Good Design Feels Like 10 Seconds, Bad Design Feels Like 10 Years



Grand Central Vs. Penn Station

One of the most common comments I hear from clients goes something like, “I don’t know the difference between good design and bad design. I just know what I like.”

If you’ve done any kind of professional design work for any substantial amount of time you’ve most likely heard this statement in one form or another. While it wraps up so many issues and challenges into a seemingly neat little ball (a ball that keeps the client in the drivers’ seat by the way) for better or for worse it expresses a certain truth about the universality of ‘good design’.

Before I get away with myself and begin to write a novel on what the ‘universality of good design’ means I am going to, for the purpose of this blog, write a comparison.

The comparison is between Grand Central Station and Penn Station in New York City…

Grand Central feels like 10 seconds.

Penn Station feels like 10 years!

Every morning I take the New Jersey Transit rail into Penn Station in New York City. I commute across town to Grand Central and then to my office on 43rd street and Third Avenue. While making this trip for almost seven years, what never ceased to amaze me was the difference between the two experiences, especially on the days when I chose to walk.

On a nice afternoon, and if I have an extra 10 minutes I may leave my office and walk from Lexington to Madison through Grand Central. When this happens I go across town by foot, usually passing Bryant Park, making my way down to the entrance of Penn Station on 34th street and Seventh Avenue.

Grand Central is a massive architectural structure with space that allows a half million commuters to pass through it every day. Many days at rush hour, I’ve left work with a colleague and gone through Grand Central at rush hour without missing a beat in my discussion, only to find myself outside again on the other side of the building. I’d just walked two avenue blocks and probably through a crowd of about ten thousand people.

When I arrive at Penn Station however, the experience is much different. Penn Station is located beneath Madison Square Garden and at rush hour there are taxi cabs lined up and vendors everywhere outside, in front of the structure. The station is overshadowed by the Garden and sits hidden in the basement. To get there you have to go down stairs where the overstimulation continues. Depending on how you enter the building you may have a completely different experience.

Grand Central sits below the MetLife building and asserts itself proudly in its locale. There are custom made roads and tunnels around Grand Central that establish it as the landmark that it is. Inside it has a massive center room that lives up to its name. The room is open allowing commuters to walk freely from one point to the next in a straight path. There is an information booth in the center of the room and vendors (food shops, newsstands, etc.) are on the located on the outside of this central room. If you’ve never been to Grand Central before you would intuitively know where to get information. The entire structure is built around the information booth.

Penn Station is not centralized. The open area is in the back of the station towards 8th avenue and there are compartmentalized areas for commuter sitting, standing and ticket purchases. Vendor shops encircle this area mixing the commuting crowd with the waiting and eating crowd. During rush hour the standing area fills up and is difficult to navigate through while the blocked off sitting area can often still be almost vacant. The sitting area is very un-welcoming as you have to show a ticket to be allowed to sit. This is no doubt a reaction to the issue of homeless people loitering in the past. Its almost always empty in comparison to the standing area and I still don’t know if I would be allowed to sit with my NJT ticket.

The disjointed layout can result in disjointed behavior by those traveling through the station. You get to see the worst in people during rush hour when there are train delays at Penn Station (a real New York City treat!). I’m sure the booths are there but after seven years I still don’t know exactly where to get information at Penn Station.

In Grand Central all the trains are organized around the structure of the central courtyard. You could go to the booth, get the information you need and head straight to your train. I can’t ever remember having the desire to strangle someone at Grand Central. At Penn Station this happens to me weekly... and that’s not nice… ☹

Penn Station has tunnels, stairs and escalators. It is a poorly marked labyrinth where tunnels 1 through 10 are upstairs and tunnels 11 through 20 are downstairs and around the corner. I remember making the walk to Penn with a colleague who makes a very similar commute to mine and showing him the way to get to the back of his train through the basement. He was not only surprised to discover an entirely separate path to his train but that there was a completely separate waiting area. “I never knew this was here,” he said… no kidding.

To me Grand Central Station feels like 10 seconds. It is the ‘iPhone’ of commuting by train into New York City. Penn on the other hand feels like 10 years. Its disrupted by commercial vendors and is overshadowed by Madison Square Garden which sits heavily on top of it like an oversized red starburst on a magazine cover… I think you get the picture. I will close by saying that I am by no means a ‘train station architectural expert’. I just know what I like in a train station. ☺

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