penn station 1910

Sprinting to the Past

Right after 9/11 Donald Trump forcefully advocated for the exact replication of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Towers—plus one story—as an anti-terrorist statement. Recent events have seen architects make other kinds of statements—“signature” designs of extreme expression (Calatrava’s PATH station adjacent to the 9/11 site)—and now another statement is being made, reflecting far more than aesthetic spats between the style warriors.

 

Architects Richard Cameron and James Grimes of Atelier & Co. think New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to renovate the sorry Penn Station should be completely rethought: They advocate that there should not be a renovation, but rather a wholesale recreation, from scratch, of the demolished 1910 McKim, Mead & White design.

 

There is no defending the 1969 Penn Station. The great architectural historian Vincent Scully famously compared the two stations: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” In 1963 the demolition of the first Penn Station allowed for a thoroughly compromised new station to be built.

 

Maximizing economic return ultimately meant 3 buildings—the train station, Madison Square Garden and a mid rise office tower—were smashed together in a non-descript functional mud wrestling match, with the new, subterranean Penn Station coming out as the big loser.

 

After a renovation twenty years ago, Governor Cuomo is advocating a more extreme fix of a depressing building. The building is more or less functional, it’s just exquisitely banal and binding. The building’s buried passive-aggressive aesthetic incoherence and apologetic urban invisibility render it anything but the monumentally proud portal torn down to build it.

 

Rather than rethink the nature of what an urban gateway is in 2016, Atelier & Company want to literally 3D print an exact clone of a recreation of an ancient Roman temple. This is a statement of extreme veneration based solely on aesthetics: Resurrection reanimates, it creates the living dead: it takes creativity off the table as a design criteria.

 

Adaptation can be creative: but in the straightjacket of a deadly defined husk it’s all problem-solving and engineering—it begs all questions of reflecting the here and now, let alone offering up innovation.

 

But there is some support for Xeroxing nostalgia: Justin Shubow writing in Forbes makes the case for 3D printing as a spiritual act: “Japan’s holiest shrine is a wooden temple that for over a millennium has been torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. Consider: If Grand Central Terminal burned down tomorrow, would we rebuild it? Nothing would be more dramatic than rebuilding a magnificent civic temple. It would be an inspiring story of life after death, of urban resurrection.”

The old Penn Station was not a temple: it merely played one in architecture. It was not lost in a random act: it was a building designed to facilitate making money, and it was torn down to make even more money.

 

But Penn Station was not a temple: it merely played one in architecture. It was not lost in a random act: it was a building designed to facilitate making money, and it was torn down to make even more money in what Ada Louise Huxtable called “a monumental act of vandalism against one of the largest and finest landmarks of its age of Roman elegance.”

 

If we decided not to replicate buildings that were actually wrecked by real, present day Vandals on 9/11—and since the 53 year lifespan of the old Penn Station hardly has the provenance of the Roman Empire—it’s hard to see anything but aesthetic prejudice as motivation for this extreme mimetic proposal.

 

There is nothing new in finding solace and grounding in the past. Washington, DC was built as a Classicist hedge against our national infancy, and the entire Renaissance used millennia-old Classicist aesthetics to launch a rebirth of cultural expression.

 

But even the most traditional among us do not run directly to the past as a better future. That is what the Luddites did over 200 years ago, and it had nothing to do with aesthetics. In the last generation, the 99% have had life’s rules change on a par with the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. In 18th century England, the economic 1% were all in favor of the Industrial Revolution. Today, no one is smashing IPhones, but there is fear.

 

But unlike the rest of our polymorphic culture of Benetton ads, 1001 cable channels and fissured politics, what is predominantly taught, professionally lauded and written about in architecture is the one Shining Path of Modernism. Shoving one style down our cultural throat just exacerbates the obvious Modernist failures dealing with context, cost, usefulness and keeping rainwater out of a building.

 

Diversity is celebrated, even mandated, everywhere but in the public face of architecture. The result is “correct” Architecture, settled law for the 1% of “thought leaders,” that’s more threat than comfort to many, if not most of the other 99%.

 

It’s as if we had one party government, where a single political view was declared “correct,” other values were deemed Illegitimate (if not illegal). Unlike architecture, there are endless, aggressively competing political, philosophical and moral convictions screaming at each other every day on every media platform this election season. But there is one disturbing undercurrent—fear in a changing time, that often flips into anger.

 

There is enough fear that a vast majority of Americans think their country is “on the wrong track”—enough so that anti-status quo presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are viable. “Make America Great Again”—The Donald now bellows. “We need a political revolution!” Bernie exhorts. Either way, we’re not where we want to be. Work is devalued, wages are shrinking, careers are evaporating.

When the Towers came down, the knee-jerk response was to put them right back up again, as if nothing had happened. In reaction to a sense of cultural free fall, there are those who think architecture can be great “again” by building, precisely, what had been built before—when we were “great.”

 

When the Towers came down, the knee-jerk response was to put them right back up again, as if nothing had happened. In reaction to a sense of cultural free fall, there are those now who think architecture can be great “again” by building, precisely, what had been built before—when we were “great.”

 

Replicating the 1910 Penn Station is not making a theme park, like Colonial Williamsburg where the simulated past lives on. It’s not rebuilding a sacred place lost in tragic circumstances, like bombed out cathedrals in post World War II Europe. The exact replication of Penn Station’s 1910 reality is a sprint backwards in hopes it is better than an uncertain future. The cultural backlash against the Settled Law of Modernism does not justify mind-numbing aesthetic prejudice.

 

Maya Lin’s brilliant Vietnam Memorial captures grief in a unique, abstract way. Friedrich St. Florian captured the scale and sweep of World War II in his traditional design for the DC memorial. Meaning does not have a style.

 

3D Xeroxing is not veneration. It’s turning part of our cultural brain off, because that creative right side, has, for many, become too scary to trust. Unthinking reactionary prejudice is depressing in whatever form it takes. I think we are better than our worst fears. Fear builds walls, but it also trusts only what is known, and thus feels controllable.

 

For the aesthetic 1%, in the starchitectural world, the same fear exists. In all fundamentalist outlooks the Canon must be absolute or apostate heretics may gain traction. Choirs are never off key singing to themselves. In threatening times diversity is scary and orthodoxy gives comfort.

 

Running to the dead or, alternatively, ignoring 99% of the living are defensive, reactionary postures. It’s clearly harder to be open, to have bandwidth—especially when a dramatically changing world is closing in around you.

 

Newsletter

Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to CommonEdge.org, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.