Penn Station 3.0
Diller Scofidio + Renfro
New York City

At a much-anticipated forum in Manhattan today, four firms presented plans for moving New York’s Madison Square Garden away from its current location above cramped and claustrophobic Pennsylvania Station. Their proposals included schemes for a new transportation hub that could rise on the station's site.

Surprisingly, each firm chose a different location for the reimagined Garden. Diller Scofidio + Renfro placed their arena above the Farley Post Office, just west of Penn Station, while Skidmore, Owings & Merrill chose the block south of Farley. SHoP Architects would create its new Garden on the site of the Morgan postal sorting facility, a few blocks south and west of Farley, in a park that would be linked to an extension of the High Line. And, most audaciously, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture would situate the new Garden on a 16-acre platform in the Hudson River between 33rd and 37th Streets, adjacent to the Javits Convention Center.

The four plans were presented at an event conceived by the Municipal Art Society and moderated by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, who for months has been calling for the Garden to move from its current site. The exercise gives the public a sense of what a relocated Madison Square Garden could look like, just as the city is deciding the arena's future. Last week, the City Planning Commission voted to renew the Garden’s permit for just 15 years, a decision that—if ratified by the City Council and barring future extensions—will force the arena’s owners to begin planning the move Kimmelman has championed.

Though the four firms were allotted equal time, SHoP dominated the two-hour event held at the New York Times building. As principals Vishaan Chakrabarti and Chris Sharples spoke, assistants wheeled in a room-sized presentation model, unfurled a billboard-sized rendering, and handed out leaflets to the audience. None of the other firms went beyond projecting images on a screen. SHoP also went far beyond the other firms by offering budget projections and even political stratagems. (Under SHoP’s proposal, Vice President Joseph Biden, an Amtrak rider, would represent the federal government on a task force created to propel the project forward.)

During the panel discussion that followed the formal presentations, Chakrabarti, who has been working on variants of the Garden/Penn Station plan for decades, outgunned representatives of the other teams. But at one point, Charles Renfro retorted with both substantive points—he noted that he didn’t think the High Line, which he called a “place of repose,” should serve as a gateway to a new arena—and humor, mock-complaining that the other three proposals would “blow up” his West 30th Street apartment.

But it is the renderings that will make or break the various proposals. SOM gave its reimagined Penn Station a giant, contact lens-like oculus that seemed drawn from a science fiction movie. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Liz Diller proposed a new station that she described as a “large sponge-like mass aerated in every direction" to support "an open-weave of programs."

Hardy, creator of some of the finest theaters in the city, showed a large, airport-like version of Penn, with a roof garden stepping down elegantly toward the Farley building. Hardy came to the project late, after Santiago Calatrava, who had originally agreed to participate, dropped out. But even absent, Calatrava was a presence. At one point, Kimmelman called the estimated $4 billion cost of his Downtown PATH station “insane, unbelievable, and absurd.”

But again SHoP shone, giving its vast station hall a perforated concrete ceiling to let angled beams of light fall on commuters—a clear reference to the grand McKim, Mead & White Penn Station demolished 50 years ago. It is that building that still haunts every discussion of the site, and SHoP wisely evoked the past in its compelling vision of the future.