Terminal Condition. Spring 2012 Netlab Studio


Terminal Condition
Spring 2012

Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Network Architecture Lab

Professor: Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Assistant: Leigha Dennis


This studio explores the re-construction of a large-scale infrastructural element in the city, specifically the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. A structure of 1.5 million square feet, passed through daily by hundreds of thousands of commuters, over seven thousand buses, and thousands of automobiles, providing parking for over 1,000 spaces for automobiles on top, surmounting a subway below, linked to the Lincoln Tunnel through massive ramps for vehicular traffic, and accommodating a significant shopping area, the PABT operates in a realm between building, city, and infrastructure. We are interested in this overlap as a venue for experimentation in programming and design.

As the largest commuter facility in the city, the PABT is a necessary part of everyday life for hundreds of thousands of workers in the city. The PABT was constructed in response to growing traffic congestion in midtown produced by the operation of eight independent bus terminals in the area a decade after the opening of the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937. Costing $24 million, the PABT bus terminal started operations in December 1950, consolidating eight independent bus terminals located in the midtown area. The building has been expanded twice to accommodate growing bus traffic: in 1963 a $30 million expansion added new decks and in 1979 a north wing was built at a cost of over $160 million, integrating with the original structure with a bridge over 41st street through a series of massive X trusses designed by Port Authority chief structural engineer Eugene Fasullo.

Bringing over 50,000 sightseers to the city daily, most of whom stop at Times Square, the PABT has been a key player in midtown, caught up in a longstanding crime problem that only abated during the last decade. With a new, modern exterior and a tiled interior resistant to vandalism, the 1979 reconstruction was intended as an architectural solution. But the expanded space quickly wound up serving a growing population of hundreds of homeless people, drug dealers, and male prostitutes while the “Minnesota Strip” on Eighth avenue outside became a site where newly-arrived runaways of both genders, particularly from the Upper Midwest, would be pressed into prostitution. Soon, the brutalist trusses became seen as a symbol of the decay of the Times Square area. In response, the Port Authority invested significant funds in the redevelopment of the neighborhood and implemented crime prevention strategies. The building is now vastly safer, but with the successful redevelopment of Times Square, the PABT is one of the last vestiges of an older, less commercialized New York. Over the last decade, the Port Authority was working with the Vornado Realty Trust to construct a skyscraper over the north wing, which was built with the possibility of exploiting its air rights in mind. Plans for a forty-story office tower by Richard Rogers including a rooftop garden and eighteen new bus gates came to naught when the Chinese developer pulled out this past November.

In this exercise, we set out to develop new hypotheses for the future of the PABT which we see as needing to respond to a world in which mobility is as much a matter of portable networked telecommunications devices as travel. With the resurgence of bus travel, the Terminal has the opportunity to become an even more significant gateway into the city for both commuters and visitors. Containing significant retail space, the PABT is a major center of commerce in the Times Square area. How do we make a building that embraces civic, commercial, and infrastructural spaces while remaining secure?

Semester Plan

This studio understands the architect as a builder of not merely physical edifices but also social, conceptual, and technical structures. Our interest is to use architecture and the most advanced thinking in network culture to construct new and better ways of life. In doing so, this studio is engaged first and foremost with institution building and shaping of social behavior.

We will begin the semester with team-based based scenario plans. Students will identify the drivers in society, technology, economics, ecology, and politics likely to impact the building over the next generation. These scenario plans will be communicated through the technique of architecture fiction. A review exploring these scenario plans will be held in mid February.

Students will individually develop detailed proposals for the reconstruction of the building by mid-review in March. These proposals will take the form of books that define the mission and goals of the reconstructed PABT and a preliminary idea for an architectural program.


As a Netlab studio concerned with the topic of mobility, this studio will be the first prototypical studio in the GSAPP Cloud. To this end, students will be expected to maintain Tumblr blogs of their research and to keep up with the online work of other students. All student work will be posted online and aggregated to the emerging GSAPP work site.


Students will be responsible for devising programs for a 21st century PABT. With the scenario plans from the first part of the studio in hand, students will be asked to identify the programmatic direction of the new PABT. Crucial to this will be a balance between city, building, and infrastructure. How can the building maintain its own identity while integrating better with the urban environment surrounding it?

In the wake of an era defined by the attention-seeking strategy of shaping, it is only appropriate to ask if architecture shouldn’t lose its singularity and obsession with performance. Can we develop architectural strategies aimed at producing less individualistic works that operate in a more ambient register, embracing formlessness instead of shaping, works that build intensity more subtly rather than giving it away all at once, works that question the boundaries between the city and the building rather than affirming them?

With regard to the site, students will be encouraged to consider the extension of the PABT into New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel and the dedicated Exclusive Bus Lane (XBL) that stretches from the New Jersey Turnpike onto Route 495, underneath the Times Square area through the underground subway station and the subway routes beyond.


Students will work with roving engineers from ARUP during the semester to address the immense requirements of the PABT and the prospects for the construction of their project without disrupting the terminal’s operation.


Ultra-realistic perspective and Photoshop-based montages are banned in this studio. We propose that this sort of representation is inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism,” a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present the eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer.[1] Evacuated of any critical intent, such work only cements the false notion that modern technology has made communication transparent.

But more than that, if all architects produce a form of science fiction, then to paraphrase William Gibson, we need to remember that as we construct futures, all we have at our disposal is the moment that we are currently living in.[2] The moment we construct a future it starts to age rapidly. Since the crash, along with the development of technologies that were formerly consigned to an endlessly deferred proximate future such as near-universal wireless Internet, locative media, tablet computing, and touchscreen interfaces, it seems that we have exhausted the era of the next new thing, of rapid technological and cultural development and obsolescence.

Thus, envisioning the future through architecture forces us to follow Alex Galloway’s suggestion that “all media is dead media,” to understand that appropriate representational strategies that might resist capitalist realist representations might emerge out of a new understanding of what Gibson calls a “long now,” a temporally stretched condition out of which we can freely recombine material and representational motifs.[3]

We will look at forms of representation immanent to our topic at hand, from schedules to traffic engineering plans, flowcharts, to exploded axonometrics for vehicle parts. Such diagrams not only offer rich territory to mine for representational strategies, their close study allows us to better understand the topic we are involved in. Precise, unshaded hidden line drawings, plan, section, elevation, and axonometric offer us a carefully and logically articulated system of delineation appropriate for a bus terminal.


20% Attendance and Participation

Students are expected to attend studio sessions, be on time, and ready to discuss their work at every session. Students are expected to participate in group discussions, to cooperate with other studio members by offering criticism, advice, and good spirit.

Group meetings, regularly scheduled once per week allow us to share our research and constantly re-tune our method and approach to the material.

Students are expected to be at pin-ups and reviews on time with work ready to present. Students who are not ready at the beginning of the pin-up or review forfeit the right to receive criticism. Students are expected to contribute to pin-ups and reviews, both in terms of criticism and questions as well as by working in a team to ensure that rooms are ready to present in (adequate chairs, projectors, and so on).

40% Concept

Students will be graded on the originality and rigor of their concepts. All students need a coherent thesis in this studio.

Columbia teaches in English. There is help available for difficulties with the English language in the university, but lack of understanding is not an excuse.

40% Execution and Presentation

A good concept means little if it is poorly executed or presented. Presentation and execution are not trivial, nor are they mere “polish,” rather the choices made in presentation and execution should inform, and be informed by, the concept.

Students are expected to render and present their work clearly, succinctly, and elegantly.

Work should be thoroughly and represented.

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative,  (Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009).

[2] Scott Thill, “William Gibson Talks Zero History, Paranoia and the Awesome Power of Twitter,” Wired Underwire Blog, posted September 7, 2010, https://www.wired.com/underwire/2010/09/william-gibson-interview/all/1.

[3] Alex Galloway, “Cory Arcangel (Beige) and Paper Rad’s The Mario Movie" (2005)https://www.deitch.com/projects/press_text.php?pressId=29. Michael Parsons, “Interview: Wired Meets William Gibson,” Wired UK posted October 13, 2010, https://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-10/13/william-gibson-interview.

Read more

2011 in Review:


With the New Year upon us, its time for me to review another year. 
Last year at this time, I observed:  
2010 marked the year in which "the next big thing" came to an end.
Nothing in 2011 changed that. Steve Jobs's death only underscored that an earlier era of network culture, in which technological innovation seemed commonplace, has definitively passed. This is not to say that innovation didn't continue. Little things made a difference in our lives, like Mog, an online music service that allows subscribers to download from a vast online catalog (it has about 90% of what I set out to find and has introduced me to a great deal of music I was not familiar with before) at 320k bps (a decent, if not perfect sampling rate). 
If anything, technology had been where the next big thing took its last stand. In other fields, the next big thing is long gone. Architecture, which in the 1990s seemed to revolutionize itself year by year, has lain fallow in this millennium. Over at the Washington Post, critic Philip Kennicott calls this "a year like most others in this age of no discernible isms or movements, no dominant ideologies, no marching to a single manifesto." In music too there have been no major movements since electronica and grunge, some twenty years ago, which is not to say that there haven't been plenty of minor movements and plenty of albums that I enjoy listening to. 
On the contrary, it seems like we are firmly in a long tail culture. For the younger set, now coming of age in our universities, this may even be the only state of affairs that has ever existed, with the prospect of something about to break big being unfamiliar, the idea that one had to visit the architecture bookstore every week for fear of missing out on something shattering utterly strange. As I concluded last year, admist all this micro-stardom, starchitecture seems exhausted. Oh there are few names who aspire to starchitecture status, but their hopes seem more desparate and futile with each passing year. In an era in which subjectivity itself seems to become a product of the network, perhaps starchitecture itself was nothing less than another case of the leaves on a trees being most brilliant in autumn. 
When it comes to urbanism, the rhetoric about the Smart City reached a fevered pace in 2011, but it was only a sideshow to the biggest and saddest news, the earthquake that devastated Japan and unleashed the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. During the research for the Infrastructural City, the dangers of overcomplexity in the urban realm became clear to me. With the financial meltdown, so did the danger posed by sophisticated schemes to extract profit from the markets such as derivatives and high speed trading (the latter concern received more attention in the mainstream press last year andwas so well articulated by Kevin Slavin in his TED talk). The catastrophe at Fukushima, however, underscored the precarious nature of the technologies that keep us going and how quickly accidents can spiral far out of anyone's control, even in this age in which we feel ourselves to be the masters of technology. Closer to home, the threat of Hurricane Irene and the minor destruction that the Halloween snowstorm wreaked upon my neighborhood and the whole American Northeast (save New York, apparently protected by its status as a concrete heat island) demonstrated that proper planning for disasters is a necessary part of everyday life. For one, this is because of climate change. All but an extremist few accept this today. But it is also because of the less robust nature of our technologies and the rigidity that increasing urbanization brings. I am sure that we might have gotten sick of them, but my parents and I could have survived for weeks in fall and early winter off the apples from the old orchard we found on the property I grew up on in the Berkshires. Just try that in the heart of the global city today. 
The problems that network culture breeds could be seen in the political landsape of the year as both the Eurozone and the United States were repeatedly brought to the point of crisis by vested interests who value their own positions above any greater responsibility to society. Make no mistake: this is not an anomaly, rather it is a fundamental, toxic byproduct of networked publics. In contrast, the Occupy movement posed networked publics as a critical voice, capable of effective and sustained mobilization without any visible figureheads. Just how this movement can transform into a broad democratic forum capable of effecting political change is still unclear. Paradoxically, perhaps in this case, that might be a position of strength.
On a personal note, it might cheer the architects among my readers to hear that my wife and I finally bought a house. It's not that I have faith in the markets. They are as likely to move downward as to move upward, but at some point you just have to accept that while you may lose money on such a venture, having a decent place to live and work in is more important than saving a few thousand. We bought our house in Montclair, New Jersey, a town that we have lived in ever since I started working at Columbia 5 1/2 years ago. Montclair has been a fascinating community for me: relatively diverse in income and ethnicity, linked to the city by relatively efficient bus and train lines and easily walkable in many parts. In addition, Montclair is denser than many so-called cities in this country and boasts a diversity of housing types. The fact of the matter is that regardless of what you may hear at conferences, census figures show that most cities are still shrinking (although in some cases, as in New York, we see land values that make life for this family of four cost-prohibitive). Instead of declaring all suburbs equal and damning them, we urgently need to find ways to build relatively dense, attractive settlements close in to the urban core. Settling in Montclair, one of the first suburbs, seems to me like a positive step in understanding how we may one day do so again. 
Then there's modernism. We were lucky enough to find a relatively affordable modern house in town. Waking up there every day—even during the twin disasters this fall—has been a delight. We spent much of the summer on much-needed repairs: an exterior deck needed serious work to be safe and the house had suffered from botched attempts to stain its wood siding some years ago. Even in the last week of the year we found ourselves welcoming a new fireplace insert by Morso. It's been a great journey and we still feel a bit like Charles and Ray Eames, with the real construction of the house through our  life in it still ahead of us.  
What will 2012 bring? I wouldn't put my money on a complete collapse of civilization, but more of the same morass seems likely. Economies will lurch along, punctuated by perodic crises and moments of elation, allowing opportunistic traders to take advantage of the investments that so many of us in the States count on to see us through in our old age (even in Columbia, the only pension plan we have access to is the market, which seems clevely tuned to take advantage of us instead of building a retirement plan). Much as I'd love it to be otherwise, more natural disasters will take place. I am hardly a fan of the Obama administration (see Aaron Suskind's 2011 book Confidence Men for a litany of the reasons why) but the Republicans are worse (remember those horrific eight years of Bush? the US was the world's laughing-stock). Luckily, at present the Republicans seem likely to prove themselves true masters of statemate, unlikely to be able to choose a candidate that they can back (caveat: if Romney gets an early enough lead, he might be able to beat Obama). The Eurozone will continue its crisis. It won't collapse, but I expect Greece to default by April. Wall Street will struggle to mount a comeback that will be thwarted by the Eurozone crisis. 
By the end of next year, things are likely to look somewhat worse. In last year's entry I mentioned Gopal Balakrishnan's article on the stationary state of economies during this decade. It's well worth a look. There are two things I'd like to expand upon. The first is that, as always, there is a degree of uneven development in all this. The major global financial centers, like New York and London, will do relatively well. The massive booms may be over, but they will remain lures for overaccumulated capital to burn up in through tourism, education, fashion, and real estate consumption. Urban elites will pat themselves on the back about the success of their cities, thinking that it is their innate hipsterdom, or perhaps their roles in building apps for smart cities or exhibiting mildly political, mildly amusing work in mildly cutting-edge galleries. In contrast, other cities—and even countries—that saw relative prosperity over the last decade but have since stagnated will wear down. You can see this throughout Europe these days. A few years on, the na├»ve optimism that there will be a quick end to this crisis has faded. The architecture of the boom, which was never meant to last anyway, will collapse under poor maintenance. We'll also begin seeing in China as that country's economy begins a moderate slowdown (watch for North Korea's role in all this as it could be a destabilizing influence, and hence lead to capital flight from the whole region). Shanghai and other big cities will do well as regional centers will begin to feel stress. That said, the Chinese economy is so different from the economies of the countries most of us are familiar with and the government will manipulate its own economy—if not the economy of other countries—as it deems necessary. The big news of the year may be more trouble in Russia and perhaps even elsewhere in countries such as the Ukraine. Spring fever, as we saw last year throughout the Middle East is catching, and networks make it move all the faster.
Throughout it, we'll live in a more Braudelian history, in which events themselves will be more clearly seen as "surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs." From any distance, such has always been history's legacy.      

Read more