by Shraddha NairMar 17, 2020
The new Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall, named after the visionary United States senator who proposed the project in the 1990s, recently opened its doors to New Yorkers and travellers from the Long Island Rail Road, Amtrak, the New York City Subway, and the entire northeast region of the city. The train hall is meant to restore the grandeur of train travel among daily commuters, and is a monumental civic intervention impactful on a scale that the city bears witness to once in a long while. Located at the very heart of train travel in NYC, the way millions of people interact with the most populous city in the US, the longstanding project was inaugurated and opened earlier this month by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and SOM.
The project had been under development by the world-renowned architecture firm, SOM, for more than two decades. The final structure, is the result of conviction in the profound belief that “New York City is better because of projects like this” in the reassuring words of Laura Ettelman, SOM Managing Partner. Aside from the sheer scale of the project in civic, economic, social and public terms, the Moynihan Train Hall is an intervention bearing significant sentimental and historic value for the city. The original iconic Pennsylvania Station designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1910 was a skylit, Beaux-Arts building that “celebrated travellers’ arrival to New York City” in a monumental way, easily introducing and transitioning even interstate travellers into the never-resting aura and energy of the city. Stated to be a masterpiece of public architecture by many, the building sadly had to be demolished in 1965, while only its concourses and platforms remained in a dark, underground space downgraded to accommodate only 200,000 people.
In the current scenario, the number of people in transit through the bustling station swelled to more than 600,000 daily commuters. A chance of an intervention was seen in another iconic New York structure, the James A. Farley Post Office Building, also designed by McKin, Mead and White in 1913. Many of the original, iconic, and immediately recognisable architectural elements from the original Penn Station echoed in the Farley Building, which had of late been lying vacant. Its grandiose staircase and neo-classical colonnade invited a restorative, re-interpretative design approach, while the building itself was located above the original station’s tracks, proving to be the perfect spot for intervention. The new Moynihan Train Hall then expanded the Pennsylvania Station complex with a 255,000-square-foot rail hub, finding its home in this landmark building, another bearer of the States’ incredible legacy, an institution catering to a now near-forgotten practice and yet seminal in the nation’s development.
Located between the Eighth and Ninth Avenues and West 31st and 33rd Streets, the train hall seeks to reverse the dark, overcrowded experience that many commuters have endured on the older concourse for decades. Owing to SOM’s architectural design that also seeks inspiration from the complex’s significant history, it brings light to the concourses for the first time in more than 50 years, increases total concourse space by 50 percent, and restores the grandeur that was lost with the demolition of the original Penn Station half a century ago.
Housing itself in the former mail sorting room of the post office structure, the large hall is designed with a dramatic skylight overarching the entire concourse, literally akin to the original Penn Station building in 1910. The skylight combines modern parametric design and precise structural engineering by Schlaich Bergermann Partners, and is arranged in four catenary vaults, that in turn rest upon the building’s three original, massive trusses: engineering marvels to this day. Interestingly, the trusses were hidden for a more cosmetic design for the postal workers a century ago, but have now been restored and revealed as a major focal point for the new design, much in line with modernist principles. Each of the four catenary vaults is composed of more than 500 glass and steel panels that come together to form a moiré effect. A testament to neoclassical design in steel right at the onset of the industrial age in the US, the webbed trusses supporting the skylight add a sense of lightness to the otherwise massive train hall.
At the edges of each vault, the panels thicken to sustain greater structural loads, while at the apexes spanning 92 feet above the concourse, the panels’ depth lightens, untangles, to enhance the airy ambience of the space. The trusses are each equipped with new lighting fixtures that illuminate the train hall at night. On the middle truss, a new clock designed by Pennoyer Architects and inspired by the analog clocks that guided many a commuter to work back in the day, marks the eclectic centre of the room. A dichotomy that has always rested at the heart of public infrastructure design, especially public commute, is unveiled here. Despite the massive sizes and areas allotted to projects of this nature, these are often more functional and need sizeable areas of space on ground for merely commotion, leaving limited scope and spots for design interventions. Holding the sunlight in its webs, the trusses and skylights thus feature prominently here as a defining element of the design, apart from an interior scheme that is largely adaptive.
The overall interiors of the hall, selectively and tastefully done in a manner largely evocative of the classical schemes employed well until the 70s in America, include a number of hospitality spaces for commuters, designed by a group of collaborating stakeholders and designers. Ticketing kiosks and information kiosks designed by SOM, Amtrak waiting rooms on the concourse level designed by Rockwell Group, an Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge by FX Collaborative, and a food hall designed by Elkus Manfredi – surround the space on two floors to establish an inviting experience. The signage in an urgent blue and a new wayfinding scheme that identifies facilities and platform entries by colour enable intuitive circulation through the station, an element thought to be missing from the original station design and something absolutely essential in a digital age. The unified material aesthetic shared by the entire train hall, and inspired by the original Penn Station from more than a century ago, is bound by the extensive usage of Tennessee Quaker marble in the complex by SOM, a material that invokes “a sense of warmth, calmness, and grandeur that are central to the design”.