In “Mighty Penn,” The New Criterion has a brilliant extended reflection on the idea of rebuilding Pennsylvania Station, in New York City, as it was originally designed in 1903 by Charles Follen McKim of McKim Mead & White. Many facts of which I was unaware are unearthed by its author, Michael J. Lewis. And, in fact, I am heartened by Lewis’s support for the project. Over the years his criticism has usually left me underwhelmed. I cannot recall exactly why, but there always seemed a hesitancy on his part to support new traditional buildings, even to condemn modern architecture. No such demurral is evident in this essay. It is excellent from A to Z.
In the elegant passage below, Lewis informs readers that much of McKim’s architectural plan – spaces, walls, halls, entrances, exits, etc., drawn on paper as seen from above – survives to this day within the current Penn Station under Madison Square Garden.
And yet if the plan survives, it does so without those changes in proportion and scale, the sequence of compression and release, that gave it decorum and grace, and that treated the station’s users not as objects to be channeled efficiently through troughs, as in an abattoir, but as citizens, invested with dignity and self-respect. There can hardly be a more devastating rebuke to functionalism than the translation of McKim’s glorious sequence of spaces into a mere two-dimensional diagram of paths of movement.
Hear, hear! Below, however, is a passage that I disagree with. In outlining the largely political and psychological difficulties facing Rebuild Penn Station, led by the National Civic Art Society, Lewis writes:
Our [American] society is reluctant to acknowledge that there is any realm in which our predecessors were more capable or accomplished than we are.
Not really, I think. In the realm of architecture most people are capable of understanding that our predecessors were more capable and accomplished than we are. Most people are highly skeptical of modern architecture and have been since its beginning. It is the leading men and women of society’s political, financial and cultural institutions, mainly in the architecture and design professions, who resist acknowledging the obvious.
I’m not sure how to defeat that, but I believe it is possible, and eventually it must be done, because our current design establishment is preparing for us an environment that, aside from being plug ugly, has “Sinister” stamped on its forehead. It has been carrying us toward the sort of authoritarian societies predicted by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and almost every other prophet of dystopia. We don’t want to go there, at least most of us don’t, whether by plane, train, ship or self-driving car.
The best quote about this whole thing is from the late Vincent Scully, who wrote after Penn Station was demolished in 1963 and rebuilt: “One entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much. Now one scuttles in like a rat.” The middle sentence is usually omitted, with or without ellipses. No, it was not too much, and we deserve to enter it gloriously again. Especially young (or old) people who never had that chance.