As the Municipal Arts Society's NYC Summit wrapped up last week, the arguments, plans and dreams of a new Penn Station, were once again topics of conversation throughout the city. Today, Amy Verel, ASLA, offers some insights of her own on Penn Station.
As a landscape architect who has always worked in cities, I am occasionally asked “wouldn't there be more work for you in the suburbs?” The assumption is that the practice of landscape architecture is constrained to lawns and gardens, betraying a fundamental lack of understanding about the vital role of landscape architecture in urban design. While lawns and gardens are certainly one aspect of landscape architecture, the practice encompasses the design of the entire urban environment. As licensed professionals entrusted with designing and engineering the health, safety and welfare of the public, landscape architects work to comprehensively shape our shared urban space. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the less space there is for lawns, trees and animals, the more attention and careful design the outdoor environment requires.
Architecture aspires to construct the sublime human experience within the walls of the building; landscape architecture aspires to do the same in the spaces between the buildings. Seen in this light, landscape architecture encompasses the entire exterior urban environment and is inextricably linked to the architecture within it. The most successful expressions of both fields unite our built spaces - indoors and out, public and private - in a way that fosters the highest human experience.
While phenomenal works of landscape architecture and architecture can be found in all human settings, both become more important as our density increases. We are communal animals that enjoy being together and who work best together when we cluster and collaborate in the form of the city. In our closely shared physical places, every inch matters inside and out and the role of the designer is paramount in defining our experience of the entire built environment.
We have a distinct choice in design – to meet the minimum requirements for safety and function, or to exceed our basic needs in order to create spaces that make us feel connected to each other and inspire us to sustain community and beauty in our lives. The old Pennsylvania Station was one such space and although most of us can only experience it through the photography of its life and demise, it was undeniably a space that made an indelible mark on the identity and collective memory of New York City. It was with us for a short time, even by the scale of an individual lifetime, and yet its soaring, elegant design leaves us with a powerful legacy that reminds us that not only are we capable of creating such beauty, but that it does not come easily and we must scrupulously protect it.
I am drawn to urban planning and landscape architecture because I am fascinated by how the spaces we occupy influence how we feel – about ourselves and about those around us – and how we behave in response to those emotions. The astounding, uplifting physical experience of being in Grand Central Terminal today, and the disoriented, trapped feeling of being in Penn Station’s modern replacement, encapsulate both ends of this spectrum. We are exceptionally fortunate that Grand Central was saved for us to experience today largely because of the unfortunate demise of Pennsylvania Station, but the loss of Pennsylvania Station left a hole in the physical and mental fabric of the city that can never be filled.
Remembering the sublime design of Pennsylvania Station, and experiencing what it must have felt like to be in that space through the power of photography, reminds us that we are still capable and worthy of spaces that raise us up as a community of human beings. Good design is always worth striving for, and transcendent design should always be the goal of the designer. Memorializing the terribly shortsighted destruction of such a space through the elegiac photography that so elegantly documented the demolition instills the lesson that we must vigilantly protect the monumental spaces we manage to create.
Amy Verel, ASLA has served as a Board Member for the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects since 2010. She works for the New York City Department of Recreation as an Assistant Landscape Architect. She is also an Certified Municipal Specialist with the International Society of Arboriculture and a member of the New York Chapter of Women's Transportation Seminar. She received dual Masters of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and BA in Urban Studies from Fordham University. She was an active member of Fordham Experimental Theater, where she met Justin and acted in one of his early plays.