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A few months ago I got some advice from a classmate who was a year ahead of me, and in the process of finishing up his own M.Arch. As you no doubt know, the original McKim Mead and White structure was demolished fifty years ago this year, despite outrage from preservationists and the design community. The Municipal Art Society of New York recently invited four firms to submit their own ideas for the future of Penn Station and its environs. Obviously that's a lot for one person to tackle for a thesis, so I'll necessarily have to narrow the focus. 1) Tying together diverse transportation modes (intercity rail, commuter rail, subway, bus, taxi, bike, pedestrian) and other functions (retail, dining, etc.) into a cohesive whole with intuitive, self-evident circulation pathways. 2) The sequence of spaces encountered by arriving and departing passengers, and their phenomenological aspects. 3) Creation of an iconic urban space that serves as an appropriate entry foyer for New York City. 4) How to appropriately pay homage to the original structure and memorialize what was lost, while resisting the knee-jerk impulse to replicate it.
SHoP's proposal is the best, not only because it's the most buildable, but also because it's the best at connecting the fabric of the city to Penn.
DS+R's proposal seems under cooked - they might have been too focused on finishing their most recent book, and dealing with other, more likely constructable schemes.
SOM's and DS+R's schemes, while visually compelling (DS+R certainly cranked their Rhino machine up to 11) have the air of a purely academic project that was never meant to be actually built. Is critiquing the four proposals a part of the thesis - maybe part of your research - or is the thesis just to do the project? You've been interested in transit for so long it only makes sense that your thesis be transit-related. It's been interesting watching the reaction to the MAS presentation among some of the bloggers I follow, most of whom are transit advocates, urbanists, and urban planners rather than architects. Then there are the more pragmatic types, who want to see Penn Station upgraded, but their idea of an "upgrade" (which is never really defined) is always completely divorced from architectural questions, as if the architecture is just window dressing that gets applied after the fact.
To them, I'd argue that the questions of functionality as a transportation facility is at its heart an architectural question.
That said, I'm particularly drawn to SHoP's proposal, and may use that as a starting point. As for looking at a smaller city, my original thesis idea was to design a new concourse for Cincinnati's historic Union Terminal to replace the one that had been demolished in the 1970's, and some other improvements that would've tied into what I designed for my undergrad thesis which was basically a rapid transit master plan for Cincinnati. Also, I've spent the past four years heavily invested in Cincinnati's transit advocacy scene, and to be frank, I'm pretty tired of it all.

In short, I find myself much more passionate about Penn Station's challenges and opportunities than about Union Terminal's.
You seemed to indicate that you weren't particularly interested in the problem of Madison Square Garden, but I think that it would be important to address it at some point in your project, even if it is a side issue rather than your main point, since it seems to be one of the inherent critical problems of Penn Station. For the purposes of my thesis, my primary interest in Madison Square Garden is seeing it relocated to a different site. 3) On the superblock site currently occupied by the USPS's Morgan sorting facility, southwest of the Farley post office. SHoP goes with option 3 in their master plan, and proposes a new MSG that's nicely integrated with an extended High Line. As luck would have it, I'm in New York for my summer co-op, and I've already spent considerable time poking around Penn Station. It was replaced with a confusing rat maze of dingy corridors, situated beneath Madison Square Garden and a drab 30-story office building.
Construction is underway across the street at the historic Farley Post Office to convert a portion of it into a new ticketing hall and concourse for Amtrak. SOM, DS+R, H3 Hardy, and SHoP Architects each submitted schemes that approached the problem from a variety of angles.
I may well find myself wishing I had taken my friend's advice and designed a small cabin in the woods for my thesis.
Given Vishaan Chakrabarti's involvement in re-visioning Penn Station over many years, it's clear that SHoP intents for this project to be built, and have identified ways for it to actually happen.
I agree with them about most of the hot topics of the day, but I tend to part ways with them when it comes to architecture. There are the train enthusiasts who are still bitter because steam locomotives are no longer used in regular service, and they seriously think it's somehow possible and desirable to rebuild the original McKim Mead & White station exactly as it was. Applying some fancy architectural features without upgrading the functionality of the station would be putting lipstick on a pig (which has pretty much been the M.O.
They developed a master plan that encompasses several city blocks in every direction with a relocated Madison Square Garden, an expanded High Line, and quite a few large office towers.
It had the potential to be a good project, but I found myself having a hard time getting very passionate about it, for a number of reasons. New York and Cincinnati have opposite problems: NYC has a huge amount of passenger rail traffic but a terrible facility, while Cincinnati has a spectacular facility but no passenger rail traffic. I still support the streetcar project and I think it will be a success, but after seeing firsthand the deeply-imbedded institutional hostility to even modest improvements to the city's transit system at the state and local levels, I'm pessimistic about rail transit's future there.
The design of the new MSG could easily be a thesis topic of its own (and then some), and it will be necessary for me to make decisions about what is and what isn't included within the scope of my own thesis topic.

This idea has tons of potential, but for the purposes of my thesis, I'm happy to let somebody else tackle that issue. I've also been poking around Newark Penn Station, Hoboken Terminal, and Philly's 30th Street Station. Pancras and King's Cross stations in London, Helmut Jahn's Chicago & North Western Station in Chicago, and possibly one or more airport terminals as well. Having taken an extra year before starting my thesis year and an extra co-op term in New York City over the summer, though, has inspired me to go back to my original topic and design a new Penn Station. A piecemeal hodgepodge of improvements have been made over the years -- some new finishes here, a new entrance there -- but it remains a claustrophobic, confusing mess despite being the busiest rail hub in the United States. In the longer term, the Gateway Project promises to add two additional tunnels under the Hudson River and additional tracks at Penn Station by expanding the station one block to the south. More broadly, how Penn Station is a site that expresses the re-integration of the design and engineering professions. One aspect of the project will most likely involve a "big picture" master plan and a very schematic design scheme, but I'd also like to hone in on a few key moments that occur in the process of arriving at a big train station in a major city, and develop them in further detail. Any resources I should take advantage of, or any people I should talk to while I'm here in NYC? Many of them are heavily invested in New Urbanist ideals and have a strong knee-jerk aversion to anything that resembles modernism, because any urban environment that doesn't resemble a historic brownstone neighborhood is immediately suspect.
The focus changes each year, but I suspect this year will see less of an emphasis on the document and more emphasis on the design. For my purposes, I want to focus on the station building itself, and perhaps design one that fits into their larger-scale master plan. NYC's dilemma is in much greater need of an architectural solution; what Cincinnati needs is a policy solution, not necessarily an architectural one.
I think I'd have a hard time trying to motivate myself to spend a year on a thesis topic that would amount to little more than bashing my head against a brick wall.
Upgrading Penn Station's functionality without addressing the broader architectural issues is a physical impossibility.
Penn Station certainly has its political challenges as well, but at least the libertarian crackpots are vastly outnumbered and marginalized in New York, and there seems to be a critical mass gaining momentum toward a new Penn Station.
How does the romanticism of the tragically long-lost station influence those of us who support transit?

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