Fred A. Bernstein

A Neglected Modernist Masterpiece

Pier Luigi Nervi's bus station at the George Washington Bridge deserves respect

Published in Oculus (Journal of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects), November 2, 2003

Is intercity bus travel so declasse that Americans can't take a bus terminal seriously? How else to explain the indifference to the poured concrete masterpiece by Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979) that spans Broadway at the Manhattan approach to the George Washington Bridge? The structure -- 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."

In 1999, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the building, announced plans to build a 50,000-square-foot multiplex cinema over the parking lot. It was to be just one more example of an architecturally significant Manhattan building becoming a plinth for a more profitable structure. That, of course, was before September 11th; the plan is now on hold. It should remain that way.

Nervi's station is essentially a horizontal platform, raised about 30 feet over the street on angled concrete columns. From the western half of the platform (which is linked by bus lanes to the George Washington Bridge), a second series of columns supports 14 triangular projections -- bug-eyed clerestories that explore the middle ground between Le Corbusier 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 insouciance -- as if painted by Picasso from a sketch by Escher.

The building was inspired by the Hudson River span; Nervi's structure makes explicit references to the bridge's criss-cross trusses, rethinking one idiom -- call it "erector set deco" -- in another. From above, the roof resembles one of the bridge's towers, pushed and pulled like taffy.

As in his better-known Palazzo dello Sport in Rome, Nervi 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 Port Authority (which attributes the building to "John M. Kyle, chief engineer, and Pier Luigi Nervi, consulting engineer" on a plaque out front) has, of course, tinkered with the building over the years. Recent changes to the retail/ticketing concourse (below the bus platform) include materials that would have been an anathema to Nervi. A Port Authority spokesman said the PA has spent $14 million on capital improvements to the terminal since 1999, and that it "remains open to development opportunities at the site."

For now, the building retains its power to inspire. The columns supporting the terminal roof are triumphant. 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 par with Saarinen's TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, another reinforced concrete masterpiece that seems ready to leave the ground. But unlike Saarinen's building, which has achieved iconic status, Nervi's is under-appreciated. It has something to do with location, but a lot to do with the fact that taking a bus to New Jersey (rather than, say, a plane to Paris) is something most New Yorkers prefer to do with eyes wide shut.