We Entered As Gods

The power of first impressions

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Eye rolls allowed. I hesitate to use a platitude so freely, and for the opening line of a piece, no less. But the reason phrases like this are so often used is that there’s no small degree of truth to them. So, platitude. As humans, we’re wickedly judgmental. Though we try our best to give everyone and everything a fair shake, only the most strong willed can overcome the power of passing initial judgement. I’m not so strong willed.

Regardless of what one sees or experiences in their stay, for however long, they will always carry a piece of their first impression of a place. That’s why there’s no more important structure in shaping our impression of a city than the gateway we come to it through, be it a train station, airport, bus terminal or port. For car travelers, the sky line or procession of entry roads perform this function. Gateways set the stage for the experience you’re about to have somewhere. The moment we step into this transitory realm, our minds are working in overdrive to form an opinion of what this new place will be like. Will it be beautiful? Clean, or dirty? Busy? Is it welcoming, or standoffish? Are the local attractions advertised actually worth seeing?

Gateways are the physical representation of the more intangible values and ethos that govern every place. That’s part of the reason why for most of industrialized history, rolling out the red carpet to new visitors and returning residents has been of paramount importance. While the rest of the city might be sticks and stone glued together precariously, if the main train hall delivers an awe inspiring experience, we’re more likely to see those sticks and stones with rose colored glasses. Charming, not unkempt. Moreover, a statement gateway imbues a pride in a city that proclaims to all those who enter: “this place is worth being in.” By extension, your own status is elevated by your mere presence in a place that is working so hard to impress you. Why would you want to be anywhere else?

In this vein, a gateway can be as much about branding as a transportation depot. It’s the calling card of a city, the front door that welcomes you in to shape what the rest of the house will be like. Remarkable works in the genre evoke the beauty of their cities writ large. Gare du Nord (Paris), St. Pancras (London), Union Station (Washington DC), Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Mumbai), Amsterdam Centraal (Amsterdam), Milano Centrale (Milan) and lesser known terminuses like Antwerpen-Centraal (Antwerp) or CFM Railway Station (Maputo) are all integral pieces in the fabric of these exceptionally beautiful places.

While I don’t have empirical data, a place that cares little for its first impression probably doesn’t care for how the rest of itself looks either. Though I’m not saying the rest of a city with a magnificent gateway can’t be chaotic, dirty or ugly, I am arguing that it’s difficult for any place to be perceived on first impression as wholly beautiful, innovative or inspiring without such a gateway. Proud, even narcissistic cities are an immense asset to our lived experience. We benefit from their mission to impress us.

There are, of course, less excellent examples of the oeuvre. These inspire little emotion in those who pass through, and set the stage that a place is rather indifferent on a given person’s visit or stay. Even actively hostile. To gain an understanding of this, we need look no further than New York. The impression that it’s a pushy, unkind, dirty and inhumane place is done no favors by Penn Station or Laguardia or Port Authority or JFK or even the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. These are injustices to the greatness of the city of New York. No matter how luxurious your experience in the city is — floor seats to the Knicks, a night at the Plaza or a meal at 11 Madison Park — your experience will still feel tainted in some essential way because of how you entered it. But it wasn’t always like this.

Perhaps no better dichotomy exists between the eras of New York’s gateways than the original and current Penn Station. The former was completed in 1910 in an awe-inspiring beaux-art style designed by the country’s greatest architectural trio, McKim, Meade & White. The latter, a vestige of a forgotten New York, a city that tore itself down to make access to the suburbs as easy as possible. It cared little for impressing others or accommodating those who had the misfortune of living (or being trapped) there.

Waiting in Penn Station, or, alternatively, purgatory. (Source: Gothamist)

The destruction of the original Penn Station was not only a significant loss for the city’s architectural heritage — the bulldozing ushered in the city’s modern historic preservation movement and broad cultural acceptance of the practice — but it changed the perception of New York City writ large. No longer was this a place that was welcoming or proud of itself. There was little excitement. Its accumulated splendor as physical manifestations of pride and joy in the built environment made way for the utilitarianism of the midcentury city. New York replaced its glories with vapid masses of materials, forgetting that emotion and inspiration are the integral facets of any successful place.

For those who could leave, they ducked into train stations and drove out on highways that further deprived this incomparable place of its former grandeur in a vicious self-fulfilling cycle. In this era, when one came into the city, they felt subservient and dirty. No longer celebrated by a grand entryway, but shuffled through a back door into the basement. Vincent Scully, the legendary architectural historian and professor lamented, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”

When I was in college, Heathrow was the first major gateway I passed through outside of the US. It felt like entering into a new world, and not just because of the accents. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was enveloped by it. Everything was clean. Really clean. That means something coming from New York. Light and air shone through at every opportunity. Steel and glass worked harmoniously to create the contemporary effect that I was walking into a place that valued its visitors. Kiosks served food from around the globe, and not once did I bump or forcibly crowd into someone else despite the sensory overload of dozens of languages and screens advertising the wonders of the world. There was space. It all looked, and felt, so good. We took an express train into London. There were bright purples and yellows all around, and a seat for each one of us. There were, if I recall correctly, outlets and Wifi. For the rest of the trip, I was primed to view London as a cosmopolitan, clean, innovative, easily accessible and welcoming metropolis. It was all of that. At least, that’s how I perceived it.

With dread, I returned back through JFK. I shuffled sheepishly through a windowless corridor along vinyl composition tiles and tried to steer my shoulders clear of stained off-white walls. I didn’t dare look long at the dropped popcorn ceilings. Like cattle, I was herded with dozens of others towards one of several taxi lines, though I’m still not quite sure how I made it out. I felt less like I was arriving in one of the world’s pre-eminent cities, and more like I was flying into a labyrinthine regional airport of 1980’s vintage. Just like those who come through Penn Station today, I was primed to put my head down and get to wherever I needed to go, as soon as possible. No magic or wonder here, they didn’t exist.

Instead of our first step into New York being the Port Authority Bus Terminal or Penn Station, which have been described (generously) as “If Hell had a Hell” or “A horrible mass psychological experiment with no cheese at the end”, we need to rebuild aspirational gateways that do justice to the city, and inspire those who pass through to contribute to its greatness for decades to come. Thankfully, things are turning around.

After nearly a half century of indifference, New York has come back to the realization that its gateways are powerful arbiters of opinion and bastions of commerce in their own rights. Why it didn’t look earlier to Grand Central, the heart of Midtown and one of the world’s most exceptional gateways, I can’t say. When one passes under the constellations of its the ceiling to stand by the world-famous clock to look for friends, family or business contacts, you can feel the generations of power, ambition, beauty and significance of New York passing through you. There are few experiences like it.

Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus at The World Trade Center is as stark of an architectural departure from Grand Central as imaginable, but nonetheless a project with similar ambitions. It positions all of lower Manhattan as a contemporary, ethereal jungle from which the wings of the Oculus fly through. The first time I walked it’s marble floors, I was concerned I’d dirty them with my presence. I stopped in awe at the cavernous main hall, in disbelief such a place could exist. I was at once transported to another world, and primed to view the doors outside this station as a godly realm.

Cost overruns be damned. Gateways like The Oculus are the kinds of investment cities need to be making if they want to remain relevant on the global stage. We can’t possibly hope to inspire future generations if we’re making decisions on a 4 year timeline with normal budgetary constraints (or 12 if people really like your plans). Multi-century structures care little for the caprices of election cycles.

We cannot in good faith value the price of a first impression, nor the power that transformational structures hold over cities. The great gateways of the past were built to such extravagance precisely to inspire (or instill fear) in all who passed through. We should return to this era (inspiration, not fear) not for vanity, nor personal notoriety, but for posterity. When one walks through a place like Grand Central or Gare du Nord, they feel the endless possibility that the builders of these terminals must have felt to put them up in the first place. To put our best foot forward, and continue to put that foot forward for generations to come, we must build gateways that have the ability to inspire the power of possibility. To do anything else is to give up on the greatest creation in human history, the city itself.

Passionate about cities and the potential to create better places at the intersection of Real Estate Development & Urban Planning. Twitter: @cobylefko

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