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Ralph Fiennes “has enough barrel-chested authority to sustain interest in what might otherwise seem arcane.” That’s how New York Times theater critic Matt Wolf described Fiennes’s turn as the arguably infamous, definitely complicated urban planner Robert Moses in the play “Straight Line Crazy.” (Seems an apt title. -Ed.) Among Moses’s infractions was the Trans-Manhattan Expressway which, by 1962, had connected I-95 between The Bronx and New Jersey via a brutal cut through Washington Heights. Still, in its wake, it left an architectural landmark.
Moses was never the boss of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But he had so much power that the Port Authority effectively couldn’t move without his blessing. Still—perhaps in a moment of weakness by Moses who had no love for mass transit—the Port Authority managed to get a bus station built by world-renowned structural engineer and architect Pier Luigi Nervi.

A work of the first rank: the bus station that time forgot
There it sat, reflecting the fortunes of the neighborhood around it.
A work of the first rank: the bus station that time forgot

Nervi was born in 1891 in Northern Italy and by 1913 he had joined the Society for Concrete Construction. Not one to disappoint the Society, Nervi built a series of aircraft hangars of progressively more delicate all-concrete construction and, post war, contributed his expertise to rapid rebuilding of free Europe’s infrastructure.

Nervi left his mark all throughout Europe, from Stadio Flaminio in Rome to UNESCO HQ in Paris. North America was no exception. There’s Tour de la Bourse in Montréal and the Cathedral of St. Mary in San Francisco, plus two examples—Leverone Field House and Thompson Arena—at Dartmouth. That’s a status shared only by Norfolk VA, with its Chrysler Hall and Norfolk Scope.
Yet as much architecture as New York had by 1962—and it had a lot—it didn’t have anything by the master of concrete structural expressionism. The Port Authority changed that with the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. (Because it was attached to the G.W. Bridge, right? -Ed.) Built to accommodate 255 buses per hour, the new station sat at the Manhattan landing of the bridge. (I knew it! -Ed.) And there it sat, reflecting the fortunes of the neighborhood around it.

In 2004, New York City’s resident architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, revisited the station 40 years after it was built. Ascending via escalator from the ground floor at 175th Street, she wrote this:

“Nothing suggests the drama at the top of the escalator that leads to the local commuter bus lines. The angled butterfly trusses, open for ventilation, frame an exhilarating view of the [G.W.] bridge. Huge central columns receive the weight of the trusses, tapering to a dancer's lightness at the floor. Small, curved-roof glass kiosks along the platforms provide attractive and appropriate protection. The narrow, striated pattern of Nervi's concrete aggregate is visible; this is a powerfully handsome place, soot notwithstanding.”

Oddly enough, there are present-day parallels between Nervi’s structure and what Santiago Calatrava designed for the World Trade Center transit hub. They’re structural, obviously—Nervi’s butterfly trusses that expand out versus Calatrava’s spindly interpretation of the same—but also symbolic: this is where people cross paths before fanning out towards their lives. But unlike Calatrava, Nervi built his creation north of Central Park and south of The Cloisters. And that’s an area which most of New York—and especially Manhattan below 96th Street—tends to forget.

History of the George Washington Bridge Bus Station [via Port Authority of New York and New Jersey]

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