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MAS Panel Recap: Is Green the New Civic?


On Wednesday at the MAS, architect Hugh Hardy introduced a wide ranging panel discussion entitled “World Class Train Stations,” which featured Christopher Brown, author of Still Standing: A Century of Urban Train Station Design, and Andrew Whalley, partner at Grimshaw Architects and designer of Waterloo and Paddington stations in London. The moderator was Alexandros Washburn, chief urban designer, NYC Department of City Planning, and a former aid to the late Senator Moynihan.

The night was full of big questions (“What makes a train station world class?”), thoughtful answers (“the clarity of use”), philosophical ponderings (the station as theater stage), and some classic Moynihan anecdotes. It provided enough content to feed New Penn Station for weeks.

We decided to start with a recurring theme of the discussion: How do we define "civic"?

Brown noted that the architecture of train stations is often a functionalist response – and it is possible for a station to fulfill its function, but not rise to a civic level. He also pointed out that it is easy to mistake Beaux Arts grandeur for “civicness” and asked the audience to think about how our notion of civic virtue is changing. “I don’t know what civic means anymore,” he said.

Washburn defined civic virtue as “the expression in form of the things that you value – the embodiment of what we consider important in our city.” He pointed out that the acanthus leaf was an inspiration for the long colonnade of Corinthian columns on the Farley Post Office – an icon of the Beaux Arts notion of civic – and argued that our society’s present concerns about sustainability and the ecology of things is somewhat of a symbolic return to the acanthus leaf. Sustainability is a civic gesture – and an expression of green is the new civic.

It turns out that defining “civic” is a matter of practical importance. After all, “the principle public purpose of the proposed Expanded Moynihan Station Project is a civic project to create an iconic and monumental, and more efficient, transportation gateway to and from New York City,” according to the Draft Scope of Work. And the development rights sought by the developers depend upon the creation of a station with “iconic and distinctive civic architecture,” a train hall with “civic grandeur” and “civic amenity,” and the achievement of certain “civic standards.”

Green design is most certainly a civic gesture. Whalley showed the audience several examples of energy efficient train stations, including Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station (which requires no mechanical ventilation in its train hall!).

But he also noted that a “truly sustainable” train station is not just a place for transport. It is a vital node of the city, a public place and social center, and a symbol of its aspirations.

So how will New York define civic?

Join us for our next program on May 13: Moynihan Station: What Needs To Happen Next?”