Fred A. Bernstein

An Overlooked Modernist Masterpiece

Pier Luigi Nervi's bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge

Published in Blueprint, November 15, 2000

An Overlooked Modernist Masterpiece

Published in Blueprint, November 2000

Is intercity bus travel so declasse that it's hard for New Yorkers to take a bus terminal seriously? That's the only explanation for the indifference to the poured concrete masterpiece by Pier Luigi Nervi that spans Broadway at the Manhattan approach to the George Washington Bridge. The building -- a station and attached parking lot, one of Nervi's few completed projects outside Italy -- is a superb example of the poetry he wrought from ferro-concrete, exploring, as he put it, "the mysterious affinity between physical laws and the human senses." Now that affinity is threatened by a planned multiplex cinema, a 50,000 square foot building (not yet designed), to be constructed over the parking lot portion of the Nervi building. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the quasi-public organization that owns the terminal, hopes to move ahead with the plans after a structural survey is completed early next year.

It is the latest example of New York treating a significant building as a plinth for another, more profitable structure -- the same Port Authority is planning a skyscraper over its other terminal, near Times Square.

The Nervi building, completed in 1962, begins with a horizontal platform, raised about 30 feet over the street on angled concrete columns. Above the western half of the platform, a second series of columns support 14 triangular projections, bug-eyed clerestories that explore the otherwise neglected middle ground between Corbu and Gaudi. Striking from the outside (approached, as they usually are, from a drab section of Upper Broadway), they are nothing short of thrilling from the inside, where their concrete louvers funnel light to the waiting areas below with a mixture of precision and delight.

The other half of the platform -- a parking lot -- has nothing on it but cars, and that's where the theater will be built. But the Port Authority, which stands to make millions, hasn't said how the new building will be massed. Even if it the cinema never touches Nervi's skylights, it will obscure them from some directions and compete with them from others.

Like the Gwathmey-Siegel addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, overhanging and threatening to overshadow Wright's rotunda, the cineplex will be a looming omnipresence.

Anything that touches -- or diminishes the effect of -- Nervi's geometry should be off the table. The building was inspired by the George Washington Bridge -- which Le Corbusier called "the most beautiful bridge in the world." Nervi's structure makes clear references to the bridge's criss-cross trusses, rethinking one idiom -- call it "erector set deco" -- in another.

As in his better-known Palazzo dello Sport in Rome, Nervi (1891-1979) revels in structural predetermination -- the tracery of his vaults is as inevitable as the ribs of a wood canoe -- and in the plasticity of ferro-concrete (his movable forms were made of the same material as the finished building). The brain behind these eyes is both calculating and playful.

News of the planned cineplex has sent at least one architecture writer -- this one -- scurrying to see the condition of the terminal, which he hadn't visited in years. (It's common for owners to allow non-landmarked masterpieces to deteriorate to the point where no one cares what happens to them -- neglect becoming an excuse for demolition.) In this case, while the building is far from pristine, the majesty of Nervi's creation is undiminished. The columns supporting the terminal roof are surprisingly moving (their tapering forms and striated surface suggest sequoias, yet without the slightest hint of kitsch). Above, concrete is rendered nearly weightless. The building is on a par with Saarinen's TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, another reinforced concrete masterpiece that seems to leave the ground. But unlike Saarinen's building, which has achieved iconic status, Nervi's is little known. It has something to do with location, but a lot to do with the fact that boarding a bus to New Jersey (rather than, say, a plane to Paris) is something most New Yorkers prefer to do with eyes wide shut.