On the Right Track

Penn Station endured a Kafkaesque metamorphosis in 1963 when the classical monument woke up transfigured as a bargain-basement subway stop with no there there. After the demolition, New Yorkers themselves were diminished: Yale architecture historian Vincent Scully observed that travelers scuttled into the city like rats. Nobody likes Penn Station. Replacing a splendid structure whose triumphal arches ennobled the simple act of entering the city, it offered instead cheap, fluorescent caverns lined with doughnut shops.

The imminent arrival of the new 150-mph Acela train has finally prompted Amtrak to bring the station itself up to speed even before the station is reborn yet again, this time across Eighth Avenue in the General Post Office building. The main concourse has been retrofitted with three escalator tubes designed to whisk travelers from train to concourse. Each elliptical tube pierces a stainless-steel collar, itself shaped as an ellipse rimmed by leaning glass rails cantilevered up from the floor. The New York office of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) – with Kenneth Drucker as director of design and Wayne Striker as project manager – has made every effort to convey the thrill of speed and a sense of the new train’s messianic advent. The future has returned, emblematically, from the airport to the train station.

In Europe, high-speed rail lines have bred a new generation of breathtaking high-tech stations that prove trains are not sentimental indulgences. The architectural counterparts of these new whispering trains range from Victoria Station in London to Charles de Gaulle Airport’s TGV station and beyond, stations whose veils of glass and dazzling structural webs look engineered by genius spiders. In the United States, when train stations receive any attention at all, it is usually for restorations that affirm yesteryear. When Grand Central Terminal was refurbished, architects Beyer Blinder Belle built a new staircase on the east end of the concourse as originally conceived a century ago. The sweeping flight suggests not that trains have a future but that the building has a past.

At Penn Station, HOK didn’t have much to work with in the bland, flat, nine-foot-tall concourse, but the soulless spaces have responded surprisingly well. The new escalators are the focus of an expansive new waiting area set within a glass-and-metal enclosure streamlined with continuous horizontal mullions supporting gently inclined panes. Lighting coves at the top of the glass walls turn the surrounding ceiling into a vaporous white halo. Inside the soon-to-open waiting area for high-speed service, surprisingly elegant sofas are placed near Internet ports and beneath a glowing ceiling whose pendant light trays establish a second plane, creating a sense of greater overall height. The existing terrazzo floors have been repaved in swirling forms.

This futuristic design, imbued with the sensuality of movement, represents a walk on the wild side for HOK, which specializes in a conservative, corporate modernism. Amtrak, too, is molting. In a consumer culture, image is both destiny and advertisement, and the makeover – there are also signs, marquees, and booths dispersed throughout the station – is part of a coordinated effort to brand the Acela visually, from locomotive to typeface to station, from Boston to Florida. This local incarnation of light and metal caught in the warp of acceleration has resuscitated the given-up-for-dead Penn Station. In the scale of Manhattan things, HOK’s intervention may be modest, but it elevates the dignity of the public realm where it matters. It is an exemplar of how architectural mediocrity, while pandemic, is reversible, even if remedied one small piece at a time.

For a serious case of frostbite, dial the New York Public Library and ask the public-relations representatives if the library intends eventually to exhibit the three schemes in the recent design competition for the mid-Manhattan branch at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, kitty-corner from the main building. The board has not announced that Gwathmey Siegel & Associates has won the competition – because it hasn’t even announced the competition. So we don’t know now, and may never know, why the New York firm’s dubious proposal – which would put an eight-story, cartoon-like addition, bloated and undulating like a classical column on steroids and acid, atop the Renaissance-style block – prevailed over schemes by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates and Smith-Miller + Hawkinson partnered with Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott. Maybe Gwathmey Siegel’s really is the best, but apparently there will be no public discussion, at least not in the form of a library exhibition that presents all the work. Calls to the normally loquacious architects revealed they are gagged.

By its very nature, the New York Public Library would seem an institution that would want to impress an event like this on the public consciousness. “In no other nation does the public library building occupy so important a place and status, as in the American city, town and suburb,” writes Henry Hope Reed in his book The New York Public Library: Its Architecture and Decoration, in which he discusses the two runners-up to the winning Carrere & Hastings design for the main library. But the library now is playing its cards close to the vest, and the silence seems part of a larger, disconcerting institutional trend most recently displayed by moma. In December 1997, the museum cagily exhibited the design of the winning architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, for its $650 million expansion, but did not show the runners-up until three months later, when the news was stale. Boards are particularly averse to difficult-to-control public debate when they have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are other reasons besides the sobering proposal to be concerned about the library expansion. Up Fifth Avenue, Gwathmey Siegel did an addition to the Guggenheim that virtually stops Frank Lloyd Wright’s drum from spiraling, and down the avenue, the firm just completed the second of its projects in the former B. Altman building. The new Fifth Avenue entrance atrium for the Graduate Center of the City University of New York is static and ponderous, with an unimaginative interplay of the circle and square. The Science, Industry, and Business Library on the Madison Avenue side, also by Gwathmey Siegel, enjoys a greater diversity of forms in a more porous space.

A retrospective of Gwathmey Siegel’s projects, which coincidentally just opened in an exhibition space off the atrium at 365 Fifth, attests to the unevenness of the firm’s work. Residences remain the strength of a partnership that has not consistently been able to translate its vocabulary of Platonic solids and voids either to larger institutional work or to smaller-scale interiors. They tend to be airless – controlled by an overweening geometry of grids. A surrogate for an eventual winner-only exhibition, the show clarifies why we should worry about the results of the competition.

On the Right Track