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No.8: Grand Central Station

issue 37 Jun / Jul 2007

Laura Jones who heads LiT: Buro Happold’s Specialist Lighting Group goes for an American icon.

The original building on the site, Grand Central Depot, opened in October 1871. It was commissioned by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt for the New York Central Railroad and designed by architect John B. Snook, for the cost of $6.4 million. The depot’s most prominent feature was its enormous train shed. Constructed of glass and steel, the 100-foot wide by 650-foot long structure rivaled the Eiffel Tower and Crystal Palace for its dramatic engineering.
Between 1903 and 1913, the entire building was torn down in phases and replaced by the current Grand Central Terminal, which was designed by the architectural firms of Reed and Stern and Warren and Wetmore. It was built in the Beaux Art style and encapsulated a unique time in American history where electric lighting was becoming popular, rail travel was an event and there were technological advancements in building techniques that pushed structural design. The layout of the terminal was an innovation in the way that transit hubs were designed. Including ramps instead of stairs was a new concept for conducting the flow of traffic through a space.
The terminal and the immediate neighbourhood fell on hard times during the financial collapse of its railroads but when Donald Trump bought adjacent land in 1974 creating the Grand Hyatt Hotel, the area began a transformation.
A twelve year renovation costing $250 million was completed in 1999 and the main concourse benefits from a relight by Fisher Marantz Stone. Most of the artificial lighting within the main concourse is concentrated around the perimeter of the hall with a soft wash of light created by the restored perimeter socket strips. The pendant luminaires with their exposed lamps celebrate the electric light bulb, a phenomenon at the time of the station opening. The artificial lighting strips add a level of texture and decoration to what is a decoratively restrained space. Vertical lighting to exits and entrances provides the required level of light to direct commuters and visitors through the space. The light finish of the stone aids the relatively low light levels within the hall although the concourse works well as a transition space from the brightness of outside to the darker platforms below.
The previously unseen and now famous concourse ceiling was revealed after the restoration to have an elaborately decorated astronomical ceiling, painted in 1912 by French artist Paul César Helleu. It had been obscured by decades of tar and nicotine from cigarette smoke. There are two peculiarities to this ceiling: the sky is backwards, and the stars are slightly displaced. This has been backlit using fibreoptics and is enhanced with subtle uplighting.
Other recognisable icons of Grand Central’s main concourse include the huge windows and the central clock. Each of the four clock faces are made from opal, with an estimated value of $20m.
The main concourse at Grand Central Terminal is frequently featured in films, books and even comics and rarely is a buidling so much a part of the popular culture of a country.

“One of the most striking aspects of the main concourse at Grand Central Terminal is the penetration of sunlight into the space from the upper windows, as depicted in the 1920’s black and white photos of the space. Although somewhat reduced these days due to the development of surrounding buildings sunlight still highlights people and animates their movement as they weave in and out of the light on their daily commute.
The artificial lighting by Fisher Marantz Stone indicates the importance of vertical illuminance on the perimeter surfaces over light levels on the floor. The space has very low light levels yet feels very comfortable. Although half a million people pass through the space daily it doesn’t feel congested or noisy like other stations’ terminals. The more subdued quality of light and uncluttered interior has a calming influence when you enter the space. When I visited last month, the hall had almost a reverent quality. It is perhaps not surprising that an American flag was suspended in the concourse the day after 9/11. It indicates that this iconic space isn’t just important to commuters on a functional level but provides New Yorkers and visitors with an opportunity to reflect and rest from the bright and busy city outside.”
Laura Jones

Buro Happold’s
Specialist Lighting Group


Grand Central


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