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Architecture

Penn Station: How Nostalgia Plays Into Our Love of Buildings Old and New

 

October 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the end for New York’s old Pennsylvania Station. It took three years and countless hours of manpower to tear down what was the fourth-largest building in the world. In remembrance of the station, last Wednesday the Center for Architecture held the event, Lights, Camera, Demolition: Penn Station Recalled on Stage & In Pictures. The highlight was a reading of a The Eternal Space, a new play about the unlikely relationship between two men – a construction worker photographing the station as he tears it down and an aging professor determined to save it. Photographs documenting the entire life of Penn Station–some famous, some never seen–are critical to the play, serving as a background for the actors, silently telling the story of a changing city and offering their own compelling provocations alongside a compelling debate about progress, preservation, and of course, Pennsylvania Station.

Following a reading of the play, a panel was convened to discuss the station, its legacy, and the photographs that continue to inspire. Panelists included playwright Justin Rivers, myself, noted biographer of Penn Station Lorraine Dhiel, and renown photographer Norman McGrath, whose vast archive of personal photos includes hundreds of never-before-seen images documenting the demolition of Penn Station, photos that feature prominently in the play (and in this post).

Pennsylvania Station was designed by McKim, Mead, and White in 1902. McKim, a Beaux-Arts educated architect and co-founder of the American Academy in Rome, was the lead designer on the project which was a grand display of his idiosyncratic Beaux-Arts Classicism. He draws inspiration from the great train stations of Europe, the Baths of Caracalla, John Soane’s Bank of England, and surely myriad other sources, all artfully combined into a monumental pink granite structure. It was a testament to the our technological prowess, craftsmanship, and artistry. It was a monument to our culture; a station scaled to the ambitions of a country at the peak of its power – a modern Rome. And indeed, at times it seemed that all tracks lead to New York – or, to be more specific, Penn Station. It was to be a gateway to the city.

But times change. And cities change. By 1963, New York was a very different place and Penn Station was no longer the gateway into the city. New highways and air travel gave travelers more, sometimes better, options. And while automotive infrastructure was being built by governments, privately owned railways were going bankrupt and bleeding passengers. In a time of high speed and efficiency, Pennsylvania Station was a decadent, inspiring and expensive masterpiece. As it fell into decay and disrepair, the owners of the railroad believed they had no choice but to sell the rights to build on their valuable property, making it possible for a new, modern, and incredibly ugly Madison Square Garden to rise where Penn Station stood, while the while the waiting rooms, ticketing areas, and train concourses were pushed underground. The opposition to the demolition was led by a small but local group, but at the time the city was powerless to stop it. And it seems that few New Yorkers held the station in high regard because although the Penn Station that exists in the popular imaginary looks like this:

penn station

The station was quite a bit worse for wear in 1963:

McGrath’s color photos of Penn Station’s demolition capture the vast spaces in all its Piranesian glory and communicate a sense of its scale in an almost morbid way. The demolition may have been an ignoble end to a truly beautiful building but it was undeniably sublime.

By the time of its demolition, Penn was full of unsightly newspaper kiosks, advertisements, and an jarring, modernist ticket counter that drastically changed the circulation through the building’s waiting room. But that is not the Penn Station we remember. There’s a line in The Eternal Space about a soldier who died in World War II: “how perfect he seems in death.” The same could be said about the station. Penn Station lives on through widely distributed photographs depicting the station at the peak of its monumental grandeur, such as those seen at the top of this post. The Penn Station we miss–even those of us who weren’t even a gleam in our father’s eye at the the time of its demolition–is one that hadn’t existed for a long time. And yet, these photos create a longing.

Wednesday night it occurred to me that contemporary architectural renderings serve a similar purpose. A good rendering of a beautiful design evokes a sort of reverse nostalgia; not a longing for something that’s gone, but a longing for something to exist. They can be incredibly convincing and they can reach a massive audience incredibly quickly. Renderings have become powerful tools for architects, planners, and developers. Are they informative? No doubt. Are they manipulative? Maybe a little.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

After all, the nostalgia-provoking photos of old Penn were/are manipulative in their own way. Images of a pristine Penn Station were used by advocacy groups to sway public sentiment and garner support for new policy, eventually leading to new legislation and the formation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission – the first organization in the city empowered to protect New York’s architectural heritage.

But that’s all in the past. There’s a lot of talk these days about the future of Penn Station thanks to the recent decision by New York City Planning Commission to renew Madison Square Garden’s permit for only 10 years and a design competition recently organized by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), who invited four prominent local architects to submit a vision of Penn Station’s future. These projects are described in length on the MAS site but I just wanted to focus on one project –one image, really– that I think really starts to get at this idea of inverse nostalgia:

This rendering from Shop feels so well thought-out. It seems to have been carefully designed to imitate the iconic photos of New York’s two great train stations. To speculate a bit, I think architectural renderings in general will become more influential as they evolve to either become 1) more realistic, and/or 2) more artistic – that is to say, able to be considered a work of art, or at the very least to be able to evoke an emotional response. I think the above rendering is more a case of the latter. The soft lighting, the sunbeams, the massive space and sense of scale. It’s beautiful. And it evokes some halcyon past. This photo of Grand Central came immediately to mind:

Images have power. Even before this recent discussion about moving Madison Square Garden, Penn Station has had a hold on New Yorkers’ imagination thank largely to its photographs. As for its future – what should a modern Penn Station be like? Should there even be a new Penn Station? Those are questions people will be asking a lot over the next 10 years. Architects will talk about sustainability and new technologies and radical formal possibilities, and civic space –all important considerations to be sure– but at the end of the day, if there is going to be a new Penn Station it should be beautiful. It needs to satiate that longing and mitigate that sense of loss felt every time we see a picture of what was or an image of what could be.

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Architecture

On Preservation, Progress, and Penn Station.

The Waiting Room at old Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles McKim and William Richardson
The Waiting Room at old Pennsylvania Station, designed by Charles McKim and William Richardson

Tonight at the Center for Architecture in New York City, I’ll be on a panel discussing the once and future Pennsylvania Station. The event follows the 50th anniversary of the demolition of Penn Station and was prompted by a forthcoming two-man play about the subject, The Eternal Space, written by Justin Rivers. I was lucky enough to see a preview of play a while back and it is absolutely terrific. It’s the story of two men: one employed to demolish the station and one determined to save it.

On October 28th, 1963 the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station began. The wrecking crews worked outside in the morning drizzle to dismantle a fifty-three-year-old architectural marvel. Inside, a construction worker turned photographer was running away from his past while an aging English teacher couldn’t let his go. Their coincidental meeting on that day began a three-year conversation over the value of old and new, as one man fought to keep the station standing while the other was taking it down. This is the premise for The Eternal Space, a two-man play that charts an unlikely friendship during the social and cultural upheavals of the mid-1960s.

What’s particularly impressive is how the play manages to address both sides of the issue. Preservation is critical to connecting us to our own history but what if it impedes progress? How do we define progress? How do we determine the value of a work of art? The play asks many questions but doesn’t offer any easy answers. It does however, leave you with a lot to consider.

A crucial aspect of The Eternal Space, and of tonight’s event, is photography. Photographs documenting the entire life of Penn Station –some famous, some never seen– serve as a background for the actors, silently telling their own story and offering their own compelling provocations. They seem particularly relevant today, as we consider a new Penn Station at a time when images and renderings have become  powerful tools for architects, planners, and developers. The Eternal Space has amassed a catalog of over 500 never-published/exhibited photos from New York based-photographers. Contributors to the collection include:

• Norman McGrath, a renowned, professional architectural photographer whose work has appeared in every notable architectural publication.
• Peter Moore, a professional photographer known for his documentation of the Fluxus movement in New York City. His Penn Station photographs are a small portion of his commercially successful body of work.
• Alexander Hatos, a career employee of the Pennsylvania railroad whose photographic catalog offers the unique perspective of employee access.
• Ron Ziel, an internationally acclaimed railroad historian and Long Island native. His collection documents the station’s entire lifespan and includes images from his perspective as a LIRR commuter in the 1960s.
• Aaron Rose, an accomplished photographer whose images, the New York Times declares, “seem to caress the world”. He was virtually unknown to the photography world until 1997, when four images were exhibited at the Whitney Biennial.

After a reading of selections from The Eternal Space,  a panel discussion will consider what we saw and heard, and look to the past and future of Pennsylvania Station. Panelists include photographer Norman McGrath, Lorraine Dheil, author of The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station, playwright Justin Rivers, and myself. It should be a fun night and hopefully a productive discussion.

I think seats are still available, so register here.

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Architecture

Design Decoded: When Pepsi Allowed a Team of Artists to Wreak Creative Havoc

 

pepsi pavilion

The Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 (image: Takeyoshi Tanuma via YCAM)

While Pepsico’s finger may have slipped off the pulse of youth culture when they hired Edward Durell Stone to build their corporate campus, they found it again–briefly–when commissioning designers for their pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan.

Still focusing their marketing on the kids they called the Pepsi Generation, the soda maker initially planned for the pavilion to be a simple bandshell that would host the winner of a global battle-of-the-bands style competition. After all, the kids love rock & roll, right? Japanese architect Tadashi Doi of Takenaka Komuten Co., a general contractor that traces its history back more than 400 years, was commissioned by Pepsi Japan to design the basic structure. Doi’s design for a slightly distorted 120-foot diameter faceted geodesic dome was a radical departure from the rather conservative Modernist headquarters Pepsi moved into that same year. But the dome’s architecture would be the least interesting thing about it.

The battle-of-the-bands idea was quickly scrapped after some internal disagreements among upper-level Pepsi brass. In lieu of a standard rock concert, it was decided that the pavilion would house a truly avant-garde work of contemporary art. Pepsi commissioned a group of artists, musicians and engineers who collaborated together under the name Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) to design and program their pavilion. There were a lot of wheelings, dealings, arguments, misunderstandings and fundamental philosophical disagreements surrounding E.A.T.’s collaboration with Pepsi, but let’s just focus on the design of the installation, because it’s pretty great.

pepsi pavilion osaka

Pepsi Pavilion, Expo ’70(image: Shunk-Kender via Fondation Langlois)

E.A.T. weren’t particularly fond of the space they were given, but instead of ignoring it or opposing the faceted dome structure, they created a series of highly site-specific, integrated installations that dissolved the boundaries between art, technology and space, using the dome’s form against itself to create an immersive multimedia experience they referred to as “a living responsive environment.”

The Pepsi Pavilion engulfed in a cloud of its own making (image: Fujiko Nakaya via Research Library, The Getty Research Institute)

The Pepsi pavilion was a true collaborative effort in which E.A.T. synthesized multiple artistic interventions into a single unified whole. Two of the most prominent programs worked in tandem to literally conceal the architectural design. Most visibly (or invisibly as the case may be), a system of pipes and fog-emitted nozzles, designed by artist Fujiko Nakaya and physicist Thomas Lee, cloaked the dome in an artificial cloud whose shape would change in response to local weather conditions. At times, the cloud was six-feet thick, extending the effect of the Pavilion beyond the boundaries of the dome and prompting complaints from nearby vendors who couldn’t proffer their wares in the haze. Similar ideas and themes would be explored much later by architects Diller Scofidio Renfro, whose, scaffolding-like Blur Building(2002) used spraying misters to create what the architects called “immaterial architecture,” a phrase that echoes E.A.T. member Robert Rauschenberg’s description of the Pepsi project as an “invisible environment.”

pepsi pavilion osaka

The mylar-covered interior of the the Pepsi pavilion (image:  Shunk-Kender via Fondation Langlois)

If the outside of the building was a cloud, than the inside was its silver lining. The main interior space of the dome was dominated by an enormous mirrored Mylar surface held in place by vacuum pressure. In photographs, the inverted reflections created by the mirror almost look like holograms floating in space. As Marcelyn Gow, of the research and design collaborative servo writes, the combination of the fog and the mirror “would actively work to dematerialize the architecture of the pavilion itself. They would simultaneously augment and obscure the structure.” E.A.T. hated the architecture. So, like the strange and wonderful techno-artist-magicians they were, they made it disappear.

Additional programming in the building included electronically modified recordings of natural sounds that corresponded with various floor surfaces – bird tweets might be heard while walking across astroturf, for example. Other exterior elements, visible in the above photographs, included a laser beam space-frame and interactive, sculptural “floats” that move outside the pavilion and respond to movement. Truly keeping with the spirit of the 1960s, the pavilion was a case study in collaboration and participatory design. The interior changed in response to environmental conditions and the number of visitors, who were give some semblance of control over their environment through the interactive components. It’s hard to say more about what it was like to experience the pavilion because, it really was an experience; it was a visceral union of light, sound, and space. In other words, you had to be there, man.

The pavilion was an early example of a productive interaction between arts and industry, something that is so common today we barely even take note of it – see BMW’s collaboration with the Guggenheim, for example. The first lines of the press statement released jointly by E.A.T. and Pepsi-Cola is a paean to the union of the arts and and corporate culture: “E.A.T. is interested in Pepsi-Cola, not art. Our organization tried to interest, seduce and involve industry into participating in the process of making art.” This was a provocative statement to say the least and caused quite a commotion in the art world, many of whom saw little difference between global corporations like Pepsi and the military industrial complex. It came as no surprise then, that the relationship proved untenable and the program was unfortunately short-lived. Pepsi and E.A.T. came to some insurmountable disagreements and the cola giant canceled E.A.T.’s interactive, immersive, and incredibly expensive program with a modified version of their original idea for a music venue- something that Pepsi thought was more accessible for the average visitor.

Still from Masculin Feminin

The conflict between Pepsi’s desire to capture both the revolutionary spirit of avant-garde while also appealing to a broader, popular audience, reminds me of a scene from Masculin Féminin (1966), Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film/essay about a wannabe revolutionary in love with a wannabe pop star, and the dialectics of youth culture in the 1960s. The pop star, Madeleine, is asked by a reporter if she considers herself to be part of the “Pepsi Generation.” Her enthusiastic reply –”Oui! J’adore le Pepsi-Cola!”– is briefly interrupted by a gunshot, which goes completely unacknowledged. Madeleine so perfectly captures the charm and beauty of the youth with whom Pepsi, since the early ’60s, has tried to associate their brand. And yet, for a brief moment in 1970, Pepsi played both roles –revolutionary and pop star– but ultimately, like Madeleine, they ultimately chose to remain willingly oblivious to the burgeoning revolution, abandoning the barricades for pop culture adoration.

via Design Decoded http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/design/2013/09/when-pepsicola-allowed-a-team-of-artists-to-wreak-creative-havoc/

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Architecture

Design Decoded: The Architectural History of Pepsi, Part 2: Edward Durell Stone and the Corporate Campus

A view from the approach to Pepsi’s Purchase, New York Headquarters (image: “WhisperToMe” via wikimedia commons)

Sometime in the early 1970s, huge American companies like IBM, General Foods and Union Carbide fled the confines of the city for the greener pastures of the suburbs. The new corporate campuses built during this time were sprawling modernist complexes, designed for efficiency by some of the country’s top architects. In 1970, as the first shots were being fired in the cola wars, PepsiCo joined this corporate diaspora, relocating from their modest and much-adored 13-story building in Manhattan to a 450,000-sq-ft complex on a 168-acre former polo field in Purchase, New York. To design their new home, Pepsi recruited “modernism’s populist architect” Edward Durell Stone.

Stone’s name isn’t well known today, but he was once one of the most famous architects in the world. When he started his career in the 1930s, Ed Stone was a promising young designer and bon vivant who, it was said, “could draw anything except a sober breath.” He first made a name for himself in the 1940s, working on the designs for Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, which led to the commission for the new Museum of Modern Art building (1939) – Stone’s first foray into International Style modernism. Stone continued to work in the modernist idiom throughout the 1940s while also serving as chief critic at the Yale School of Architecture and, during World War II, a major in the United States Army Air Forces.  Some years before the war, he befriended Frank Lloyd Wright, who encouraged the up-and-coming architect to question the precepts of the International Style, and imbued him with an appreciation for ornament and vernacular architecture. Wright’s influence would manifest dramatically in the early 1950s when Stone was commissioned to design the American Embassy in New Delhi.

Stone’s design for the American Embassy in New Delhi helped launch him to stardom (image via WNYC)

The embassy’s modern design drew equal parts inspiration from Classical temples, European modernism, and local traditions. Its most notable–and most controversial– feature was a patterned concrete screen that minimized heat and glare while still allowing plenty of light into the building. The embassy was met with wide acclaim and honored by the American Institute of Architects as an expression of “serenity and power in government in terms appropriate for the country in which it is guest.” Although the building was an enormous professional and popular success, it proved to be quite divisive among the architectural community. While commissions were pouring into his office, staunch modernists and architecture critics focused on the patterned screen, calling it distracting and decorative – a stigma that would follow Stone throughout the rest of his career. But Stone had developed a fondness for decorative details and clients were clamoring for the his ornamental, romantic modernism. With the success of the embassy and a new PR-savvy wife who helped sober him up, Stone was quickly propelled from relative obscurity to the cover of Time magazine in 1958. He was in many ways a proto-starchitect

pepsi edward durell stone

An aerial view of the PepsiCo World Headquarters in Purchase, NY (image: google maps)

However, when he got the Pepsi commission in the late 1960s, Stone’s star was fading. By the mid-1960s, he had finally moved away from the concrete grillwork that had defined his personal style for so long, but the buildings behind the screens just weren’t as exciting. However, Stone never completely abandoned his love for decorative detailing, as evidenced by his design for the Pepsi Headquarters. The Purchase, New York complex, which is still the home of PepsiCo, consists of seven nearly identical inverted white ziggurat-like structures linked at their corners and organized around a cruciform central garden. It was supposedly designed to be expanded as the company grew, in a manner similar to, though less successful than, his friend Eero Saarinen’s design for IBM’s Rochester facility. Last year plans were announced that the facility was expanding for the first time since its construction, although it’s not certain if Pepsi will follow Stone’s original vision.

A closer look at Stone’s design for the PepsiCo Headquarters. Note the patterned concrete block. (image: “WhisperToMe” via wikimedia commons)

The new headquarters met with mixed reviews. Architectural Record described it as a “skillful blending” of architecture and nature combining elements of both the urban and the rural. Pepsi reported that after moving into the building, employee morale went up and work habits had improved. However, many critics still had a hard time accepting Stone’s work. Paul Goldberger, during his tenure as The New York Times architecture critic, called it “a world of utter blandness” that “is free of major vulgarities but also free of any excitement.” Much of the rancor towards his architecture can probably be attributed Goldberger’s precursor at The Times, the venerable Ada Louise Huxtable, whose dislike of Stone’s work merited two paragraphs in her obituary.

The landscaping, on the other hand, has been widely lauded. Initially designed by Stone’s son, Edward Stone Jr., to complement his father’s structure, the PepsiCo property is a verdant, luxurious sculpture garden filled with work by the likes of Brancusi, Alexander Calder, and Claes Oldenburg. And best of all, it’s open to the public.

Edward Durell Stone retired from practice in 1974 and fell into relative obscurity – a surprising reversal of fortune for a man whose face once adorned the cover of Time. Though his name is in the history books for his early work on Rockefeller Center and MOMA, his later projects are rarely discussed. Perhaps because they’re not easy to discuss; Stone’s work defies categorization. Some people have called Stone a proto-Postmodernist; some considered him a man ahead of his time while others thought he was struggling to keep up. In either case, his design for Pepsi’s HQ wasn’t attuned to the zeitgeist like their Manhattan offices. Stone may have been many things, but was certainly not a man of the Pepsi Generation – whatever that may be.

The final part in this short series will look at Pepsi’s radical pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World Expo.

via Design Decoded

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Architecture

Design Decoded: The Architectural History of Pepsi, Part 1: The ‘Mad Men’ Years

 

pepsi building nyc

The Park Avenue facade of the Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters, designed by SOM (image: Ezra Stoller, via SOM]

In 1963, Pepsi-Cola launched a new advertising campaign: The Pepsi Generation. Those three simple words represented a drastic rebranding for the company, which had previously marketed itself as a cheaper version of rival Coca-Cola. With the launch of “The Pepsi Generation” campaign, Pepsi claimed to be offering something new, something hip, something for the kids. While Coke continued to trade on nostalgia with traditional imagery of some idyllic yesteryear, Pepsi’s commercials featured snappy jazz numbers and young beautiful people riding motorcycles. “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation!” The soda maker’s rebranding also included a simplified logo featuring a modern, sans-serif typeface, the introduction of a diet cola –now famously immortalized in an episode of “Mad Men”– and, a few blocks from the offices of Sterling Cooper, a striking new modern building in New York City.

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