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01.05.2015
Pier Luigi Nervi's terminal at the George Washington Bridge is a powerful, handsome place, soot notwithstanding.
NEW YORK--A subway ride to MoMA QNS will take you to see the models for Santiago Calatrava's Transportation Hub for the World Trade Center site, a remarkable structure commissioned by the Port Authority of New York that raises technology to the highest level of beauty and utility. A subway ride to 178th Street and Broadway will take you to see Pier Luigi Nervi's bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge, an equally remarkable structure commissioned by the Port Authority more than 40 years earlier, when the Italian engineer was as celebrated as Mr. Disturbed by reports from guardians of our modernist heritage that the building had suffered neglect and was threatened by change, I went back recently to see how it had fared. The terminal is a three-level structure that stretches from the George Washington Bridge to a single-story extension across Broadway. Unlike Grand Central Terminal's high-end shops and services, there are no gourmet takeout stores or fancy restaurants for commuters on the run; the most conspicuous tenants are a dentist, a credit union, a video store and an off-track betting facility, which occupies the most space on the concourse and exudes an air of abandoned hope. These uniformly dismal enterprises are housed in a zigzag of commercial construction on one side, paralleled by a zigzag of ticket booths on the other side, which may or may not be meant to echo the zigzag bus berths outside at street level.
The place was spotlessly clean when I visited, and the restroom--that public barometer of quality of life--immaculate and functioning give or take a few broken hand dryers, was a clear demonstration of the problems faced and solved.
Beyond a vandal-proof minimalism (and don't think trendy asceticism) the aesthetic goes casually downhill to a humdrum mix of bad signage and the unconsciously comic touch of a bronze bust of George Washington, a gift from the sculptor's son, shunted off into a neutral corner. Nothing suggests the drama at the top of the escalator that leads to the local commuter bus lines. There are on-again off-again proposals to maximize the land use; the idea of unused air rights is anathema to any self-respecting real-estate department, and the Port Authority is no stranger to development. The argument is made that because construction over the Broadway section would not touch the main building, Nervi's design would not be compromised. Architecture is a mirror of its own moment, and some will prize this building for the hallmarks of Italian design of the '60s--those retro butterfly shapes and touches of aquamarine, and the fine Italian mosaic of the underside of the butterfly canopy that is clearly, and sadly, deteriorating.
I think the prominence of location and importance guarantees a better future for the Path Station. Is intercity bus travel so declasse that it's hard for New Yorkers to take a bus terminal seriously? It is the latest example of New York treating a significant building as a plinth for another, more profitable structure -- the same Port Authority is planning a skyscraper over its other terminal, near Times Square.
The Nervi building, completed in 1962, begins with a horizontal platform, raised about 30 feet over the street on angled concrete columns.
The other half of the platform -- a parking lot -- has nothing on it but cars, and that's where the theater will be built. Like the Gwathmey-Siegel addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, overhanging and threatening to overshadow Wright's rotunda, the cineplex will be a looming omnipresence. Anything that touches -- or diminishes the effect of -- Nervi's geometry should be off the table. As in his better-known Palazzo dello Sport in Rome, Nervi (1891-1979) revels in structural predetermination -- the tracery of his vaults is as inevitable as the ribs of a wood canoe -- and in the plasticity of ferro-concrete (his movable forms were made of the same material as the finished building). News of the planned cineplex has sent at least one architecture writer -- this one -- scurrying to see the condition of the terminal, which he hadn't visited in years. One of Nervi's few completed projects outside Italy is a superb example of the poetry he wrought from ferro-concrete.
Editor?s note: Second Look is a new series based on Fred Bernstein?s regular column in Oculus, the quarterly magazine of the AIA New York Chapter. In 1999, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the building, announced plans to build a 50,000-square-foot multiplex cinema over the parking lot.
The Nervi building is essentially a horizontal platform, raised about 30 feet over the street on angled concrete columns. As in his better-known Palazzo dello Sport in Rome, Nervi revels in structural predetermination ? the tracery of his vaults is as inevitable as the ribs of a wood canoe ? and in the plasticity of ferro-concrete (his movable forms were made of the same material as the finished building).
Fred Bernstein, an Oculus contributing editor, studied architecture at Princeton University, and has written about design for more than 15 years. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has worked out a deal for a $152 million renovation of the George Washington Bridge Bus Station that will increase fourfold the amount of retail space in the Upper Manhattan terminal.
The Port Authority has spent two years negotiating with the developer, a joint venture of Acadia Realty Trust and P.
Under the terms, the developer will pay the authority $1 million once the deal is approved. The developer has agreed to spend $102 million to renovate the station and increase the retail space to 120,000 square feet, from 30,000 square feet.


The station opened in 1963 and received an award that year for its use of concrete in construction, according to the authority’s Web site. The renovation is different from a larger project planned for the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Eighth Avenue in Midtown.
In November, the authority announced plans for a development team that includes Vornado Realty Trust to erect an office tower atop that terminal. What they're really saying is that they want to gentrify this place and turn it into a mall full of chain stores now that the yuppies are moving in. But that's not exactly serving the existing community, which is mostly hispanic; it's serving the community-to-be, which they think is yuppies. Calatrava's models for a terminal yet to be built are ethereally empty and rendered in pristine white; Nervi's terminal, completed in 1962, is deeply discolored with soot and grime. Calatrava's glass and steel structure with its ribbed, winglike canopies that admit daylight above and below ground and can be opened to the sky.
Calatrava's forms have extraordinary brio; Nervi, who died at 87 in 1979, practiced with a fine Italian hand. My last visit had been a hardhat climb over the newly constructed building with the maestro himself; no fear of heights could have kept me from the experience. The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects reports in its journal Oculus that $14 million has been spent by the Port Authority over the past five years. Everything visible or usable--toilets, sinks, even mirrors--was of solidly wall-hung stainless steel. The angled butterfly trusses, open for ventilation, frame an exhilarating view of the bridge.
That is ridiculous, of course; the two parts are continuous, and effectively one thing, and any addition will alter the perception and integrity of the whole. But unlike the nostalgic and lovable kitsch being championed by those who are unable or unwilling to make distinctions between what is important and what is not, Nervi's Port Authority bus terminal is a work of the first rank that demonstrates the art and science of reinforced concrete construction at its 20th-century highpoint, in the hands of one of its greatest masters. That's the only explanation for the indifference to the poured concrete masterpiece by Pier Luigi Nervi that spans Broadway at the Manhattan approach to the George Washington Bridge. Above the western half of the platform, a second series of columns support 14 triangular projections, bug-eyed clerestories that explore the otherwise neglected middle ground between Corbu and Gaudi. But the Port Authority, which stands to make millions, hasn't said how the new building will be massed. How else to explain their indifference to the poured concrete masterpiece by Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979) that spans Broadway at the Manhattan approach to the George Washington Bridge? It was to be just one more example of an architecturally significant Manhattan building becoming a plinth for a more profitable structure. From the western half of the platform (which is linked by bus lanes to the George Washington Bridge), a second series of columns supports 14 triangular projections ? bug-eyed clerestories that explore the otherwise neglected middle ground between Corbu and Gaudi. Kyle, chief engineer, and Pier Luigi Nervi, consulting engineer" on a plaque in front) has, of course, tinkered with the building over the years.
The authority said on Wednesday that it expected the deal to go ahead despite the economic turmoil on Wall Street and the downturn in the real estate market. The two sides will then have about 18 months to complete plans for the site and a leasing agreement.
But in July, the authority said it was extending by up to a year the time needed to complete negotiations with Vornado.
The same kudos marked the Port Authority's announcement of the Nervi commission, which was also hailed as a visionary act in the early 1960s. The bus terminal's rooftop sets of butterfly trusses are echoed in the butterfly entrance canopy that is pure vintage 1960s. The building is enormously impressive; neither the soiled and darkened surfaces nor the descent of the concourse into bland tackiness could camouflage its quality.
Buses arrive and depart on the lower and upper levels; between the two is the concourse, with its ticket booths and services. Amman, the distinguished engineer of the George Washington Bridge, stands with its back to the entrance against a large and lifeless photograph of the bridge; it is a measure of the level of design sensibility that the real bridge is available by looking the other way.
Huge central columns receive the weight of the trusses, tapering to a dancer's lightness at the floor. It is inconceivable that this building--in fact, any Nervi building--should not be a designated landmark. Striking from the outside (approached, as they usually are, from a drab section of Upper Broadway), they are nothing short of thrilling from the inside, where their concrete louvers funnel light to the waiting areas below with a mixture of precision and delight.


Even if it the cinema never touches Nervi's skylights, it will obscure them from some directions and compete with them from others. The columns supporting the terminal roof are surprisingly moving (their tapering forms and striated surface suggest sequoias, yet without the slightest hint of kitsch). Striking from the outside (approached, as they usually are, from a drab section of Upper Broadway), they are nothing short of thrilling from the inside, where their concrete louvers funnel light to the waiting areas below with a mixture of precision and insouciance ? as if painted by Picasso from a sketch by Escher. Associates, to reach a preliminary agreement that is to be voted on by the authority’s board on Thursday. Coscia, said in a statement that enlarging the capacity of the bus station would help ease congestion on the Hudson River crossings. It sits on both sides of Broadway between 178th and 179th Streets, near the entrance to the George Washington Bridge. It is a hub for New Jersey Transit and for buses from Rockland and Orange Counties, Atlantic City and the airports.
Both make complex things seem dramatically simple, so the untrained observer can sense with pleasure the play of forces held in equilibrium by elaborate calculations and an impeccable eye. Calatrava's engineering is a kind of 21st century architecture parlante, transcending the utilitarian to mimick the forms of flight.
There is no sign of Nervi, although I understand his name appears on a plaque outside as consulting engineer, after the Port Authority's chief engineer, John M. Small, curved-roof glass kiosks along the platforms provide attractive and appropriate protection. But a large and sensitive talent would be required, something that seems to come sporadically to the Port Authority, like every 40 years. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the quasi-public organization that owns the terminal, hopes to move ahead with the plans after a structural survey is completed early next year. A Port Authority spokesman said the PA has spent $14 million on capital improvements to the terminal since 1999, and that it ?remains open to development opportunities at the site.? For now, the building retains its power to inspire.
Sometimes his extravagantly expressionistic gestures go overboard, but his soaring bird is spot on for New York, where tragic circumstances and an unparalleled opportunity require a symbolic act of aesthetic daring. Bus stations are not known for their high-end ambience; they are often placed in marginal neighborhoods and are notoriously subject to transient abuse. The narrow, striated pattern of Nervi's concrete aggregate is visible; this is a powerfully handsome place, soot notwithstanding. The building is on a par with Saarinen's TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, another reinforced concrete masterpiece that seems to leave the ground. The columns supporting the terminal roof are triumphant ? their tapering forms and striated surface suggest sequoias, yet without the slightest hint of kitsch. The property will see its retail space expanded from 30,000 to 120,000 square feet across three levels, and retailers include GAP, Marshalls, Blink Fitness, Buffalo Wild Wings, Cafe 178th Street, Time Warner, GWB Juice Bar, VS Berry Frozen Yogurt, First Financial, and many other shops, eateries, and services. Because engineering is the heart and soul of construction--the building's bones on which everything else depends for support and stability--structure trumps style. The repeated V-shaped members of the bus terminal's concrete trusses echo the steel cross bracing of the George Washington Bridge.
The biggest threat to the building is that the Port Authority totally undervalues, what it is dealing with. It has something to do with location, but a lot to do with the fact that boarding a bus to New Jersey (rather than, say, a plane to Paris) is something most New Yorkers prefer to do with eyes wide shut. The building is on par with Saarinen's TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, another reinforced concrete masterpiece that seems ready to leave the ground.
But unlike Saarinen's building, which has achieved iconic status, Nervi's is under-appreciated.
It has something to do with location, but a lot to do with the fact that taking a bus to New Jersey (rather than, say, a plane to Paris) is something most New Yorkers prefer to do with eyes wide shut. In order to post comments, please make sure JavaScript and Cookies are enabled, and reload the page.



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