Walkabout / Welcome with Pittsburgh grandeur: a plan for Penn Station

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The great architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham reportedly once said, "Make no little plans." Through the course of his career, from the 1870s into the 20th century, this maxim guided his work.

He designed the layout of Chicago's city center, worked on plans for the National Mall, designed Chicago and New York's Flatiron Buildings and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Of his numerous buildings in Pittsburgh, the Penn Station (built as Union Station) at Liberty Avenue and Grant Street looks most like it belongs in a world-class city, and it's the rotunda that tells me that.

Although you can walk around the rotunda today, the grandeur of the station concourse is lost to all who don't reside or work at The Pennsylvanian, the apartment and offices that occupy the former train station building.

Today's train passengers pulling wheeled suitcases might not even realize they've been relegated to a dumpy side entrance of a former world-class train station. There is no activity under the rotunda.

This is where 24-year-old architect Giacomo Tinari comes in.

For his final student project at Carnegie Mellon University, in 2011, he designed an elevated walkway from the western opening of the rotunda across Liberty Avenue to the Greyhound bus station's second floor and a glass arcade roof over it. (The full project can be viewed at www.giacomotinari.com/Documentation_UrbanLab.html.)

Mr. Tinari's plan was presented to City Council, but there is no fuel yet to move the design forward.

"During my five years of using Pittsburgh's public transportation, I noticed one thing," Mr. Tinari wrote in an email from China, where he is working and teaching. "It needs to be jazzed up, and the rotunda is its locus.

"By forcing pedestrians to navigate dangerous intersections and leaving tourists oblivious to the proximity of their connecting routes, an appreciation for Pittsburgh's history and culture are lost. As it stands now, the Burnham rotunda holds no significance to the commuter."

With four corner pavilions, the rotunda has an arched ceiling with a round decorative skylight at the center, recessed terra cotta panels circling it, an ornamental carved strip under those panels and female statues in relief at the four corners, each holding the names of Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Rami el Samahy, an instructor in Carnegie Mellon's Urban Lab, where Mr. Tinari devised his plan, said his former student "saw an opportunity to create a multimodal transit stop, identifying a problem and solving it with a simple set of moves. Pretty smart." The plan also "suggests making the concourse part of the train station, part of a larger public hub, with retail."

It would remove what he called "the dingy underbelly" feeling. "We have a fantastic Downtown but for anyone coming by train or bus, it's a little sad."

I recall the number of times I have been at the Amtrak station, then I imagine how different the experience would have been had I come off the train into that concourse -- which you can see through the locked doors -- and then walked outside under that rotunda.

We all have visceral reactions upon entering a place and most of the time we integrate them so deftly into our life story that we don't even know we had a reaction. I think of those as middle-ground places because they don't offend or awe.

The places on either end of middle-ground places actually do something to us.

In the bustling train days of old, passengers were lifted up by the great concourse and the rotunda. Great design makes people feel elevated, better than they are, part of a grand lineage that upholds high-mindedness and spirit.

Then there are places that give you the feeling there might be an interrogation room behind one of the doors. They make you feel as flickering as a fluorescent light, as dreadful as scuffed linoleum, as plain as drywall. They make you feel artless.

We have too many of those kinds of places and too few of the places of human uplift. If Mr. Tinari's vision ever becomes a reality, it would bring a great place back for the wider circulation for which Burnham designed it. It is no little plan.

neigh_city - artarchitecture - intelligencer

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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