy in the Third World. The interiors are equally pallid, though conceived in the Deconstructivist style. At least when DS+R uses the style, one senses a wayward commitment to the cause; with Hardy, one has the unshakable sense that the firm is struggling to keep up with what they imagine to be the latest taste.
We must remember, however, that this is not the first occasion on which pleasantly colored renderings for a new Penn Station have been solicited and published, and that all of them have thus far come to nothing.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was quite right when he told the Daily News recently that “moving the arena is an important first step to improving Penn Station.”
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