This project was inspired by and is partially based upon the May 2013 Penn Station Design Challenge, in which the Municipal Art Society of New York invited four of the city’s leading architecture firms to submit proposals regarding the future of Penn Station and its environs. The subsequent discussion about the future of the station has highlighted a divide between the design community and many transportation advocates. Some architects saw an opportunity for another formalistic architectural icon, while many transit advocates were focused purely on the utilitarian aspects of the station and preferred further piecemeal improvements to the existing facility. This represented a false choice; both arguments ignored the human needs of the travelers and commuters who use the station, and the complex web of meanings and relationships inherent to the site.
To address this, research was focused on the idea of arrival: what it means to arrive someplace in both the metaphorical sense and the literal sense. Precedents included a number of notable arrival sequences, such as the Wawona Tunnel entrance to Yosemite Valley and examples from film, as well as a critical examination of the current facility, the historic McKim Mead and White structure, and the four proposals submitted to the Municipal Art Society.
The design solution focused on the idea of architecture as an experience, rather than as merely an object or a piece of infrastructure. Particular attention was focused on the sequence of arrival moments and the spaces in which they occur — the central station concourse and the ascent to street level — as well as the threshold spaces between them: a sequence of spaces that convey ideas of compression and release. In addition, the memory of the original Penn Station and its related railroad infrastructure were invoked in a number of ways, particularly the colonnades along Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and the long-span trusses that evoke the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Hell Gate Bridge and the great railway stations of Europe.