Saturday, October 13, 2007

Train Station Progress

Milwaukee's train station has been under remodeling for a year or so, and it's coming together. The inside's a shifting maze of construction partitions and temporary spaces as the work moves around to keep the station operational during construction; outside, the strange tangle of structural beams that form the new front elevation has been assembled, painted, and clad in glass. The space behind it will serve as the new waiting area, a bright and open space to replace the old dim and dingy interior.

Milwaukee Amtrak Station

Milwaukee Amtrak Station

Milwaukee Amtrak Station

Train station progress

The remodeling meant the loss of one of the city's most prominent examples of New Formalist architecture, but the building as built was an unacceptably degrading way to enter the city, with a dim and depressing interior virtually devoid of windows, natural light, and charm of any sort.

Milwaukee Amtrak Station

I don't know what to think of the crazy-quilt arrangement of random diagonal structural members; it looks a bit like somebody's pet crazy academic theory come to life, or else random chaos -- an attempt to substitute flash for substance and well-designed order. But at least it should make the waiting room space interesting, and it'll make the station easy to find: meet me at the pick-up-sticks building! The news space will certainly be bright, inviting and spacious.

But amid all the hype surrounding the waiting room and ticketing remodel, what's being overlooked is that the process of boarding trains will remain as uninviting as ever, since the renovation will not be touching the train shed.

The train shed (and I cannot think of a more appropriately derisive name for it) is and will remain a singularly dingy, undignified and unattractive place. It is lit solely by sodium vapor lamps. It sends passengers down a mini-maze of grungy concrete tunnels. And as a space, it's utterly forgettable, with almost no design elements beyond basic necessities whatsoever.

The entire art of boarding and detraining with grace seems to have been lost in America. Most of the great train sheds of yesteryear have been retired (St. Louis's Union Station) or demolished (Chicago's Union Station, New York's Penn Station, the latter famously eulogized by Vincent Scully: "Through it one entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.") The Penn Station train shed was a true work of art, a cathedral in raw iron and glass, with shafts of sunlight piercing its depths. Milwaukee's train shed is a dingy bunker that deserves to be ripped down and replaced with something designed by someone who gives a damn, rather than someone committed to putting up the cheapest roof possible.

Still. The rat warren may remain at trackside, but at least Milwaukee will soon have a dignified place to wait for a train.


Dave said...

Hey I recently took a bunch of photos of the new building... It's actuallly pretty sharp

Anonymous said...

The train shed/platforms/access ramps and tunnels will be rebuilt as part of a later phase of the Intermodal Station project. WisDOT is currently in the process of working up the specifics for that work, and has it scheduled for 2010.

Jennifer said...

The new waiting area is a million times more inviting and impressive, but what's with the exterior uplighting? I didn't appreciate being spotlit from below while I was unfolding my bike, and several other people seemed annoyed that there were only so many glare-free spots on the sidewalk.

Anonymous said...

I really like the new station. It's not just a feeling of wow this is just a lot better than before, but actually liking the building. I heard the same thing about the train barn. I wish they could get that done sooner but as long as it gets done. I like the street improvements around the station also.

Does anybody know what is happening to the warehouse across the street? The last time I saw it, it looked like major progress was being made.

Robert Powers said...

Anon #1: That's great news!! Thanks for the info. That train shed really needs to go -- glad to hear it's in the works, even if it's a ways down the road.

Trina said...

This weekend we took the train, and while we found the not-quite-finished waiting area to be certainly bright and spacious (although I expect more so when it is finished), it was definitely not inviting. The previous area may have lacked charm, but at least it had a certain personality. The waiting area right now is completely sterile -- too many straight edge boring drywall corners and all white -- and disorienting, as the Amtrak logos are small compared to the Greyhound logo. They need hanging overhead signs directing people to activity areas (i.e. buy, pick-up, baggage, etc. for Amtrak and Greyhound), which will hopefully be coming later. I hope that they will take the time and energy to improve the area as they finish it. Wow, I sound grouchy. Anyway my overall opinion: bright, possibly spacious when it is done, but not yet inviting although I look forward to that.

Also, as Chris pointed out -- if it's going to be multimodal, why not bring back the diner instead of a wall of vending machines? That would allow more human interaction.

Anonymous said...

if it's going to be multimodal, why not bring back the diner instead of a wall of vending machines? That would allow more human interaction.

There is going to be a restaurant in the new Intermodal Station.