This past summer, New York’s Department of City Planning put forth a plan to rezone 78 blocks of East Midtown centered around Grand Central Terminal, making room for a bevy of new towers from the projected next great Manhattan build-out. Pitched as a strategy to bolster New York amidst imminent international competition, the East Midtown Study inspired both the thrill and fear of large scale change: Could New York enhance its skyline and increase its density without losing its soul? Would Midtown become another run-of-the-mill central business district, a globalized landscape of glitzy, glass-skinned stalagmites crushing the layers of history below? Perhaps to palliate our worst Kafka-esque architectural nightmares, the city invited three renowned architecture firms, WXY Architecture + Urban Design, Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), and Foster + Partners, to imagine “the next 100 years” of Grand Central Station (which is fast approaching its 100th birthday) and the surrounding Midtown cityscape.
The common theme of all three schemes presented yesterday at the 2012 Municipal Arts Society Summit in New York was a marked dedication to elevating the “civic realm.” Well aware of the private land grab that rezoning will likely incite, all three firms placed emphasis on reviving the public space within and around Grand Central. Claire Weisz of WXY Architecture spoke of the Park Avenue viaduct and its potential for hybrid vehicle-pedestrian-cyclist circulations. Norman Foster of Foster + Partners highlighted the need for green space and the anticipation of new forms of transit. But by far the most striking proposal came from SOM. Despite the phlegmatic tone of SOM New York partner Roger Duffy, the hallowed firm’s scheme for a donut-shaped observation space suspended between skyscrapers captured the awe of the audience.
What began as a thoughtful though familiar meditation on connecting the city’s POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces, which usually take the form of plazas and walkways that developers gift to the city in return for added building height) quickly escalated into an almost outlandishly dreamy proposal for what some are now calling “the London Eye turned on its side.” Duffy and his team’s suggestion to rezone and generate more POPS at the street level — an idea equipped with its own glittery renderings of avenue-like passageways cutting through corporate skyscrapers — was bumped up in altitude, culminating in a structure ripped from our wildest sci-fi fantasies: a slick, monumental halo, hovering over Grand Central Terminal, serving as a vertigo-inducing observation deck looking out onto Manhattan.
After the presentations, panel moderator and New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson joked that he was glad to see designers at SOM “letting their hair down” again. Honestly, we’re a little glad too. Now is the time if ever for farfetched proposals. Grand Central Terminal was and continues to be an extraordinarily layered and progressive work of architecture, connecting numerous forms of transportation at complexly interlocking levels, all sheathed in the timelessness of Beaux Arts symmetry and ornament. If New Yorkers are to expect big changes for Grand Central, they ought to dream big.
- Kelly Chan