Lost in Penn Station

East, East Coast
Thursday, March 4, 2010
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Moynihan Station is meant to adress the deplorable architecture of Penn Station, but its greatest fix could be to the confusing signage. (Courtesy NYMag)

With any luck, Moynihan Station will finally get off the ground thanks to last’s months grant of $83 million in stimulus funds. Having gone through what seems like dozens of iterations, it’s unclear exactly what shape the new station will take, but we do have one piece of advice for whatever cabal of designers takes up the massive project: Don’t forget the signs. While no hardened New Yorker would admit to getting lost in Penn’s warren of tunnels and concourses, Slate‘s Julia Turner uses the underground mess as Exhibit-A of bad signage for her series running this week and next about just how important wayfinding is in our increasingly confusing world. As Turner puts it, signage is “is the most useful thing we pay no attention to.”

The Jane Jacobs in all of us will point to the low-ceilings and poor layout, the ugly stepchild of McKim, Mead & White’s glorious station, as the reason for the confusion Penn causes in visitors new and old alike. But Turner says the real problem, and potential solution, lies with the signage. While some of the signs work, the problem is the whole of the station, or lack thereof. The main issue, according to Turner, is that the busiest station in the country must serve three masters, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the MTA (both LIRR and subways). We actually chuckled when David Gibson, principal of design firm Two Twelve, pointed out in the video above, “Here we are, we’re at the intersection of three sign worlds.” Could you imagine facing the same problem at busy intersection?

The uncompromising signage at Grand Central Terminal. (Matt Chaban)

Just as signs can create a problem, they can also fix them. As Turner points out in her third installment today, signs are already helping to take the confusion and congestion out of London’s Underground—and the city in general—by directing people to stay above ground and walk, with the help of some new signs, of course. Granted Grand Central Terminal does not face the hodge podge of constraints Penn Station does, nor was it decimated by Robert Moses, but during a stroll through last night, it was clear to us how relatively easy it can be to get this right. Given how long it’s taken to get Moynihan Station off the ground, and the obstinacy of transit bureaucracies to begin with, we’d be surprised if anything gets done before the arrival of the new station. Let’s just hope they heed this warning and get it right next time.

2 Responses to “Lost in Penn Station”

  1. […] Architect’s Newspaper: Lost in Penn Station […]

  2. john says:

    Can you submit this station for download in 3d?

    thank you

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