Connecticut architect Duo Dickinson, who writes regularly on architecture, often critical of modernism, has just written “Sprinting to the Past” in Common/Edge. He rails against Brooklyn architect Richard Cameron’s proposal to rebuild Penn Station as Charles Follen McKim designed it in the years leading up to its completion in 1910. Its demolition in 1963 was a mistake, perhaps the worst in New York City’s long history.
He describes the project, recently the subject of National Civic Art Society president Justin Shubow’s column in Forbes, as “Xeroxing nostalgia.” Restoration would be
a statement of extreme veneration based solely on aesthetics: Resurrection reanimates, it creates the living dead: it takes creativity off the table as a design criteria. Adaptation can be creative: but in the straightjacket of a deadly defined husk it’s all problem-solving and engineering—it begs all questions of reflecting the here and now, let alone offering up innovation.
First let’s understand that nobody has proposed to rebuild the station exactly as it was originally designed. Cameron has not proposed, as Dickinson charges, to “literally 3D print a clone” of the building. It will be filled with modern amenities, such as 21st century engineering and shopping malls. Dickinson seems to believe that rebuilding Penn Station is being conceived as some sort of template for all future design, that every new building should look like some old building. Leaving aside that McKim’s precedent was not, as Dickinson writes, a Roman temple but a Roman public baths, that is patently absurd. Rebuilding Penn Station would be a one-off.
Dickinson’s stock modernist cant about innovation is the old “of its time” hooey decked out in creativity blather. The flaws inherent in that reasoning are too well known to be rehearsed here. What does our era, this moment in history, say of how today’s buildings should look? Not very much. Our era, most would say, is violent and barbaric. So has the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) really put its finger on something crucial in its proposed redesign of 2 Penn Plaza? The tower next to Madison Square Garden atop Penn Station seems to be exploding and crashing down on it. Brilliant. This is all we need.
Architecture today seems to want to reflect rather than heal the ills of our time. Those who want to rebuild Penn Station want to correct an error New York City made half a century ago.
Cameron’s grand proposal, as described by Clem Labine in Traditional Building, aims not just to correct a mistake by rebuilding the station as it was, but to reconstitute a famously tedious precinct of Midtown Manhattan into a transit hub and commercial mecca. Its popularity would help stoke the area’s financial revival as a strategy for funding its improvement. That’s doing more than “creating the living dead,” and there’s plenty of precedent in New York and elsewhere for its success.
Before signing off here, let’s consider that bit about new buildings all looking like old buildings. Not like specific old buildings but as if they were built according to classical and traditional principles that had characterized all architecture for two millennia. The fact is that there is far more diversity, building to building, in this old set of styles and its product than in the modern architecture that preens so absurdly on its creativity and innovation. It is no wonder: Modernism has purged architecture of most of the tools in its design toolbox that are useful to differentiate one building from another. There is little real diversity in modern architecture. To find it, modernists must resort to increasingly ridiculous exercises in aesthetic oneupmanship. Rebuilding Penn Station as McKim designed it would, arguably, bring some real diversity, some real beauty, some real joy back into “our era,” and back into Midtown. Why is Duo Dickinson against that?