Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Rise & Fall of Penn Station

I just watched the fascinating documentary the rise and fall of Penn Station, which aired last week on PBS American Experience.  It boiled my blood.  Anyone who knows me or follows my work knows my love for lost and forgotten architecture and my desire for it be saved.  But more importantly, my hate for anything designed in the 1950-70's under the label of "modernism".  The fall of Penn Station would prove to be a double edged sword.  Not only was this beautiful example of Beaux Arts right in the middle of Manhattan torn down, but up in it's place went a couple of featureless skyscrapers and Madison Square Gardens, arguably the ugliest sports arena ever built.  I'm not sure which was the bigger crime.

The men who built and designed Penn Station had far more than their own legacies in mind when they did.  They wanted to give something back, to add to the greater good of man, to build a great public space and leave it to the people.  And with Penn Station, they did just that.  They would be shocked and appalled that their grand vision lasted only 53 years.  Perhaps architectural historian Vincent Scully said it best.  When once, "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."  

The truth of the matter is that Penn Station had fallen into disrepair long before it's demolition.  The interior, once a beautiful pinkish white, was now all but black.  Broken windows were replaced by sheets of metal.  The cash strapped Pennsylvania Railroad Station simply didn't bother with any kind of upkeep, a crime in itself.  But, all that being said, buildings like this have to be cleaned, upkept, and renovated over the years.

If there's a silver lining to all this, it's that the demolition of Penn Station created enormous public outcry and served as the catalyst for the historic preservation movement that we know today.  It's death would lead to the very laws that saved buildings with similar fates, like that of New York's Central Terminal.  Still, far too many beautiful buildings all over the country were sacrificed in the name of progress.

I am currently living in a city of block concrete.  A sad story indeed, Le Havre was once a mini Paris on the English Chanel, nearly completely wiped out by Allied bombs in WWII.  When the dust settled they decided to hire one man to design and rebuild the entire city.  His name was Auguste Perret, and his favorite material was concrete.  Enough said.  Now, I was always taught to keep my mouth shut when I had nothing nice to say, so I'll stop right there.  Coming from New Orleans to Le Havre, I'll just say I know first hand how architecture can affect to the spirit of the people.  

The role of architecture and the effect it can have on the greater good's soul should not be over looked.  What would great cities be without great architecture?  What would Paris be?  London?  Chicago?  New Orleans?  The architecture is often the soul of the's a part of the people, a direct reflection of the their attitude and spirit.  But I digress, I'm starting to get repetitive.  

Go watch the documentary (for free online), and bring of box of kleenex. 

Penn Station today. Progress, right?

"Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men."
-Richard Nickel  

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