Places that Work: I. Grand Central Station’s Main Concourse

On a recent trip to New York, I took a train to Connecticut from Grand Central Station. What an opportunity, I thought, for me to assess why this grand space has worked for more than a century, from my environmental psychologist’s point of view. While most us can tell if a place or space makes us feel good, we rarely know why. So I will tell you what’s so good about this early 20th century terminal designed by Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore.

There’s the fact that nearly 97 percent of the trains arrived in Grand Central on time in 2009 (according to officials from New York City’s commuter railroads). But service isn’t the only reason to love the station. Here is what I find thrilling, memorable, and rewarding about this great public room in the middle of Manhattan:The Main Concourse is flooded with daylight. During high volume travel times, at the beginning and end of every day, the light is warm. It’s been shown that warm light puts people in a better mood than cool light does. It also makes us more pleasant to each other. And it reduces stress (warm light has been documented to boost worker performance and retail sales). Daylight also increases our energy levels. Have you noticed that people walk just a little bit faster than usual across those great open marble spaces?

The high ceilings in the Main Concourse make us feel less crowded than we would feel under a lower ceiling. When we’re crowded, we’re stressed and stress distracts us from our objectives.

People entering and exiting the Main Concourse have lots of travel options which give us the feeling that we’re in control of our experience. This perception of control helps us keep the lid on stress.

The space is filled with rectilinear lines, tempered with a few prominent curved ones (at the tops of the windows, for example). Research has shown that we link rectilinear lines with efficiency; this is a good association to have in a transportation hub. Curvilinear lines are comforting and supportive; a few of these in the space keeps the room from feeling cold or alien. So it feels like the Main Concourse at Grand Central Station helps enhance any good humor that may exist among rushing commuters. It is a place that works.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design With Science.  In conjunction with her consulting work, she travels a great deal and likes to explore the built environment’s secrets of success and failure; she filed her first blog on “Places that Work”. Augustin is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at sallyaugustin@designwithscience.com.

Categories: Design, Uncategorized

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