Culture Of Time: New York’s Newest Public Clock Is A Triumph

Culture Of Time: New York’s Newest Public Clock Is A Triumph

New York’s Penn Station is synonymous with poor design. Low ceilings. A general feeling of dread. The city’s major rail hub exists, in its current incarnation, almost as an afterthought, buried beneath a basketball arena that doubles as a hockey rink. But it wasn’t always thus. 

Before its demolition in the 1960s, the old Penn Station was one of the country’s grand public places, connecting New York to America. The recent opening of the new Moynihan Train Hall, across 8th Avenue from Madison Square Garden, represents a renewal – for the neighborhood, for the city, and for the memory of the old Penn Station. 

At the center of the Moynihan Train Hall is a grand public clock. Its art deco inspiration is immediately felt, but it also draws from Czech cubism. Peter Pennoyer, the man who brought it to life, is a 63-year-old architect (and great-great-grandson of J.P. Morgan) whose firm previously redesigned the Metropolitan Opera Club. Below, he explains his approach to the Penn Station project.  

Peter Pennoyer (Photo credit: Peter Olson)

HODINKEE: Moynihan Train Hall recalls a time when travel by rail was, if not glamorous, then at least more civilized. Natural light abounds, and in the center is your beautiful clock. How did the space shape the clock we see today?

Peter Pennoyer: The first challenge was to respond to the scale. It’s a huge space, so the clock had to be big, and it had to read at the scale of that room and not look like it was too small or too large. And it didn’t have the advantage of sitting on the floor like the Grand Central clock, which has that great information booth that gives it a kind of stature positioned in the concourse. Ours was suspended from the trusses. The other thing is that those trusses are kind of muscular and bold, and so the clock had to have enough texture to stand up visually to the texture and the kind of sculptural presence of all those original trusses.

The interior of the Moynihan Train Hall. Photo credit Nicolas Knight, Courtesy Empire State Development.

Suspended by four cables, it appears to be floating in space. From a purely practical standpoint, how does the mechanism receive power?

The power is brought down along one of those cables. You can’t even see the feed. That was designed by the engineers who were in charge of everything electrical in the whole building. Not that we would have had one, but having multiple cables also avoids the gravitational effect of hanging a pendulum. If you hang a very heavy object from a hundred-foot cable, it moves. It’s a really stable way of getting it – it’s solid, and it’s good for seismic. But mostly we did it because the trusses have a sort of industrial character, and I think that would have been compromised or not respected had we made some fixed attachment to the clock. Inevitably, our attachment would have been more ornamental or architectural.

Fabrication of the clock at Hyde Park Mouldings. Pennoyer has worked with Hyde Park on several projects. (Courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects)

In an age when so many people get the time from a phone in their pocket, what does a grand public clock mean to a culture?

I don’t think it’s just pure nostalgia, though I suppose there could be a little component of that. I’d like to think that when you look at a clock face, you’re calling on certain skills in your brain that are very different from what we all do 90% of our waking hours, which is looking at the virtual, and the screen, and things that aren’t permanent. In that the clock is a physical, mechanical object, it seems to have some more permanent resonance than if it were just a screen. 

I like physical objects. In photography, I like that I had to learn how to use the f-stop and the shutter speed and all those things to understand how they impact the outcome of the image on the film. The analog, to me, is a physical manifestation of the way we measure things. That is certainly kind of archaic in a sense, but in a way makes it more real to the way my brain works.

(Courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects)

There’s a tradition of railway clocks, not only here in New York but all around the world. Switzerland, for example, uses the same clock in all of its stations. Did you look to existing railway clocks to decide what you wanted this clock to have and not to have?

Yes, we did. We started at Grand Central. That seemed like a great inspiration. But that’s a sphere, and so then we started to pull apart the sphere. And what if it’s just the dials? And then we looked at the old Penn Station clock, we looked at European clocks, and we also involved friends at a company called Dyad, a graphic designer, and they recommended the numeral style which is called DIN. It was designed for railway and highway use. And I happen to like watches and clocks. I have a military clock at home, a Bakelite mechanical clock. It’s not particularly valuable, but it’s what the military used because it would resist an electromagnetic pulse if there was a nuclear event. That’s something I don’t like to think of, but it would keep working when electronics would be frazzled by an electromagnetic event.

installation of the clock. (Courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects.)

In terms of the actual construction of the clock, how did you decide on materials? It’s a huge object, at 12 by 6 feet. And I’m sure weight was a consideration.

It couldn’t weigh more than 5,000 pounds, and there was an incredibly short time to build it and get it installed. There were many great people involved. Engineers; state agencies; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; structural engineers; electrical engineers. We wanted to keep it really simple, and once we designed it, it seemed that we weren’t going to be able to fabricate it out of metal in any kind of reasonable timeframe, and also it would quickly go over the weight limit. We knew that it needed a steel frame inside, but the outside is glass-reinforced gypsum.

And, of course, there is the mechanism itself. Who did you go to for that?

That’s a company called Americlock. They do large clocks for public places, and they also do bells, I think. You’d have to talk to them to get a sense of what the actual mechanism is, how they do what they do, because that’s really their specialty. 

Inside the Moynihan Train Hall. Photo credit Nicolas Knight, Courtesy Empire State Development.

Something about the object conveys a feeling of permanence. That applies to the dial as well. There’s a beige color to it.

We wanted the dial to have a kind of warmth and not be pure white, especially because of the LED lighting inside, the color of that light might seem cold, especially at night. It’s a very difficult space to design for light coloring because you have daylight, which is of course off the charts in terms of its color temperature. And then you have all the different lighting that they did inside. So, it’s not like someone’s house where I know that I’m aiming for 2,700 kelvin because that’s going to be the color of every light all around. So, that was tricky, but it is the coloring of the dial that gives it a little bit of warmth. It helps it not seem like a billboard. It does maybe make it seem more permanent.

The whole Moynihan Train Hall project came in on time and on budget, and during a pandemic. Were there challenges in making the clock?

There was some concern. The New York State people called and said, “How do we know we can read the clock from 100 feet away?” 

We have a huge printer, so we printed out a section of the clock at full scale, and the designer in my office – his name’s Steven Worthington – hung it from his apartment window on the sixth or eighth floor of some building down in Chelsea. And then early one Sunday morning, he went out with a laser so he could get the exact distance. 

Courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects.

Do you wear watches?

Yes. The watch I’m actually after right now, because I had one and I gave it to my son, is a Bulova Accutron Spaceview, which is completely ridiculous because they are almost impossible to service. In the ’60s, my grandfather was really proud of his – he had one, but they used to make them into desk clocks. I have one in my drawer here. I also love my IWC. The one I have is a flieger chronograph. I had a Ulysse Nardin that I liked. I like some very basic watches too. I have a Swatch watch that I wear when I go out in the ocean.

I’m always interested in what designers look for in watches, because at HODINKEE, we spend so much time looking at them. Are there a few defining traits that you’re looking for in a watch?

I avoid watches that have too many complications graphically on them, too many dials and nibs and arrows. I tend to like the simpler, distilled watch faces. To me, a classic diver’s watch is fine. The relief on a watch should be very, very subtle and some of them now seem to be getting a little too muscular. I prefer the complication to live inside the watch and not be all over the face.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

HODINKEE

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