Three leading architects gathered last week at the third annual summit of The Municipal Art Society to present their visions for the dramatic redevelopment of New York's Grand Central Terminal. Foster + Partners, SOM and WXY each put forward ideas to renew Grand Central's grandeur, while also making it fit for purpose for the the hundreds of thousands of people that will use the station on any given day in the next hundred years. The three schemes offer strikingly different visions for the future of the terminal, though only one includes an enormous flying saucer.
The call for ideas comes at a time when the station is seeing ten times the number of passengers than was the case when it was built. "The result is acute overcrowding," Foster + Partners says, with the effect that "connections to the rail and subway lines beneath the concourse are inadequate; and the arrival and departure experience is poor. Added to that, the surrounding streets are choked with traffic and pedestrians are marginalised. The rapid growth of tall buildings in the vicinity has all but consumed the Terminal."
Though the approach of Foster + Partners is the most understated (and perhaps therefore the most practical), the company has gone into surprising detail as to methods by which overcrowding at the station can be eased. Among its proposals were widening the 42nd Street entrance to take in the entire width of the facade, the widening and partial pedestrianizing of underground access tunnels and public areas, the pedestrianization of surrounding above ground spaces including the creation of a new civic center outside the west entrance, replete with "trees, sculpture and street cafes."
WXY's focus, according to company Founding Principal Claire Weisz, was to "make the Grand Central neighborhood a place people enjoy being in not just running through." Several of its proposals are on a similar theme to Foster + Partner's, namely, pedestrianizing and creating public spaces near to the terminal itself, though its vision additionally includes the creation of an elevated pedestrian and cycle way with a transparent floor. WXY's proposal did include one other small detail: the construction of an enormous, tapering skyscraper with cantilevered "sky gardens" hanging at choice irregular intervals from its faces like gigantic window boxes.
Most eye-catching of all, though, was the proposal from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which apparently includes the construction of three skyscrapers, two of which stand directly to either side of the station. Suspended between them, SOM proposes a huge circular observation deck with a diameter greater than the width of the existing terminal building. Oh yes, and the observation deck is also an enormous elevator. It moves up and down. Judging from the "flying UFO" nickname that already appears to be emerging for the design, its certainly capturing people's imagination (though anyone aware of what UFO actually stands for will certainly object to the unnecessary use of the preceding adjective).
In fact, the "Halo" observation deck (to propose an alternative nickname) is only one of three interventions proposed by SOM. It too proposes the creation of pedestrianized spaces, "corridors," as SOM describes them, as well as a "condensing of the public realm" with the creation of civic spaces above and below the terminal. A cut-away view provided by SOM reveals cavernous expanses below the station, as well as airy spaces in the lower levels of the surrounding buildings.
The joke, if there is one, is that even the more modest aspects of the proposals are, viewed in isolation, very ambitious (especially if the station were to remain open through construction). Just how much audacity one likes in their urban planning proposals is, ultimately, subjective, and will depend very much on the worldview of the individual. Should the original terminal building remain the star of the show, or serve merely as a gateway to a dramatically expanded civic complex?