Madison Square Garden can be easy to love as a venue for other experiences but hard to love as a work of architecture. Penn Station is not lovable at all. As a regular commuter, I would argue that it does not have to be. It only needs to work. The gap between their value for users and their aesthetic qualities make these buildings easy targets for architectural critics. All you have to do is reproduce an edited quote from Vincent Scully, add some pictures of McKim, Mead and White’s masterpiece before it was covered in grime, find the most haphazard image of the New Jersey Transit waiting area during rush hour, and wait for everyone to agree in the Internet equivalent of a round of high fives. Recently, criticism of Madison Square Garden and Penn Station has been particularly strident and has taken, what I consider, an alarming direction.
The City Council voted in July to renew the permit to operate Madison Square Garden for 10 years. Given that the Dolans asked the permit be renewed in perpetuity, I agree with the vote itself. However, I do not agree with the motives behind it and the proposed changes the vote is supposed to enable. New York Times art and architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has criticized Penn Station in his columns for several years and asserted that improvements to it are impossible without “moving” Madison Square Garden. Municipal Art Society held a vision session to imagine possible replacements for the arena, the skyscraper, the layers of concourses, waiting areas, shops, and hallways that now greet regional rail commuters, subway riders, and Amtrak passengers. Spokespeople for the Regional Plan Association, various urban planners, and architects have asserted that it is Penn Station itself that blocks development of the neighborhood, the City, and the entire Tri-state area. Penn Station has problems but the current commentary on its improvement suffers from false premises, disingenuous assertions, misplaced priorities rooted in nostalgia, and misunderstandings of regional dynamics. Most egregiously, no one has the courage to say exactly what they mean. They are not advocating moving Madison Square Garden, they are advocating demolishing Madison Square Garden. The fact that they are advocating the demolition of a building, the significance of which they do not appreciate, as penance for the demolition of McKim Mead and White’s Penn Station does not strike any of these commentators as ironic or foolish.
This commentary also seems to be written by people who don’t use Penn Station the same way that thousands of people use it everyday. No one is writing from the perspective of New Jersey Transit or Long Island Railroad riders. Our sheer numbers are used to justify interventions that would do little to improve our commutes and insure our safety. Projects already underway that address our needs are either entirely ignored or incorrectly characterized. Images of Penn Station focus on the most cramped and crowded spaces and ignore the gradual improvements made to both the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit amenities and services. In the coming weeks, I will be taking on this commentary piece by piece. First by presenting the current station (in all its mediocrity) and explaining how it gets used on a daily basis. Then, describing Phase 1 of the Moynihan Station project, the persistent misrepresentation of its scope, and precisely how it will improve service for existing users. Later, I will be discussing the highly selective appropriation of historic preservation and urban design principles in the service of a grandiose agenda that has little to do with the modern forms of either discipline.
The destruction of McKim, Mead, and White’s Penn Station was a great loss for New York City and a great loss for architecture itself. The true sin was not that it was destroyed but that it was not maintained, appreciated, and used. Its true value was not discerned by the people tasked with its care. Right now, from my perspective, critics, organizers, politicians, and planners are demonstrating the same lack of discernment with regard to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station.