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Flying saucers, glass roadways, subterranean caverns: three visions of the Grand Central Station of 2112


October 25, 2012

The "UFO" viewing platform of SOM's Grand Central Terminal of tomorrow (Image: © 2012 SOM/Crystal)

The "UFO" viewing platform of SOM's Grand Central Terminal of tomorrow (Image: © 2012 SOM/Crystal)

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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."

Foster + Partners' emphasis on public space (Image: Foster + Partners)(Image: Foster + Partners)

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 tapered skyscraper (Image: WXY)

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.

SOM's grand vision for the Grand Central Terminal of the future (Image: © 2012 SOM)

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?

Sources: Foster + Partners, WXY, SOM

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

It would be a pleasant surprise if the winner is chosen on which makes the station work best.


SOM's idea is inspirational. We need more of this kind of thinking to be embraced and implemented.

Kevin Cloete

SOMs is the most inspirational but structural logic must and will prevail whatever is built. High winds will destroy that structural folly. It reminds me of the utterly impossible structure rendered for a glass walk over the Grand Canyon that gained massive reinforcing into a totally different structure.

Tristram Metcalfe

All three proposals for "improving" Grand Central indulge in a lot of fantasy. If the problem, as we all agree, is over-crowding, why build one, two or more giant towers? All those monstrosities from the '60s building boom aren't enough? Enhanced pedestrian space is a great idea, but what about the effect on traffic? And as for SOM's "flying saucer," I am certain it will never be built. Let's look at the same firm's record at One World Trade Center. We were promised a striking structural "needle," which proved too expensive, so we now all we will have is a standard broadcasting antenna. We were promised an innovative cast glass cladding at the base, but that proved unworkable. The cladding for the bottom ten floors is still "TBA." Expect some banal metal panels. They talk bold and build conservative.

Harry Matthews

Grand Central is a terminal, not a station. Stations are posts between terminals. Terminals are each end of the tracks. End=terminal. Grand Central is at the end of the line, therefore a terminal. Grand Central Terminal. I sure hope someone corrects this.

Winston Smith
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