Washingtonians Prepare For Battle Over Union Station Overhaul
August 7, 2012
Image by Wikipedia user Learjet
Washingtonians face fighting a two-front war this year, as the controversy over Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower memorial rages on, and as Amtrak unveils its master plan for a Union Station overhaul. Architectural purists fear that the landmark, designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham circa 1906, faces disgrace at the hands of greedy developers, while commuters stand to benefit from any expansion of the over-capacity and under-efficient transportation hub.
At the center of the foofaraw is the potential disparity between the cost of the project and how it will benefit DC. The saga started in 2006, when DC developer Akridge purchased the air rights to the station, in order to build a large and profitable mixed-use development. However, this would require building a platform over the station and the attendant columns would freeze the train tracks below in their current positions, something that the various transit authorities who use the station (Amtrak, VRE, MARC, etc.) wanted to avoid, at least until they could get a plan into shape. And plan they did. Continue.
Image: Akridge/SBA via Amtrak master plan
The recently released proposal calls for widening the platforms of Union Station to accommodate new ‘safety’ ‘guidelines,’ which means relocating the tracks. Relocating the tracks means tearing down the existing above-ground parking garage and placing it below ground. And if you’re digging underground, you might as well go all the way, and put in some new concourses as well. And if you’ve put in new concourses, you might as well build a new glass atrium above the tracks. And make it wavy. With green roofs. And a Ferris wheel (not really). All of which adds up to a cost of $7 billion, and that’s just the public component of the project.
We’re willing to buy into all of this as rationale for the overhaul. As they say, “Infrastructure something something an investment in the future something.” However, the renderings released in the Amtrak report raise some concerns, namely that the development will be banal, and that banality should not be so expensive. Of course, the entire effort is still in early stages and the buildings produced may look nothing like those rendered; but knowing the climate of DC architecture, we can say that the buildings will probably look something like the renderings.
Image: Amtrak master plan, page 7
This image shows what the train shed will look like as it breaks through the central platform of the new development (Burnham Place). With the signature disintegrating waves that signify things like ‘dynamism’ or ‘movement’ to the establishment, the grand atrium surges forth from Union Station into the heart of…what exactly? The all-glazed and unadorned buildings surrounding the station don’t look like the makings of a community, much less the sort that would have such busy and vivacious public spaces. And while we appreciate the gesture of the wavy design, the details are where it gets bogged down in conventionality. The forked columns holding up the canopy seem to be Foster or Pelli knockoffs, while the striated cladding on the exterior lacks a definitive materiality (is it painted on?). Finally, the Union Station logo above the entrance screams 1930′s saloon (or chain restaurant with pastiche 1930′s saloon decor).
Image: Amtrak master plan, page 9
Here, the train shed actually seems to work as seen from the interior. It reinforces the concourses with a subtle power, though those forked columns remain a problem. The best thing about this image is that the trains seem to occupy an important place in the architecture, as they enter the space rather than remain outside and out of view.
Image: Amtrak master plan, page 11
Once again, note the forked columns. Are they the central element of this design? The general feeling of openness in the image would be a vast improvement on the existing station, however. This space would probably be very hot, though, from the combination of the Greenhouse Effect (the huge amount of sun that would come through the glass roof) and the heat thrown off by the train engines.
Image: Akridge/SBA via Amtrak master plan
Shown here is the Greenway, a proposed network of gardens and paths. It certainly looks pleasant, what with all the green walls, flowers, trees, seating areas, and water features. Unfortunately, a very high wall prevents the public from accessing it. If ever the accompanying development faces vacancies, the Greenway will slowly cease to be used. (See William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces).