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Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Journey Should End in Poetry

Are iconic places at passenger terminals obsolete as an organizing element? I was surprised that seemed to be the consensus of leading architects on a panel recently. With smart devices, it is increasingly difficult to ever become lost. The scale of modern life has grown beyond the perception of a singular focal point.

I don't buy it.

People still want to feel like they've arrived, and a specific image best captures that moment. The term "selfie" may be new, but the compulsion to take a photo in front of the Flatiron Building, the Eiffel Tower, and every other salient landmark is as old as the point-and-shoot camera.

Great passenger terminals are among the most compelling forms of art that civilization has ever produced. These massive structures transcend their primary utilitarian purpose of moving masses of people to become some of our most memorable civic spaces. It is the iconic point of arrival that makes them memorable.

Of course, many terminals do not rise above their mundane functions. Some become inhumane from a meanness of design or subsequent neglect. When terminals do achieve greatness, they create an intersection of architecture and poetry. They embody the place where memorable journeys begin and end, where people depart and are reunited.

No place epitomizes this more than Grand Central Terminal, where the clock is the heart of New York City. As Billy Collins expressed it in his poem "Grand Central," the city "turns around the golden clock." The poem has been featured by the MTA's Poetry in Motion program:

For another example, consider the ad from Long Live New York, the New York Organ Donor Network, which portrays the clock literally as a heart for the city:

When people talk about "the clock" at Grand Central, they always mean one thing: the top of the information booth in the center of the Great Hall. That in itself is actually remarkable, and a testament to the primacy of this space. The clock on Grand Central's facade is the world's largest Tiffany clock, yet it doesn't even compete for recognition as "the clock" at Grand Central.

The clock as logo
Marketing for the terminal's retail has recognized the salience of the clock. It has become the centerpiece of the branding for the shopping experience.

Despite the universal recognition of the Great Hall focused on the clock, how it operates as a public space is not generally understood very well. People notice the high ceilings, the architectural detailing, the movement of bodies like a spontaneous ballet across the floor. Those aspects are important, but the ability to appreciate them is a result of its functional relationships.

The clock stands in a location visible from many angles, a focal point that serves many paths of travel. At the same time, it is located off-center from those paths, such that the flow of passengers is uninterrupted by the mass of stopped people waiting around the clock. These physical relationships give form to a space that can remain still while the universe turns around it.

In a passenger terminal, space needs to be understood visually. Passengers must be able to see where they are going and make sense of their paths of travel. This is a significant challenge (much greater than most people would anticipate). Yet mastering this level of comprehension is not enough. It is necessary to create a space that can also be described verbally. If you cannot explain directions to people unfamiliar with the facility, the terminal cannot work well. The clock is a familiar cultural object, a form that can be described and understood by all in a single word.

Further, clocks hold a cultural resonance that overlays the physical movements and wayfinding functions with historic meaning and metaphor. The clock itself is functionally obsolete, after all. Passengers and other visitors no longer rely on its hands to keep time, as wrist watches and then mobile phones have become our faithful timekeeping companions. The clock is a relic of the regimentation of time across space, which became necessary because of, and was implemented by, the railroads. Before train travel brought communities across the continent closer together, time was a local and somewhat more flexible affair. The proximity and need for coordination created by the railroads made standardization of time and schedule discipline unavoidable. The clock at the center of Grand Central Terminal is the culmination of the railroad's transformation of the conception of time.

Beyond the historic significance, the clock is a metaphor for travel and reunion. While other types of landmarks could provide a location to meet one another, a clock causes us to situate ourselves in time as well as space. We didn't just visit this place, we were here in this moment.

A journey should end in poetry; at Grand Central Terminal, the clock speaks poetically to the moments we share together.

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