Enter the city like a rat, exit like a Jonah
H.L. Mencken repeatedly lampooned Christianity by noting that Jonah swallowed the whale, this being only slightly less plausible than the Biblical story. Chip Kidd, the graphic novelist, recently imagined Penn Station redesigned as a whale, with passengers in the role of Jonah. In Batman: Death by Design (with illustrations by Dave Taylor), Kidd has Batman planning to demolish Penn Station so he can build an auxiliary Batcave beneath a new terminal. Bruce Wayne hires an architect, Ken Roomhaus, who redesigns Penn as a whale. In the frame where the architect describes the proposal to Gotham city fathers, Kidd mocks the dog-and-pony shows modern architects put on for their clients:
And so, on to the Main Hall, whose design was conceived as a massive replica of the rib cage of the Megaptera nivaengliae, more commonly known as the humpback whale. Think of it! Thousands of commuters, each day transformed into Jonah himself, swallowed by the leviathan of mass transitional vortex, only to emerge again, spat out onto the very sidewalk of their destinations, their faith in a mobile society restored.
(“Rib cage of the Megaptera nivaengliae”? Maybe this is where Santiago Calatrava got his idea for the Oculus PATH station at the new Ground Zero.)
The Penn Station infamously rebuilt after its demolition in 1963 was famously condemned by the Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully: “Through [the old Penn Station] we entered the city like a god. Now one scuttles in like a rat.”
A blog called Gotham City Archives (“The Home of the Home of Batman”), written anonymously so far as I can find, has a post about Kidd’s own experience of Penn Station after it was rebuilt. He is quoted:
[A]s somebody who takes Amtrak a lot, I’m always in and out of Penn Station and it’s an absolute travesty. Basically —for one of the most active travel hubs on the east coast of the United States –it’s more or less a fluorescent-lit airless basement below Madison Square Garden, and it’s just horrible. And almost as a cruel joke, when you’re down there, they have these pictures of the old Penn Station up on the grimy tiled walls –this big, glorious space. They’re hanging around on the walls practically mocking you with how beautiful it used to be, as opposed to how shitty it is now.
An old friend of mine, the humorist Steve Mields, relived painfully his own experiences after reading the Kidd quotation:
Then suddenly I went through some sort of weird postcoital depression. A flashback to all the times I’ve gone up the escalator at Penn Station, feeling claustrophobic and alienated, wanting only to escape that hideous and wretched subterranean urban septic tank.
In short, nobody likes the current Penn Station. Has anyone ever said they like it or heard anyone else say they like it? I’ll warrant not.
Still, a growing movement to rebuild Penn Station not as a whale but as it was originally designed has met stone cold silence from the powers that be in the Big Apple. Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have issued renovation proposals to goof it up some more, but don’t seem to want to acknowledge the eminently plausible plan by architect Richard Cameron to restore the terminal to the glory of New York’s heroic age. Traditional Building has covered Cameron’s plan extensively.
A local columnist for the Providence Journal, Mark Patinkin, who also surely does not like the new Penn Station, wrote a column a few weeks before the election that wondered where’s the Donald Trump of the Wollman Rink? He was referring to the skating rink in Central Park that was closed in 1980 for two years’ worth of repairs. By 1986 it was not done but was $4 million over its $9 million budget. Trump volunteered to fix it for $2.5 million by the end of the year. Mayor Koch resisted but then said go ahead. Trump did it. Since he won the election for half the money his opponent spent, maybe we will have the Wollman Trump -- for better or worse.
Can anyone guess where I’m going with this?
Someone should suggest that Trump rebuild Penn Station as designed by the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White. Am I crazy? Well, Britain’s new transport minister just suggested much the same thing for London’s Euston Station. Would anyone responsible for the Trump Tower and other cheesy modernist skyscrapers have any interest in rebuilding Penn Station? Perhaps if it were framed as symbolizing a rebuke to the establishment, he might listen. “Let’s make New York great again!” That’s the ticket. Can we please enter American cities like gods again? A whale of an idea! But I won’t be holding my breath.