When form overtakes function

Why Can’t Transportation Mega-Projects Be Both Beautiful and Practical?

Nestled among the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, at the crossroads of 42nd Street and Park Avenue, rests the 101-year-old Grand Central Terminal. Designed by the early-20th-Century architectural powerhouses of Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore, this Beaux-Arts masterpiece, along with the Park Avenue tunnels, cost nearly $3 billion in today’s money, and provided a regional and intercity connection for a growing New York City. Today, approximately 700,000 travelers, commuters, and tourists pass through its sweeping halls and stair-less design on a daily basis. Grand Central wasn’t cheap, but it worked in the Gilded Age and it works now, a triumph of design and utility alike.

Fast forward a century and head south a few miles. In Lower Manhattan, a new train terminal arises. This one too comes with a star-studded architect behind it, and it too is being constructed in and around an active subway station. It’s also going to cost an unheard-of amount by the time construction is over. I am, of course, referring to the Port Authority’s Santiago Calatrava World Trade Center PATH Hub, a $4 billion behemoth at Ground Zero that will serve around up to 40,000 PATH passengers per day. Under construction for seven years, it is set to open in 2015 and has come to stand for the debate over design, cost and a public agency’s responsibility to the public.

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