Ticket to Tomorrow

Now Arriving at Penn Station, an Era of High-Tech Building

Between meetings with Governor Pataki and Senator Moynihan, the City Landmarks Commission, and the Federal Railroad Administration, Alex Washburn scavenges a New Jersey junkyard. The 36-year-old president of the Penn Station Redevelopment Corporation (PSRC) hops a chain-link fence and dodges guard dogs to recover shards of New York City history. The remains of the sainted old Penn Station are now buried under three decades of landfill in the Meadowlands just off Secaucus Road, dumped there by zoning opportunists in 1963. Washburn plans to locate and disinter these relics with a radar sensor and graft them in among the steel ribs and swooping glass panels of New York's proposed new Penn Station. This futuristic transportation hub could be the most technologically ambitious project to change the city skyline since the original 1911 rail palace.

Construction on the $500 million Penn Station Redevelopment Project is expected to begin in early 2000 and be completed by the end of 2003. It is designed, like its predecessor, as a shrine to technological enlightenment— giving shape to the ideals of progress, amplitude, and motion. "[The space will convey] an aspiration for the future: clarity, lightness, a sense of clearheadedness, a sense of visibility," says Washburn. "That's very much a knowledge-based aspiration that ties in to what we now do with our tools and information, with the Web. That knowledge becomes like water and air. It's open to all." The plan is to re-create the feel of the original design: vast in every direction and flooded with natural light so that the boundaries of space fade away.

In response to the PSRC proposal, politicians and journalists have been launching into one evangelistic convulsion after another. Even Mayor Giuliani, who has recently made himself the project's only conspicuous opponent (calling it extravagant) announced publicly that the station would prove "the city is back as the capital of the world." Senator Moynihan sees a movement: "It is up to a new generation to renew our cities. Penn Station is the start, and we will find when we complete this project that suddenly all will seem possible. We are at the hinge of history, and you must push." The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp called the design "proof that New York can still undertake major public works."

The acclaim may ring with bridge-to-the-21st-century hyperbole, but the new Penn Station is in fact unprecedented in this country in its application of technology to city infrastructure. Half a century ago the city fell into a kind of planning entropy, and this project is the appropriate harbinger of a new era of high-concept building. But what's even more fascinating than the project's symbolic importance is how it employs the most sophisticated architectural, engineering, and information technology available— using design and rendering software, engineering analysis programs, a flexible fiber-optic backbone, and massive new media displays.

The plans call for a vast sculpted ceiling made entirely of glass and steel stretching up and out like a gusty sail, tilting over the 1.4 million-square-foot Farley Post Office complex, located directly across from the existing Penn Station platforms. The Landmarks Commission was concerned about the shell's space-age shape, but architect David Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, explained that its structure borrows as much from ancient geometry as from sci-fi drama— it mathematically alludes to and revises the great domes of classical architecture.

What makes the shell even more compelling is that it couldn't have been built before now. Its computerized design and engineering have only recently become affordable enough for corporate— rather than military— use. For a decade, Skidmore (which is also contracted to overhaul the New York Stock Exchange, Columbus Circle, and parts of Times Square) has been using AutoCad modeling software— a system the company developed with IBM and the Department of Defense— to translate its sketches into digital 3-D wire-frame models. Only recently, however, have architects been able to render their concepts in cosmetic detail, using special-effects applications inspired by the video game industry. Programs like 3D Studio and 3D Max have become crucial to the design process, since they can demonstrate how light, texture, and finish will affect space— how it feels to be within the structure and navigating it.

As for physical models, the cutting and gluing process that used to take architects months of agony can now be completed in a matter of days. Industrial laser machines can interpret an AutoCad file and burn, onto a sheet of plastic, shapes that will form a structurally accurate model when all the seams are fused. Photo- etching technology uses a chemical etching process to similarly transfer designs onto sheet metal. The future of architectural modeling is rapid-prototype (or stereo-lithography) technology, which translates directly from a graphic to a perfect sculpture— the computer "energizes" a vat of resin and builds the material up in concentric layers. These processes make it easier for high-concept architects to translate even their most visionary designs into 3-D prototypes.

The designers and engineers of Penn Station have an architectural interpretation of the old McLuhan adage: the kind of technology that you use to study the design also influences the form. "If you are cutting something out of paper, you'll tend to make things that use planes," says Ross Wimer, the project's senior designer. Computerized design tools liberate architects from a particular material or dimensional orientation, but they do encourage geometric repetition— structures with replicated shapes and segments.

Form is especially influenced by the way architects and engineers collaborate: artistic vision can be immediately transported into— or modified by— scientific reality. Skidmore has teamed up with Ove Arup, the engineering firm that created the Sydney Opera House. Ove Arup developed GSA (General Structural Analysis), a program that can import and analyze any AutoCad file and calculate how a structure will endure gravity, wind, age, or even a seismic trauma. "Our programs can simulate that in nanoseconds," says Gregory Hodkinson, the project's lead design engineer.

Skidmore's elaborate designs for Penn Station also call for a set of programs that analyze the movement and behavior of the internal environment. Ove Arup developed a complicated heating and cooling system using a CFD program (Computational Fluid Dynamics), which launches thousands of simultaneous equations to predict the behavior of air in a certain space. The engineers examined how air in the ticketing hall will be affected by sun and traffic currents. The most advanced tool they're using, which has been especially critical to the shell design, is a program that traces rays of light based on the position of the glass panels, and can simulate the pattern and intensity of natural light in any condition.

The information-technology backbone for Penn Station has been the hardest thing for the PSRC team to decide on, because tech systems become outdated every two years at least. They've opted for a flexible fiber-optic backbone that will support a variety of applications. "The main thing is to maximize the capacity of the infrastructure, and nothing beats fiber optics at this point," says Hodkinson. "But then wireless might be the next wave."

The current Penn Station accommodates more traffic daily— 500,000 people— than New York's three airports combined. The new plans increase passenger capacity by 30 percent and double passenger circulation space in the complex. The plans also include a terminus for the new airport-access systems to Newark and Kennedy, and services such as airline ticket counters and flight information. "The ideal is for these systems to become transparent, so instead of having to stand in line, you get your bar code over your home computer, swipe it, and get on the train," says John Gerber, vice president of PSRC.

What surely won't be transparent is the new Penn Station media wall, an information and video monitor of religious proportions. Forty feet high and 240 feet long, the wall will be one of the biggest aggregations of flat-screen TV monitors in the world, offering schedules, stock tickers, a weather map, entertainment, advertising, and rotating artwork. Sound and subtitling are still in the research stages.

The station will augur a new generation of high-speed, interurban rail travel in the United States. Because tracks between Boston and Washington have so many sharp curves, Amtrak won't be able to rival Japan's bullet train and France's TGV (currently the world's fastest train at 186 mph, and soon to reach 210 mph) any time soon. But for the moment, Amtrak has developed a hybrid technology called a "tilt train" that will be able to take sharp turns at up to 155 mph without passengers' feeling the speed.

Most of these info-tech and infrastructure innovations are in the works, but before construction begins the PSRC developers have some considerable hurdles to surmount: nailing down the outstanding funds ($74 million), finalizing leases, completing all the regulatory approvals, and hiring a contractor). But nobody questions whether this civic monument will be built. The PSRC plan has become irresistible millennial propaganda.

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