A girl needs a dress, they said, and so Pier Luigi Nervi was invited to come in and wave the fairy-godmotherly wand. He created an elaborate concrete canopy in his Italian high engineering style. A central spine of columns rising up along the median supports two enormous wings that span the 186 foot wide highway. Writing when it was opened, Milton Bracker of the New York Times called it “the spine of a Mesozoic monster.” Later writers have been more kind, likening it rather to a butterfly perched atop the Cross Bronx expressway. Each wing is made of 13 triangular sections of concrete, laid out over a triangular filigree of beams. Triangulation seems to be the theme here. Triangular grids, tapering columns; a conscious avoidance of the right angle, of anything that would relate to the modernist glass boxes springing up all over midtown. Contrary to Bracker’s unfortunate prehistoric association, this was to be the bus terminal of the future: its capsule-like waiting areas curiously reminiscent of the first Starship Enterprise.
Today, one rarely sees passengers looking up to admire Nervi’s concrete pavilion. This isn’t because it isn’t beautiful, in its own way. It is because they just can’t see it for what it is. How could they? Nothing that they have encountered while walking into the bus terminal hints to them that an unappreciated gem sits above. Nervi’s butterfly is only the tip of the iceberg. Before passengers coming in from Manhattan see the concrete ball gown, they must go through two levels of rather matronly undergarments: A lower level of bus platforms which is also the connection to the Subway station, and a middle level concourse with the obligatory retail space.
Yet, what the GWBBS does for them on a daily basis, barber shop or no barber shop, is nothing to be scoffed at. On a map of the area, the GWBBS looks rather like an intravenous syringe, with expressways and roads streaming into it like tubes, carrying a steady flow of traffic in and out. Granted, the syringe is plunged into an unglamorous part of the urban body, but that does not make it any less vital. Every day, an estimated 17,000 passengers get on and off 950 buses under the expert supervision of the GWBBS. She dutifully does the best she can for each one of them, decked out in a dress they will never look at.
You can go to the website of the George Washington Bus Station here.
A collection of photographs of the Station (mostly by me), can be downloaded here. (pdf,3.2MB)