Penn Project Shamed by London’s King’s Cross Concourse

King's Cross Station
A roof of white-painted steel tubes arches over the Western Concourse added to King's Cross Station in London. Designed by John McAslan & Partners with engineering firm Arup, the concourse triples passenger accommodation. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

While New York’s Pennsylvania Station remains the depressing mess it has been for half a century, Londoners travel with comparative ease beneath the white-painted steel tubes rising in a half-dome at King’s Cross Station.

The new roof is a contemporary engineering spectacle, yet very much in the spirit of London’s great Victorian iron-and-glass rail extravaganzas. It is the inspired solution to expanding King’s Cross when a tangle of crisscrossing Tube lines seemed to leave no place to grow.

In New York, dithering over what to do about Penn Station’s dim, filthy maze has gone on for 15 years. The plan was to revamp the depot and a post office across the street into a new complex called Moynihan Station, after the late U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan, who championed the project before his death in 2003.

New York State is sinking $83 million into widening some corridors and making new entrances -- barely a Band-Aid for an area mobbed by 500,000 passengers every weekday.

It’s worth having a look at how the elegant $880 million Western Concourse of the 1852 King’s Cross depot addresses so many challenges for its 150,000 daily passengers.

Architect John McAslan & Partners, working with the engineering firm Arup, faced two problems. To simplify connections between the train and six Tube lines, the new Western Concourse had to be built on the west side of the old station. That meant placing it above a new London Underground Ltd. ticketing concourse, which had been built without room to place supports for the latest addition.

Elegant Solution

McAslan and Arup found an elegant solution for the support problem, placing 17 massive piers outside the box of the London Underground concourse. Atop them they set the semicircle of crisscrossing steel tubes that rises 66 feet in a tall funnel shape with a 230-foot radius.

The diagonal-grid construction looks lightweight and seems to settle gently upon the piers. It triples passenger accommodation, according to information provided by the project. Under the spreading roof, McAslan tucked a mezzanine where cafes offer nice views of the pulsing flow of passengers below.

The location of the new concourse, well away from the frontage on busy Euston Road, struck me as odd until I understood that it puts passengers a short walk to connections at the adjacent St. Pancras station.

Foster & Partners built an elegantly functional light-filled shed behind St. Pancras in 2007, to cover platforms extended to accommodate Eurotunnel trains, regional-rail lines and long-distance trains operated by Network Rail.

Massive Machine

The additions, along with shared taxi and auto drop-offs, join the two stations at the hip into a single massive machine for mobility.

The delays that hit King’s Cross included a disastrous privatization of national rail operations and the repurchase of derelict railyards between Kings Cross and St. Pancras that had long ago been sold off.

Rejuvenating the two stations has spurred rapid development of a wedge-shaped parcel of former railyards that runs north from them. It will become 743,000 square meters (8 million square feet) of commercial and institutional space.

In New York, 40 million square feet of commercial and residential development could rise to the north and west of Moynihan station, including the massive Hudson Yards redevelopment that is just getting under way. That buildout looks iffy if Penn can’t grow.

Civic Egos

There’s little urgency about the Moynihan project because critics have successfully dismissed it as a palace useful only to stroke civic egos. A design as insightful as King’s Cross could create a dignified station that treats passengers better than animals and helps them find their way. Today the two-block station is clogged with more users than most airports handle, double the number it was built for.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made things worse by unilaterally canceling a new trans-Hudson tunnel in 2009 that would have added substantial rail capacity to feed Moynihan.

Christie said that local transportation agencies can’t build without massive cost overruns and delays -- while following the local political pattern of doing nothing about it.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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