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.
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.
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.