The time-lapse history of Manhattan in two minutes

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This two minute time-lapse reconstructs the 400 year evolution of Lower Manhattan’s skyline. Watch as the city evolves from a small village into a glistening metropolis.
This is also a film about the history of technology. Changing methods of representing urban space influence our perception of time and the city. When New York City was founded, Dutch settlers captured their town’s appearance through 17th-century drawings and paintings. As the city grew, people started using printing presses to reproduce images of the city in the 18th- and 19th-centuries. In the 20th century, photographers started capturing their city from above through aerial photos. For the first time, New Yorkers could view the entire city in a single panoramic photo.
In tribute to this long artistic tradition, this film constructs the city as each generation of New Yorkers would have represented it: through the subsequent technologies of drawing, printing, photography, and film.
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New York City: Past and Present, 1870 and 2017

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Sound effects from Freesound
Water and cloud effects from YouTube

Demolishing Public Space at New York Penn Station

What does old Penn Station’s loss reflect about the evolution of public space in New York City?

With assistance from Evander Price, recent PhD student in American Studies and chronocriticism at Harvard University. Thanks also to Adam Brondheim for his insights about historic preservation in NYC.

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Download this essay as a PDF file

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The old waiting room, [1] once the largest indoor public space in New York City, is now a parking lot. [2]

Demolition crews began hacking away at the limestone walls, stone eagles, and thirty-foot tall Doric columns of old New York Penn Station in October 1963. In a construction industry where architects typically quote projects as lasting 18 months, the demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station lasted five years. At its 1910 opening, old Penn Station (and its associated service tunnels that stretched 5.5 miles under the Hudson and East River) was the largest and most expensive infrastructure project ever built in New York City. At 350 feet long and 150 feet high, old Penn Station’s waiting room was, at the time, the city’s largest internal space. Construction cost $100 million, or $2.7 billion in 2020, adjusted for inflation. By 1963, this was the largest and most expensive structure ever demolished in New York City.[3]
In conversation with The New York Times in 1963, the developer justified demolition as “putting passengers first,” and then clarified: “The outside is the only thing of artistic value as far as I’m concerned. The handling of 200,000 passengers is much more important to me. […] In some areas the land is just too valuable to save anything that doesn’t fully utilize it.”[4] The developer’s aspirations for Penn Station’s replacement, however misguided, were no less monumental in their imagination: to construct a profitable office skyscraper and Manhattan’s largest arena for sporting events and conventions. Corporate office workers could move directly from trains to their desks without stepping outside, or engaging with the public space of the city streets.

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1968 advertisement for the new station [5]

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“The fact is that the redevelopment of the Pennsylvania Station into a $90 million building complex will transform the area from a static uneconomic burden on the railroad into a viable commercial and recreational center of benefit to the entire West Thirty-fourth Street neighborhood and the public at large.” – Allen J. Greenough, Pennsylvania Railroad President.[6]
Architects have long positioned the demolition of monumental old Penn Station as a key moment in the discourse on historical preservation. This was, to quote leading New York City historian Kenneth Jackson, the moment when: “Human beings, myself included, have an unfortunate tendency to appreciate people and things only after they are gone. Pennsylvania Station is the catalyst for the historic preservation movement.”[7] With the dawning public awareness that a monument so seemingly expensive and permanent in Neoclassical appearance as Penn Station could one day vanish with no mechanism for the public to object, activists pressured the city government to pass New York’s first ever landmarks preservation law in 1965.[8] Some historians, like Anthony Wood, have posited that the movement toward landmarks preservation began years before Penn Station’s demolition, and that this demolition was not critical in motivating landmarks preservation.[9] Nonetheless, in the following decades, the city protected over 120,000 buildings (comprising about 14% of New York City’s built environment).[10]
Less cited and discussed is how this station’s loss parallels a larger late-twentieth-century trend toward the erosion and privatization of the commons. The following essay takes the demolition and rebuilding of old Penn Station as a lens to examine the evolving discourse on property rights, namely: the competing tensions of economics vs. aesthetics and private vs. public interests. Old Penn Station’s demolition is a good place to start unpacking these tensions, and how they reflect on New York’s built environment. The demolition and reconstruction of old Penn Station mirrors the larger abandonment of government and corporate responsibility for maintaining and upholding public space.

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Although Midtown’s largest building in this c.1911 photo, it was soon buried by neighboring skyscrapers. [11]

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Old Penn Station as Public Space in a City of Private Interests

In a city symbolic of capitalism and industry, the design of old Penn Station spoke of an alternative vision for future New York: a city of low-rise buildings and ample public space. The architects McKim, Meade, and White distained New York’s emerging skyscrapers, and they toured Europe in preparation for designing Penn Station. They looked to European models of wide boulevards framing the monumental train station façade, such as the Gare de l’Est in Paris. At the time, the average building in Midtown Manhattan was no higher than six stories, and Penn Station – at over 150 feet tall – would have been among the neighborhood’s highest and largest buildings. For inspiration, the architects copied the main waiting room from Rome’s Baths of Diocletian.[12] This reference is more than simply aesthetic: Rome’s massive baths were as much functional infrastructure in a city without widespread indoor plumbing as they were civic and social spaces for all types of people to gather and socialize. By analogy, the Pennsylvania Railroad envisioned its waiting room – which was far larger and cathedral-like than the purely functional operations of boarding a train demands – as a civic and social space, an urban stage-set for the drama of commuting. Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist turned philanthropist who launched his business career as an employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad, writes in his 1889 article The Gospel of Wealth: “Surplus wealth should be considered as a sacred trust, to be administered during the lives of its owners, by them as trustees, for the best good of the community in which and from which it had been acquired.”[13]
Old Penn Station operated as public space that belonged to the city at large. Ingrained in a visit to the museum (with a required admission fee), the public library (with set hours and borrowing rules), or the church (which demands a certain dress code and level of reverence) is the management’s expectations of how one is supposed to behave. The rules of these rarified spaces effectively narrow the social class and types of people who visit museums, libraries, and churches.[14] The big city train station has, in contrast, fewer expectations of users; it is open at all times and to all audiences and social classes with effectively no restrictions. Like the restriction-free spaces of Times Square and the public park, the monumental rooms of old Penn Station seemed to belong to everyone – one of those public and communal spaces created entirely through private initiative where anyone may assemble in the shared experience of urban life.[15]
However, there was a crucial difference between normal public space and the “public space” of old Penn Station. The station was privately owned and subject to the whims of its owner who, unlike a government official responsible to the public, was responsible only to company shareholders and employees. The public could use this station and construct it in the collective imagination as belonging to the city and the people, but the public’s use was entirely at the property owner’s discretion. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was losing rail passengers to the increasing popularity of the automobiles, highways, and airlines. The company was bleeding money on old Penn Station’s upkeep to the sum of $3.3 million a year. Although the station’s appearance and location were effectively a public service and an enhancement to civic life for the thousands of commuters, there was no profit to be made from this form of public service.[16] In other words, with no “business model” for the space to pay for its own upkeep, old Penn Station gradually slipped into decay as the walls grew black from decades of soot and deferred maintenance.

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Erosion of the Commons

By the 1960s, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s reasons for maintaining old Penn Station started shifting when they argued that they could only support the commons so long as they did lose anything financially. The now aging and indebted railroad no longer had the “surplus wealth” to think of the public interest and the “good of the community” (to borrow Carnegie’s words). In demolition proposals, the developer clarified that new Penn Station would be financially self-sufficient. Revenue generated from the new offices and arena above ground would support the upkeep of the station below ground, all the while generating surplus income to be distributed among the company’s shareholders and creditors. This is a frequent and often repeated claim among New York City developers: The creation and maintenance of public space must generate some profit. Or if no profit is to be made, the public should compensate the corporation for its gift. Hence, the lead redeveloper is quoted as saying about old Penn Station: “If anybody seriously considered it art, they would have put up some money to save it.”[17]
Old Penn Station had tall ceilings and, with no buildings above, ample natural light could illuminate the interior. When the public saw this kind of space, they read it as open and public. When the owners of Penn Station saw this space in the 1960s, they read all this “empty” space as unused air rights. (Air rights refer to the space above a parcel of land that belongs to the property owner.) City law might limit building height to, say, fifteen stories. If the developer only builds a ten story building on a site, he will have five stories of undeveloped air rights. The discourse on air rights presents undeveloped (or underdeveloped) sites as not extracting the full height allowed, and therefore reducing the income that could be generated from the most profitable land use.[18] Thus, in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s opinion, a vast and open station, although beautiful, represented undeveloped air rights and a financial loss. In 1910, the powerful railroad was wealthy enough to sacrifice million of dollars on a monument and its annual upkeep. The railroad’s objective in 1910 was less to extract the greatest profit with the least investment in New York City. However, When 1960s developers measured the value of Penn Station heritage by its precise cash value instead of its intangible cultural value, preserving heritage started to look unrealistically expensive – not just an annual loss of $3.3 million but a loss of several hundred million dollars over several decades in unrealized profits that could have been pulled “out of thin air” so to speak.[19]
By late-twentieth-century New York, the discourse on the commons had evolved. In previous decades, buildings like Rockefeller Center devoted almost half of the ground-level areas and many rooftops for public use, even though developers in 1930s New York received few tax benefits or compensation from the city for doing so. Other examples include the numerous early Manhattan skyscrapers whose ornamental appearance and decorative silhouettes enliven the urban landscape even though more ornament outside does not necessarily boost the builder’s bottom line of more rentable office space inside. However, with ever-rising land values, corporations were no longer willing by the 1950s to cede increasingly-valuable private land for public use (or even lower-density development) unless compelled to or compensated for doing so. In response, starting in 1961, New York City developed an increasingly complicated system of tax and building incentives for developers to be “civic” and invest in the commons. Examples include corporate green spaces and plazas. In exchange for setting aside a fraction of their land for public use, the developer is allowed to build higher or larger than the laws would otherwise permit. These resulting spaces are in some ways like the interior of old Penn Station, private space that effectively has the appearance of public. These private-public spaces have opening hours, and prohibit certain behavior like skateboarding, panhandling, or street music performances. Incidentally, city government approved the greatest number of these privately owned public spaces during the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, when declining budgets motivated the city’s government to relinquish maintenance of the commons to the private sector.[20] Politicians today speak of contracting the management of public services to for-profit corporations. Privatized services in many states now include water supply, electricity, highways, immigration services, the military, space exploration (through public-private partnerships) and prisons with companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded “Core Civic” in an Orwellian twist). Capitalism and the profit-driven management of the commons is still seen as somehow purifying, making government more efficient, innovative, and flexible.[21] Penn Station’s demolition is an architectural symbol of the limits of historic preservation law, in particular, and the corporate erosion of the commons, in general.
The state and property owners’ expectations of monumental buildings seem fundamentally different from their expectations of traditional monuments like statues and parks. For instance, it is an acceptable question for developers to ask: How could the spaces at Grand Central Terminal be rented more profitably? Or is this current land use financially unsustainable? Such questions could not be asked of comparable monuments that are often just as important to civic life. The land Central Park sits on is most certainly many times more expensive in unrealized air rights than the resale value of the timber that currently occupies the land, but that is beside the point because society does not measure the success or failure of the commons by the income it generates. There was a time a century ago when private investment in shaping civic spaces looked something like old Penn Station, New York City’s numerous Carnegie Libraries, or even the New York City subway system. Even something like ornate nineteenth-century bank lobbies with imposing neoclassical facades have something “civic” about them and share much in common aesthetically with libraries and museums from the time. If only this kind of benevolent attitude toward the commons could be applied today to all manner of other civic institutions: museums, streets, public markets, subways, or the rebuilt future Penn Station.

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Future Penn Station?

The demolition and replacement of Penn Station sits at an inflection point in the evolving definition of “public space.” Despite public outcry at the demolition of old Penn Station at the hands of powerful private interests, the current station is not publicly owned or managed. The semi-government entity that acquired all of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s assets after the railroad’s 1970 bankruptcy is Amtrak. At least on paper, and although it has never once turned a profit in its over fifty year existence, Amtrak is listed as a corporation with a CEO, stock, and earnings reports. Disgruntled citizens and preservationists cannot speak to or hold them accountable in the same way they can vote out elected officials. As the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Amtrak are both quasi-private “public-benefit corporations,” their executives are all unelected or political appointees; this creates several degrees of separation between those who manage public space and those who use it. What this means for the public is that the spaces the public might see as being public and shared by all – in this case our national rail network and places like the current Penn Station – are effectively private.[22]

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Proposal for rebuilding Penn Station across the street as the Moynihan Train Hall [23]

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There seems to be an innate discomfort among city leaders with the idea of investing in the commons without the intention to make some kind of measurable return on investment. New Penn Station’s current owners collect rent from this station’s commercial tenants, the arena at Madison Square Garden, and companies in the office tower above. However unattractive new Penn Station may be, it is at least profitable, which is exactly as the builders who demolished old Penn Station intended.[24] Following this trend, the half-dozen (and counting) proposals over the years to rebuild Penn Station always included a major element of retail shopping and offices. The rebuilt Moynihan Station next door to Penn Station effectively devotes more room to the operations of shopping concourse than rail travel.[25]
However, what made the old Penn Station so aesthetically pleasing was precisely how the design did not consider retail profit. In the interest of aesthetic effect and having impressively large interior spaces, old Penn Station’s retail was segregated to a half-dozen shallow storefronts in the shopping arcade. The architecture was front and center. Rebuilding new Penn Station would require more than money. More importantly, rebuilding would require rethinking the long-held American assumption that extracting profit is compatible with the commons.

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Train concourse before and after, from the same camera angle

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Main entrance to waiting room before and after

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 Perhaps, beneath this asphalt parking lot, fragments of the original waiting room floor remain.

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References

[1] Photo credit: Cervin Robinson and Edward Popko (for the Historic American Buildings Survey). Pennsylvania Station, New York County, NY. Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, www.loc.gov/item/ny0411/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[2] Photo credit: Myles Zhang. “Excavating Old New York Penn Station.” Myles Zhang, July 9, 2020, https://www.myleszhang.org/2020/07/09/penn-station/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[3] Kenneth Jackson, Lisa Keller, et al. “Penn Station.” In The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition. New Haven. Yale University Press. 2010. Pp. 987-88.

[4] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[5] Tom Fletcher. “Penn Station.” New York Architecture, http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON004.htm. Accessed 26 July 2020.

[6] Allen J. Greenough. “Redeveloping Penn Station.” The New York Times (letter). August 23, 1962.

[7] Hilary Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. New York. W. W. Norton & Company. 2002.

[8] George Siedel. “Landmarks Preservation after Penn Central.” Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal. Vol. 17, no. 2. 1982. Pp. 340-356.

[9] Anthony Wood. “Chapter One: The Myth of Penn Station.” In Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks. New York. Routledge. 2008.

[10] Myles Zhang. “A History of Historic Preservation in New York City.” Myles Zhang, November 4, 2018, https://www.myleszhang.org/2018/11/04/historic-preservation-and-new-york-city/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[11] Photo credit: Detroit Publishing Company. “Bird’s-eye view, Penn Station, New York City.” Retrieved from the Library of Congress: Digital Collections, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016812231/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[12] Ballon. “The Interior Procession.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 60-73.

[13] Andrew Carnegie. “The Gospel of Wealth.” New York. Carnegie Corporation of New York. 2017. (Originally published in the North American Review in 1889.)

[14] Nikolaus Pevsner. “Railway stations.” In A History of Buildings Types. Princeton University Press. 1976. Pp. 225-34.

[15] Carroll Meeks. The Railroad Station. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1964.

[16] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 93-101.

[17] Martin Tolchin. “Demolition Starts At Penn Station; Architects Picket.” The New York Times. October 29, 1963. Pp 1.

[18] Philip Weinberg. “Critical Areas: Landmarks, Wetlands, Coastline, Flood Plains, and Takings.” In Environmental Law: Cases and Materials Revised 3rd Edition. Lanham, Maryland. University Press of America. 2006. Pp. 98-108.

[19] Ballon. New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 95-96.

[20] “New York City’s Privately Owned Public Spaces.” NYC: Department of City Planning, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/plans/pops/pops.page. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[21] Brett Heinz. “The Politics of Privatization: How Neoliberalism Took Over US Politics.” United for Fair Economy, September 8, 2017, http://www.faireconomy.org/the_politics_of_privatization. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[22] Fawn Johnson, Rachel Roubein, and National Journal. “Amtrak Has a Trust Problem in Congress: Democrats want to give the rail service more money, and Republicans are demanding more accountability.” The Atlantic, May 13, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/amtrak-has-a-trust-problem-in-congress/456042/. Accessed July 26, 2020.

[23] Photo credit: Dana Schulz. “Cuomo releases new renderings of Moynihan Station as major construction gets underway.” 6sqft, August 17, 2017, https://www.6sqft.com/cuomo-releases-new-renderings-of-moynihan-station-as-major-construction-gets-underway/. Accessed August 6, 2020.

[24] Ballon. “The New Pennsylvania Station.” In New York’s Pennsylvania Stations. Pp. 153-175.

[25] Justin Davidson. “Every Plan to Fix Penn Station Ranked.” New York Magazine: Intelligencer, January 30, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/01/every-plan-to-fix-penn-station-ranked.html. Accessed July 26, 2020.

 

Excavating Old New York Penn Station

Also published by Viewing NYC in May 2019

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“Through Penn Station one entered the city like a god. Perhaps it was really too much. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
– Vincent Scully

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View of Penn Station from roof of Macy’s department store c.1910

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“Human beings, myself included, have an unfortunate tendency to appreciate people and things only after they are gone. Pennsylvania Station is the catalyst for the historic preservation movement.”
– Kenneth Jackson

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The accompanying audio is accurate to what the place sounds like from the locations shown. The audio for old Penn Station is my imaginative reconstruction of how the original station might have sounded like, based on recordings from MoMA. My project was also inspired by this 2015 New York Times article about the subtle influence of sound on how we experience urban space: “Penn Station’s low ceilings suppress sound, which becomes hard to make out, an audible metaphor for its rat’s maze of architecture.”

 

“You feel that your life is being lost in a room where sound dies. We need reverberation.”
– architect Renzo Piano on the design of the current Penn Station

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When New York Penn Station opened in 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad boasted in advertisements that their vast new station was built of travertine marble from the same ancient Italian quarries as the Coliseum and Pantheon. Old Penn Station was rich in the architectural language of Greece and Rome. The façade comprised a colonnade of massive, Doric columns that stretched almost 450-feet end-to-end; it was inspired from temples on the Greek Acropolis. The main waiting room, at 314-feet-long, 109-feet-wide, and 150-feet-high, was modeled on Rome’s Baths of Diocletian. The project was as much an aesthetic gesture to the emerging City Beautiful Movement as it was a political statement: The Pennsylvania Railroad was here to stay, as permanent as the Penn Station it built.
The finished station, however, was an architectural contradiction. The Neoclassical exterior concealed what was, belowground, an extensive and, at-the-time, hyper-modern system of tunnels, electric trains, and communication systems that conveyed millions of people, baggage, and mail from street-level to each of 21 platforms. Aside from the solid stone columns of the main façade, most of the interior was of thin limestone, marble, and plaster sheets mounted on a metal structural frame. The seeming permanence of the stone walls was a cover for the steel frame and modern technology within on which this Neoclassical stage-set rested.

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Just over fifty years later, on October 28, 1963, demolition began. The Pennsylvania Railroad, burdened with debt and aging infrastructure, was selling off its most profitable real estate assets – its land, buildings, and equipment – to stay afloat until it declared bankruptcy by 1970. Through the same two Hudson River tunnels that building materials for the original Penn Station were delivered, some of the same rubble now passed. Much of this rubble was carted off and dumped in the New Jersey Meadowlands adjacent the tracks where commuter trains still pass. The Pennsylvania Railroad used, quite literally, the station’s technology to cannibalize itself, and as the foundations for the new, and current, Penn Station.
Searching for remnants of old Penn Station, I found historic photos from the New York Public Library, Historic American Buildings Survey, and Library of Congress. I returned to the same locations in fall 2019 to re-photograph these images from the identical camera angles. The resulting and visible ghost of the lost Penn Station presents a strong-clear vision of what Penn Station used to be, and by extension, what it could return to, given financial commitment and political will.

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Train concourse: past and present from the same location

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The current subterranean warrens represent a clean break from what was here before. As long as Madison Square Garden chokes Penn Station for air and light from above, the current lightless and oppressive Penn Station is here to stay. The current station’s cheap ceilings of corrugated metal, garish electric signage, and exposed concrete floors ironically proved more durable than the Roman marble and limestone of old. The current station is not so fleeting and has, in fact, existed longer on this site than the station before it.
Surprising still is how, for many New Yorkers, it seems inconceivable that the permanent and imposing appearance of the original station could, one day, simply vanish without a trace. This old station is more dream than reality, and it seems almost impossible to imagine the current arrangement as having anything to do with what came before. So little of the original station – and the pride in civic life and New York City this station stood for – remains visible. Interestingly, more of the original architectural fabric survives belowground than meets the eye aboveground.

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View from corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue in 1962 and 2019. The structure is unrecognizable aboveground.

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32nd Street entrance to waiting room in 1962 and 2019
The southeast corner of the still-standing General Post Office is in both frames, in the far left hand distance.

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In the five years that demolition and rebuilding lasted (from 1963 to 1968), Penn Station remained in active service. While builders demolished the old station above, commuters continued to pass by on the platforms and corridors below. For this brief moment, the two buildings lived side-by-side, until the present building swallowed almost all visible traces of the past. In spite of this loss, the confusing floor plan of the current Penn Station has much to do with remaining traces of the original. Column for column and void for void, the current Penn Station is built within the fabric of the original. The old Penn Station, completed 1910, had 21 tracks on 11 platforms. The new Penn Station has 21 tracks on 11 platforms. In the demolition process, not one track or platform moved. In the five-year re-construction process, none of the tracks and platforms were moved, and most of the stairs between concourse and track-level survived. This similarity enables us to situate parts of the old structure in relation to the new.

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Frame of new Penn Station rises simultaneous to the demolition of the old c.1963-68
Passengers in train concourse as new structural frame divides them from the soon-to-be-demolished glass canopy of the old station.

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Train concourse before and after insertion of the new structural frame, from the same camera angle

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The above cross-section of old Penn Station’s waiting room shows the extent of change. The orange line indicates the elevation at ground-level to which the architectural fabric of the old building was demolished. Above this line, nothing of Penn Station survives. Below this line, most of the original structure, tracks, infrastructure, stairwells, and the general contours of the original rooms survive, except now hidden.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, its architectural monuments to empire and power fell into disuse; many were repurposed for more humble and practical purposes. The Coliseum became a stone quarry, the Roman Senate House a humble church, and the Theatre of Marcellus a medieval fortress. New purposes were developed in the shells of old monuments. When a building is reused and altered but still bears visible traces of its earlier form, architectural historians call this creation a palimpsest. A palimpsest is neither of the present nor of the past; it is a mixture of both. For instance, the two square fountains of the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan mirror the locations of the now-vanished Twin Towers. For a relatively modern and young city in world terms, Penn Station is New York City’s largest palimpsest.

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Shopping arcade in 1911 and 2019

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View from 7th Avenue shopping arcade into the waiting room in 1911 and 2019

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“Cutaway illustrating the principle of adaptive reuse.” Drawing by architectural children’s book illustrator, David Macaulay, proposes to discard the “non- functional” spaces of the medieval cathedral by erecting a Styrofoam drop ceiling just above the floor. Everything above – light, soundscape, and ornament is “superfluous” to the cathedral’s function.

The oppressively low ceilings of the current station are the structural division between the public areas belowground and the now private (formerly public) areas aboveground. These ceilings also align to the border between the infrastructure of the original station that survives and the architectural fabric that was lost.
The Pennsylvania Railroad made the decision that made the most economic sense: to keep the infrastructure beneath and merely decapitate the “non-functional” aesthetics of the soaring ceilings and open spaces aboveground. This was valuable land that could be put to more profitable use. Into these empty “air rights,” the corporation could insert Penn Station’s new functions of Madison Square Garden and office towers that would, at last, generate additional income. While exploring the station, I discovered this palimpsest valued the practical and made absolute economic sense: Who needs to enter the city on the scale of a titanic-sized god when humans require spaces no higher than 8-feet-high to pass through?

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A cathedral with a drop ceiling

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The shopping arcade in 1911 and 2019
Statue of Samuel Rea is in the shadows.

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President Samuel Rea

The nuances of this palimpsest become clearer from inside. Passengers entering the old station proceeded down a long shopping arcade to the waiting room and platforms. What was once public space is now the private lobby of the commercial offices aboveground. On the right hand side, in the shadows of the private lobby, stands a statue of Samuel Rea, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. A century ago, Rea stood at the entrance and welcomed passengers and the public; he now stands and watches the corporate clients and office workers. In old Penn Station, an inscription beneath announced his name and title. In the current location, Rea is out of place and has no relationship with his surroundings; the once prominent inscription is almost invisible on the new tablet behind him.

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Statue of Samuel Rea is in the left hand niche.
Almost stone for stone, the location of the current waiting room escalator mirrors the location of the original.

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Main entrance to waiting room: The left hand niche contains the statue of Alexander Cassatt, Pennsylvania Railroad president during construction.

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The waiting room, once the largest indoor public space in New York City, is now a parking lot.

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From the street-level arcade, passengers descended into the cavernous waiting room, sunken a few feet belowground. While the room itself is gone, the contours of this room survive in the general footprint of the slightly sunken parking lot that now occupies the site. What was once public space is now private and patrolled by Madison Square Garden security guards who forbade me from standing at this location with my camera.

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Perhaps, beneath this asphalt parking lot, fragments of the original waiting room floor remain.

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Train Concourse

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Train concourse, past and present.
White cutouts on the drop ceiling mirror the former locations of the demolished skylights hundreds of feet above.

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This part of the train concourse is now the VIP entrance for spectators at Madison Square Garden.

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The design problems with the current Penn Station are similar to those of old Penn Station: too few tracks, too many passengers, confusing circulation, and outdated infrastructure. After all, it is not the engineering and infrastructure that set these two buildings apart, as brick-for-brick and beam-for-beam, the 1960s rebuilding did not generally alter the areas belowground. This early-twentieth-century infrastructure was, after all, designed to handle no more than 200,000 passengers-per-day, and yet now struggles under the burden of 650,000-per-day. Instead, it is the envelope around this infrastructure that was rebuilt in the 1960s, and whose loss the public and historians now mourn.

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At track-level, the railroad ties, location of the third rail, and support columns are largely original to 1910. The columns in the foreground were added in the 1960s to support the weight of Madison Square Garden. The columns in the distance are original to 1910. The 1960s modernist buildings above conceal below what is, in essence, mostly early-twentieth-century infrastructure.

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View from Track Six

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Generations of New Yorkers hoped Penn Station would one day be restored with an architectural monument befitting New York City and the Western hemisphere’s busiest train station. In addition to rebuilding the General Post Office next door, other proposals over the years have called for rebuilding Penn Station exactly as it appeared before, or imagining a futuristic Penn Station emerging from the structural shell of the current Madison Square Garden, aptly entitled “Penn Station Palimpsest.” Precedent exists for both proposals. Some post World War II cities rebuilt their monuments and bombed out city centers exactly as they appeared before (such as Dresden and Warsaw), while others incorporated the rubble of the lost buildings into a modern building (such as Coventry Cathedral in England and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin). What we miss about old Penn Station was not the infrastructure, operations, or even the building itself, but rather the way this architecture made us feel dignified, and which we feel no longer.

Sticky problems with mapping historical New York City

Author’s time-lapse of Lower Manhattan’s street network development from 1609-2020

With help from digital and spatial mapping software, urban historians and geographers are examining city growth over time. Time-lapse evolutions are proliferating online of street network development in cities like New York City, Barcelona, London, and Berlin.
In most time-lapse studies, geographers encounter problems with lack of data. The older the city, the less data there exists about pre-modern population densities, demographics, and street networks. This lack of data is a problem when mapping the geographies of older cities.
A way around this problem is to look at street network development as a proxy for population size. The more streets there are built, the more people this city should have, the logic follows. In theory, this seems to work because cities with larger populations require more streets and occupy more built-up area. Knowing how much surface area a city occupies, coupled with knowing the average size and number of occupants in a typical block or building, allows a simple calculation of total population (people/acre x surface area). In addition, more historical data exists about street networks (from maps) than exists about population and demographics (from the census).
The problem with this method of using streets as a proxy for demographics is that cities that occupy more surface area and with more streets do not necessarily have more people. There are several reasons for this:
  • Available land: Some cities are built in harder geographies where acquisition of new land for development is prohibitively difficult to acquire, such as Venice. Manhattan’s high density and land values descend, of course, from a demand for housing that far exceeds supply on an island bordered by water.
    For instance, Oklahoma City covers 621 square miles with a 2018 population of only 650,000. New York City covers 302.6 square miles (half the area of Oklahoma City) and has a 2018 population of 8.4 million (thirteen times the population of Oklahoma City). Despite the major differences between these two cities – in population and surface area – the sum total of all streets if they were lined up end to end to form a continuous road is about the same for both cities. Similarly, the Manhattan grid is identical with the same street widths and block sizes from end to end of the island, even though population density in buildings within this grid varies from zero people per acre to over 200 per acre. Flexible street networks support any variety of housing types and densities, which means that street maps alone cannot reveal all the demographic nuances.
  • Zoning: Some municipalities are stricter than others in enforcing discrete and different land uses for residential, commercial, industrial, and mixed-use. The legal landscape of Manhattan has evolved significantly since the first zoning laws in 1916 restricted building height and density. Since then, city government has more clearly articulated rules about minimum apartment size, ventilation, fire escapes, and water supply. City government has also pulled industrial (and often more polluting) land uses away from residential areas in the name of health and safety.
    Although few of these legal and zoning changes are explicitly imprinted on the street network, they have a tangible and important impact on the quality of urban life. This zoning has largely resulted in lower population density because of restrictions on landlords cramming hundreds of people into the smallest space possible for the maximum profit. Now, over 40% of all buildings on Manhattan could not be built today for violating NYC’s zoning code for at least one reason. For instance, most buildings in neighborhoods like West Village and Lower East Side have not changed in a century; there is limited demolition and reconstruction every year. However, population density has significantly fallen as apartments grow larger and rooms formerly designed for multiple people in one room now only have one or two occupants. Even if the buildings and streets don’t change, the ways they are occupied can and do. In other words, changing in zoning and land use are not necessarily visibly imprinted on the plan of streets, particularly if those streets are rigid grids.
  • Transportation patterns: This is the biggest factor encouraging extensive and rapid street network development with low population density – i.e. sprawl. Before the nineteenth-century inventions of railways and streetcars, and the twentieth-century’s auto-based suburbanization, transportation and commuting were prohibitively difficult. People needed to live near to where they worked in what was largely a pedestrian and walking city on unpaved streets. Transportation challenges caused urban growth to be dense and built-up near to places of employment. As a result, many cities like Paris and London might appear small on old maps and occupy only a few square miles pre-1800, even though their population and economic importance were far larger than their surface area on maps leads one to assume. Again, less developed street networks and a smaller surface area of urban development does not neccessarily mean the corresponding city is less culturally or economically important.
Before the introduction of subways in the early twentieth century, the difficulties of commuting greater distances over land and water drove a denser form of urbanism than today. Manhattan, by 1900, had over 2.3 million residents in comparison to only 1.6 million in 2020. These people were crowded into dense blocks with upward of half a million people per square mile. Over the following century, although Manhattan’s population declined by 700,000 people, the street network today is almost identical to a century ago – no smaller and no larger despite major shifts. These shifts in density and demographics simply do not show up on conventional street maps.
My animation below shows the evolution of Manhattan’s built-up area and population density from 1800 to 2010. Notice the steady upward march of street development versus the sudden spike in population density on the Lower East Side in 1910 at over 300,000 people per square mile (in contrast to less than 90,000 in 2010). For every decade after the construction of subways, there has been more urban sprawl, and the island’s population density has fallen. Notice how fluctuations in population density operate semi-independently of street-network development.

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Modified from Shlomo Angel and Patrick Lamson-Hall’s NYU Stern Urbanization Project,
here and here.

The animation on the left tells one story of continuous and north-moving development, while the animation on right tells a more nuanced story of population density. The challenge is to find a graphic representation that tells both stories, as neither visualizes all the nuances of urban history.

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Possible Solutions

Discussing this problem of street networks with professor Kenneth Jackson, he suggested looking at building Floor Area Ratio (abbreviated FAR), which is the building height and size relative to the amount of land the building occupies. A skyscraper has high FAR. A trailer park has low FAR.
This method of representing urban growth would, in theory, produce three sets of maps: 1) a map of street network development; 2) a density map of people living per square mile; 3) a map of building height and size. This would complicate things but produce a far more accurate representation of urban growth (how to represent this and if enough data exists is another matter).
These three factors – streets, FAR, and population density – act semi-independently of each other. Different urban typologies will share a different mixture of these three factors. Only through analysis of the relationship between these three factors can one begin to understand the underlying demographic, economic, zoning, and historical differences between neighborhoods. For instance:
  • Downtown commercial district like Lower Manhattan: low population density but high FAR. In this case, FAR operates in inverse proportion to residential population density. Buildings can be dozens of stories but have no residents. There is a high density of tall buildings (i.e. high FAR) but low population density.
  • Slum like South Bronx in the 1980s: extensive (though poorly-maintained) street network development, high density, but low FAR because slum dwellings are typically informal without the construction quality required to build high. Buildings might be fewer than six stories and without elevators, as in the Lower East Side, but can contain hundreds or thousands of residents over the tenement’s lifespan. There is low density of tall buildings (i.e. low FAR) but high population density.
  • Suburb like Forest Hills, Queens: extensive (and well-maintained) street network development, low density, and low FAR. In wealthier suburbs, in particular, FAR is kept prohibitively low. Restrictions on minimum lot size required to build, minimum house size, and legal hurdles on subdividing larger lots into smaller ones all serve to enforce a certain quality and price of residential construction that often prices-out lower-income communities of color. There is low density development with numerous green spaces between free-standing homes (i.e. low FAR) and low population density.

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Left: NYC population by day in 2015. Right: NYC population by night in 2015. The population doubles by day.

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The two density maps above are one illustration of FAR and help nuance Manhattan’s historical development. Areas with the highest FAR tend to be commercial areas with daytime office workers and commuters. The left map shows the daytime population density of the over two million commuters. The areas with highest worker density neatly map onto the same areas of Lower Manhattan and Midtown with skyscraper clusters (i.e. high FAR). The right map shows nighttime population density of residential areas, which also neatly map onto areas with generally lower building height and density (i.e. low FAR). Notice the gray-colored zones in Lower Manhattan and Midtown with an almost zero nighttime population density, which are incidentally the areas with the highest daytime population density and the tallest buildings.
In twenty-first-century New York City, it is quite easy to examine the relationship between these three factors – street network, population density, and FAR – as the datasets are readily available from NYC Open Data. Yet, this all becomes more difficult – perhaps prohibitively difficult – for historical mapping. Calculating FAR for historical Manhattan is certainly possible through scrutinizing digitized historical Sanborn fire insurance maps that go so far as to specify building footprint, materials, and height. However, at the moment, this data is not easily accessible. Historical building footprints and FAR must be calculated through manually scanning, tracing, and inputting data from the New York Public Library’s collection. This must be done for thousands (even millions of buildings) over hundreds of years.
As technology improves, it may be possible in a few decades to translate historical maps into data files that reveal FAR. If historical maps could be scanned and immediately transformed from image files to geospatial data files, the possibilities of using historical maps to inform contemporary research are endless. If and when there is the data on historical FAR, it may be possible to create a new paradigm for studying urban history.

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New York City Population Density in 1900

Author’s illustration based on population per municipal ward from 1900 Federal census

All New York City in one drawing

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The scan above is suitable for viewing but not for large-format printing. Please request access to the full-size scan at ~400dpi

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This ink on paper drawing represents 800 hours of work over several months. The dimensions are 45 inches high by 79 inches wide (114 cm by 201 cm).
This panorama shows NYC looking northwest from above Governor’s Island and Red Hook. The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Staten Island are outside the frame. The view is accurate as of summer 2017 and does not include buildings built after this time.
View on Google Earth where this image is taken from.
The image features between eight and ten thousand buildings. For the largest and most important buildings, more attention is paid to detail. All of Manhattan’s bridges and major parks are included. Any buildings excluded were done so because they were either too small, too distant to include, or not visible from the angle this image is taken.

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Riding Professor Kenneth Jackson’s all night bike tour through Gotham’s history inspired this image. Traced in orange below is the route of Jackson’s bike tour: starting at Columbia University’s Low Library, through Central Park, across Midtown to Washington Park, along the Hudson River to Wall Street, and then across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Drawing with route of Kenneth Jackson’s bike tour

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What gave me the idea for this project?
My goal in ten years is to research and teach about art history and urban studies. Unfortunately, aspiring professors usually do not get to choose the city where they work. Because I might not have the privilege of working near New York City, I wanted to draw a keepsake of all my youthful memories and experiences here. I have a photographic memory walking through the city. So I have memories that relate to all the buildings shown. I plan to frame this on the wall above my desk.

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What was the most difficult part?
Because the image is ink on paper, there is no way to erase a mistake. At the later stages, any slip of the pen might have destroyed several months of work.
I am delighted with the result, but the process was tedious and required drawing thousands of windows. I never counted how many. I could only work a few hours per day before becoming exhausted. I will probably never attempt a drawing like this again because it is so time-consuming, and I am unlikely to ever find myself trapped again at home for such a long period of time. Fortunately.

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Has the current pandemic changed how I think about NYC?
The pandemic is forcing me to appreciate NYC from a distance. Even if I am afraid to ride public transit, this drawing – and the experiences it represents – will always be a part of me.
I can see this pandemic slowing down some gentrification and keeping the built environment similar to my drawing for a good few more years. I am just afraid that, with so many businesses closing, the city might emerge from this pandemic unfamiliar to how I remember it in this drawing.

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Annotated Map

Click red label to view detail area in detail.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral Dome: A Synthesis of Engineering and Art

Developed with James Campbell, architectural historian at Cambridge University
Inspired by taking George Deodatis’ lectures on The Art of Structural Design
at Columbia University’s Department of Civil Engineering

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In 1872, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the French author and architect celebrated for restoring Notre-Dame of Paris, wrote in his Lectures on Architecture that the form of the Gothic cathedral was the synthesis of the early Christian basilica and the Romanesque three-aisled church. In this analysis, Viollet-le-Duc reasoned that a thesis (Early Christian) plus an antithesis (Romanesque) produced the synthesis (Gothic).

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Animation from Stephen Murray

Although the history and origins of Gothic are likely more complex than Viollet-le-Duc’s formula, this formula provides a method to dissect the Renaissance and Enlightenment counterpart to the medieval cathedral: the Greco-Roman basilica, as embodied by St. Paul’s Cathedral, constructed from 1675 to 1711 by Christopher Wren (1632-1723). St Paul’s is a symbol of Enlightenment-era London, built to rival its medieval counterpart of Westminster Abbey.
In this essay, and in my analysis of this neoclassical cathedral, I will parallel Viollet-le-Duc’s analysis of the medieval church. The thesis is that St. Paul’s is a work of techno-scientific engineering. The antithesis is that this building is a work of art that speaks to the larger cultural moment of Enlightenment London. The synthesis is the dome of St. Paul’s that merges these two forces of engineering and art into a unified and impressive creation.

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Thesis: ENGINEERING
The engineering of this dome is more complex than meets the eye.

In this animated construction sequence, view how the dome was engineered.

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Music from the organ (William Tell’s Overture) and bells of St Paul’s (recorded 2013)

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St. Paul’s Cathedral features an innovative triple dome structure. On the circular drum, the inner dome rises and is visible from the cathedral interior. Above this inner dome, a brick cone rises to support the 850 ton lantern. This brick cone also supports the wood rafters and frame of the outer dome, which is covered in wood and lead. This three dome system allows the cathedral to support such a heavy lantern, all the while maintaining the great height needed to be a visible London landmark.
  • Inner dome – visible from inside and purely for show; height 225 ft (69m)
  • Middle brick cone – a brick cone that is invisible from below but supports the 850 ton lantern above; height 278 ft (85m)
  • Outer dome – a wood and lead-roofed structure visible from the cathedral exterior; height 278 ft (85m)
  • Lantern – an 850 ton stone lantern and cross, whose weight is carried to the ground via the middle brick cone 365ft (111m)
The inner and outer domes are decorative, while the brick cone is the true weight-bearing support. The model below is created from measured plans and is accurate to reality.

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Virtual Reality Model
(click to play)

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The cathedral in the city: Rhinebeck Panorama of London dated 1806-07

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Antithesis: ART
The cathedral’s location and design reflects its cultural-historical moment of the Enlightenment.

The 1666 Fire of London turned the thirteenth-century medieval cathedral of old St. Paul’s into a charred ruin. As masons demolished the ancient ruins, the opportunity arose to erect a new cathedral designed around new cultural reference points: neoclassical instead of medieval, Protestant instead of Catholic, and with steel and brick instead of stone alone. St. Paul’s reveals what was, for the time, novel ways of thinking about space.
There are three main ways this cathedral architecture reflected its time period.
Firstly, this cathedral embodied an emerging understanding of artist and architectural space.  The burned medieval cathedral was built over centuries by numerous masons in collaboration, whose names are largely forgotten. New St. Paul’s was built in one uninterrupted sweep by a single architect, whose name and biography are known in detail. It was only during the Renaissance and Enlightenment that society began to think of art and architecture as the product of an individual artist’s personality and ambitions. The engineer, artist, and architect were elevated above nameless masons. Historians can describe the relationship between artist and artwork with a degree of detail impossible to attribute to the architects of older, medieval cathedrals. It is to this period in the history of science and philosophy that historians also attribute the cult of personality surrounding individual artistic genius. Also central to the Enlightenment period was the organization and standardization of all human knowledge into encyclopedias and libraries, much in the way that St. Paul’s was centrally planned, designed, and coordinated with more precision than survived from the sporadic organization of medieval cathedrals and monastic libraries.

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Comparative cross sections of old (left) and new (right) St. Paul’s (link)

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The irony is that for a building that appeared modern to eighteenth-century eyes, the construction methods with scaffolding and wooden winches to lift heavy stones were mostly unchanged from centuries before. The wooden rafters inside the cathedral roof are from trees planted hundreds of years before during the High Middle Ages. Most telling of all, the vaults of the nave and choir are supported by medieval-style flying buttresses. But fearing that flying buttress – an engineering technique deeply associated medieval architecture – would be inappropriate to a classical basilica, Wren hid these buttresses behind a screen wall. Modern or medieval? The building methods and religious traditions largely descended from late medieval thought, even if the building exterior evoked very different and seemingly opposed classical traditions.
Secondly, this cathedral reflected Britain’s growing interest in European and world affairs. Merchant ships sailing up the River Thames would first see the domes of Wren’s Greenwich Hospital for the wounded and retired sailors in the British navy; around the next bend in the river, the dome of St. Paul’s came into view. With Britain competing with France for colonial power, Wren visited Les Invalides, the Paris hospital for retired sailors in the French navy. Through carefully studying Les Invalides and reviewing prints of French architecture, Wren copied and improved on classical traditions when redesigning London after the fire. St. Paul’s is also markedly similar to Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century dome at the Vatican. St. Paul’s was supposed to be a cathedral, but its dome became an act of one-upsmanship against similar and existing domes in Paris and Rome.

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The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral
(painted by Canaletto c.1747-48)

London from Greenwich Park
(painted by Turner in 1809)

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Lastly, this religious architecture ironically symbolized the growing power of secular thought and finance over national governance. As capital of England, London’s architectural focal points are split geographically between Westminster to the west and central London to the east. Power in Westminster is, in turn, divided between three main architectural points of interest: Westminster Abbey (symbolizing God), Buckingham Palace (symbolizing the king), and the Houses of Parliament (whose House of Commons symbolizes the country). This maps onto the neat triad of “God, King, and Country” or the three estates of “clergy, nobility, and commoners.”
However, the location of St. Paul’s, in the center of London’s financial district and near the commercial hub of the Royal Exchange, competed with Westminster Abbey in size and height. It were as if the commercial interests of bourgeois merchants and industrialists working in central London were competing with and questioning the traditional balance of power between the king, clergy, and nobility that had excluded the merchant middle classes from power. It was as if this cathedral’s architecture asserted the growing importance of London’s businesses and financial district for the governance of a country. Fittingly, as if proof of their success, zoning laws and building height restrictions in much of London are still designed for miles around so as to preserve the visibility of St. Paul’s. Wren was no opponent to the monarchy, and the construction of St. Paul’s, in fact, benefited from royal support. Nonetheless, the architecture still speaks to the distinctly eighteenth-century tension between ancient traditions and modern technologies.

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Protected vistas radiating out from Westminster and St. Paul’s. The cathedral architecture becomes, in equal parts, the symbolic, physical, and cartographic center of urban life, as if the red lines on these maps were arrows directing our gaze to the center of power.

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Construction was funded through a tax on the coal London residents and businesses consumed. In later years, coal became a polarizing symbol of both the dirty, soot-covered injustices of urban poverty and the techno-scientific progress fueling Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Fittingly, the same dark ingredient that powered Britain’s industrial looms and colonial power also funded construction of the cathedral that came to symbolize London and the empire. St. Paul’s is a church, but its neoclassical design and secular location allow it to become much more than just a church.

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Synthesis: ENGINEERING AND ART
This dome is a synthesis of art and engineering.

In addition to St. Paul’s political and cultural symbolism, this dome also synthesized the most recent advances in building (industrially manufactured brick) with simultaneous techno-scientific discoveries. This cathedral embodied the core beliefs of European Enlightenment thought: the application of science to advance society and the synthesis of Greco-Roman aesthetic traditions with modern technologies.

Parabolic behavior of an unweighted chain

In the years St. Paul’s was under construction, Wren corresponded with his polymath, scientist, and mathematician friend Robert Hooke (1635-1703). From Hooke’s empirical experiments with springs, strings, and weights (see Hooke’s Law), he confirmed that an unweighted chain suspended between two points would form a parabolic curve. Furthermore, the quadratic formula Y = X2 mathematically expressed and modeled the chain’s behavior. Math and reality were, in one formula, linked.
There is effectively no limit to how much weight a chain can hold in tension. A suspension bridge roadway weighs hundreds of thousands of tons, but the steel cables suspending it are usually no thicker than a few centimeters. However, these cables will collapse under the slightest amount of compression.
In contrast to a chain that is strong under tension but weak under compression, stone is the opposite: strong under compression but weak under tension. Imagine the incredible compressive forces of the earth’s crust that compress ancient sand and fossils into solid limestone. When masons quarried this stone into blocks, they were challenged to design cathedrals that minimized any tension on stone. Tension in the horizontal span of the cathedral vault, for instance, caused structural collapse. In response, masons devised flying buttresses and complex structural interventions to prevent stone from cracking under tension.
The genius of Enlightenment architects like Wren stems from their ability to deduce: If a suspended chain formed a parabolic curve in pure tension as modeled by Y = X2, then the converse statement must also be true: A stone arch modeled on a parabolic curve would act in pure compression, as modeled by the reverse equation -Y = X2. Thus, by mathematical logic, the downward and tensile force of chains mirrored the upward and compressive forces of stone. Spanish architect Antoni Guadí (1852-1926) observed similar phenomena when designing his final project, the Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (begun 1883). Without the benefit of computer models, Guadí suspended weighted strings from the ceiling and then viewed these creations in a mirror, so as to deduce the optimal geometric form for his cathedral vaults.

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One of Gaudí’s string structures

The same structure upside down
models the form of the ideal dome

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Knowing this, Wren constructed the dome as a brick cone similar in shape to a parabolic arch. Around the base of the dome, where the buckling forces of tension were greatest, Wren inserted bands of steel chain the circumference of the dome. Medieval masons intuited this, too, when they designed pointed arches whose shape was somewhat closer to a parabola than was the traditional and older Roman arch. However, while medieval masons at places like Amiens Cathedral relied on trial and error with few benefits of scientific thought, Wren relied on science and math to deduce the ideal form. Thus, the brick middle dome is only nine inches thick, but it supports a lantern above that weighs 850 tons.
Wren was more than a mathematician. He also had a keen aesthetic eye from close study of French and classical architecture. His white limestone buildings all drew inspiration from the classical traditions of Greece and Rome. However, although the brick cone was cheaper, stronger, and used fewer materials than a traditional stone dome, Wren knew that a brick architectural form was too radically modern to leave exposed, and too aesthetically different from the otherwise neoclassical church. Wren therefore hid the true, weight-bearing brick cone. Outside the brick cone, Wren added a lead and wood roof that supported no weight and was in no way connected to the lantern it only seemed to support. Inside the brick cone, which was effectively too steep and too tall to paint a convincing ceiling mural on, Wren erected a decorative arched roof within that was merely a decorative surface for James Thornhill’s paintings.
Art and engineering, religion and politics, tradition and innovation were, through the design of one dome, linked. Wren might not have intended to inject his cultural-historical moment into the design. As an architect-engineer, he was merely inventing the most stable and economic way to cover the cathedral. However, the implications of this engineering were to influence the city and society at large.

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The Vanishing City of Newark

Vanishing City is a visual documentary about redevelopment in Newark, New Jersey. Through this series, I document the beauty behind decay, destruction, and possible rebirth.
I am witness to the frighteningly beautiful decay of my city’s cultural heritage. An abandoned barge slowly sinks in murky waters.  A former factory tumbles before the wrecking ball.  A sea of weeds lays siege to a vacant home. An empty lot is a gaping hole, a missing tooth, in the urban body. As a wall crumbles to the ground, a tree, firmly anchored to the wall, reaches for the sky. While my city’s industrial past slowly succumbs to demolition, new buildings grow from old lots.
Behind this slow decay, there is a hidden beauty in the transient. It is the realization that what was built to last forever, will not last. It is the expectation that the destruction of the past could contain the seeds of a better city. I hope that someday the history of the built environment will become cherished in its entirety because a city is lifeless without culture and history.
When one visits the ruins of past civilizations, such as Greece, Carthage, and Rome, one sees them as shards of memory. Their grandeur comes not from seeing them intact but from imagining them as they once were; grandeur lost is often more evocative than grandeur still extant. These ruins are powerful because of their decay, not in spite of it.
The battered past should inform the present. I look at the built world of today and ask: Will the monuments we erect to culture and capitalism endure? The Greek forum became a symbol for democracy; could the same destiny await our society’s equivalent “forums,” the strip mall, grocery store, and drive-thru? What will the future remember us by?
My transient urban environment compels me to examine and re-examine my sense of place before it vanishes from memory.

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Downtown Newark

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Newark Broad Street Station

Architecture of Redemption?

Contradictions of Solitary Confinement
at Eastern State Penitentiary

Master’s thesis at Cambridge University: Department of Art History & Architecture
Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at Cambridge University

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The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly. A central point would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a centre towards which all gazes would be turned.
– Michel Foucault

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Abstract

Prison floor plan in 1836

In the contemporary imagination of prison, solitary confinement evokes images of neglect, torture, and loneliness, likely to culminate in insanity. However, the practice originated in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century as an enlightened approach and architectural mechanism for extracting feelings of redemption from convicts.
This research examines the design of Eastern State Penitentiary, built by English-born architect John Haviland from 1821 to 1829 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This case study explores the builders’ challenge of finding an architectural form suitable to the operations and moral ambitions of solitary confinement. Inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Haviland’s design inspired the design of over 300 prisons worldwide. With reference to primary sources and to philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, this research interrogates the problematic assumptions about architecture and human nature encoded in the form of solitary confinement practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, which has wider implications for the study of surveillance architecture.

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Click here to read

Opens in new window as PDF

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Acknowledgments

I am indebted to Max Sternberg for his attentive guidance throughout this research, and his support of my experience in providing undergraduate supervisions at Cambridge. I am grateful to Nick Simcik Arese for encouraging me to examine architecture as the product of labor relations and relationships between form and function. I am inspired by Alan Short’s lectures on architecture that criticize the beliefs in health and miasma theory. My research also benefits from co-course director Ronita Bardhan. Finally, this research is only possible through the superb digitized sources created by the staff of Philadelphia’s various archives and libraries.
I am particularly indebted to the guidance and friendship of Andrew E. Clark throughout my life.
The COVID-19 pandemic put me in a “solitary confinement state-of-mind,” allowing me to research prison architecture from a comfortable confinement of my own.

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Related Projects

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Digital Reconstruction
of Eastern State: 1836-1877

Digital Reconstruction
of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Exhibit on Prison Design
Research begun before MPhil

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Tour of desolate NYC during Coronavirus

This NYC tour follows the route of Kenneth T. Jackson’s night tour. As a Columbia University undergraduate, I joined Jackson’s 2016 night tour of NYC by bike, from Harlem, down the spine of Manhattan, and over the bridge to Brooklyn.
With a heavy heart, I gathered my courage on 30 March 2020 to revisit my beloved NYC, along this same route in the now sleeping city attacked by an invisible pathogen. The empty streets hit me with emotions in the misty and rainy weather – perhaps fitting for the city’s low morale.

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The tour route is drawn below.  View this drawing in detail.

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Audio effects from Freesound:  Street ambiancehighway ambiancepassing carsiren blastshort sirenlong siren

Eastern State Penitentiary: Decorative Fortress

Developed with Max Sternberg, historian at Cambridge University

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Presentation

Paper delivered 6 March 2020 at the University of Cambridge: Department of Architecture
As part of my Master’s thesis in Architecture and Urban Studies

 

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Digital Reconstruction

Created in Sketchup. Based on original drawings and plans of the prison.
All measurements are accurate to reality.

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With ambient music from Freesound

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Eastern State Penitentiary was completed in 1829 in northwest Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by architect John Haviland. It was reportedly the most expensive and largest structure yet built in America.
The design featured a central guard tower from which seven cell blocks radiated like a star. This system allowed a single guard to survey all prisoners in one sweep of the eye. A square perimeter wall surrounded the entire complex – thirty feet high and twelve feet thick. The decorative entrance resembled a medieval castle, to strike fear of prison into those passing. This castle contained the prison administration, hospital, and warden’s apartment.
As we approach the central tower, we see two kinds of cells. The first three cell blocks were one story. The last four cell blocks were two stories. Here we see the view from the guard tower, over the cell block roofs and over the exercise yards between. Each cell had running water, heating, and space for the prisoner to work. Several hundred prisoners lived in absolute solitary confinement. A vaulted and cathedral-like corridor ran down the middle of each cell block. The cells on either side were stacked one above the other. Cells on the lower floor had individual exercise yards, for use one hour per day. John Haviland was inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. (Don’t know what the panopticon is? Click here for my explanation.)
Over its century in use, thousands visited and admired this design. An estimated 300 prisons around the world follow this model – making Eastern State the most influential prison ever designed.

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360° panoramic view from guard tower

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Computer Model

Shows prison as it appeared in the period 1836 to 1877 before later construction obstructed the original buildings.

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Research Paper

Eastern State Penitentiary’s exterior resembles a medieval castle. More than a purely random choice, the qualities of Gothic attempt to reflect, or fall short of reflecting, the practices of detention and isolation within. Contrary to the claim often made about this structure that the appearance was supposed to strike fear into passerby, the use of Gothic is in many ways unexpected because of its untoward associations with darkness and torture, which the prison’s founders were actively working to abolish. It is therefore surprising that America’s largest and most modern prison should evoke the cruelties and injustices of the medieval period. The choice of Gothic appearance, and the vast funds expended on the external appearance few inmates would have seen, leads one to question the audience of viewers this penitentiary was intended for – the inmates within or the public at large?
This essay responds by analyzing what the Gothic style represented to the founders, and how this architectural evocation of cruelty and oppression was, in fact, not contradictory with the builders’ progressive intentions of reforming and educating inmates. This essay also analyzes how this prison’s appearance complicates our understanding of this prison’s purpose in society. The two audiences of convicted inmates and tourist visitors would have received and experienced this prison differently, thereby arriving at alternative, even divergent,
understandings of what this prison meant. More than an analysis of the architect John Haviland and of the building’s formal qualities in isolation, this essay situates this prison in the larger context of Philadelphia’s built environment.

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Acknowledgements

I am indebted to my supervisor Max Sternberg, to my baby bulldog, and to my ever-loving parents for criticizing and guiding this paper.

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