I despised the new World Trade Center transportation hub before I even saw it. It’s $2bn over budget, has suffered from construction problems and design compromises, it’s seven years late and still incomplete, and its architect, Santiago Calatrava has left a trail of lawsuits.
By most measures, the new hub is a debacle of extraordinary scale and, I believed, it had earned my derision. But when I was standing on the marble floors in its enormous, gleaming central concourse two stories below street level, staring up at a clear blue sky between bone-white ribs vaulting 160ft over my head, I, like Jonah in the whale, repented at least for the moment.
Above ground, the project was conceived not as a whale, but as a bird being released from a child’s hand a symbolic, uplifting structure to replace the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (Path) rail station destroyed on 11 September 2001. Construction began in 2004 but as complications mounted and costs ballooned, the building transmogrified from a white bird into a white elephant.
Like many, I resented the delay and extravagance. But sometime last year I first felt my resolve slip while walking downtown and, through a narrow gap between glass and stone towers, glimpsed something wholly unique and compelling: the great beast’s arched back emerging from the ground. By the time of the hub’s public opening on Thursday, its skeletal wings, both grotesque and alluring, had spread to peak around buildings and draw people in.
Up close, the design is confounding. Its curved form is deceptive and dynamic. From some angles it’s almost transparent and from others completely opaque, alternating between soaring and looming. At its best, it evokes Eero Saarinen’s masterful TWA Terminal at JFK airport. But it is, unfortunately, also a little too similar to Calatrava’s own work: his rail station in Lyon, France (completed in 1994), for instance, as well as the Milwaukee Art Museum (2001), and Agora in Valencia (2009). The avian form might as well be a logo. Viewed from the adjacent September 11 Memorial, Calatrava’s bird is most evident and almost unbearably kitschy. Still, it’s a clear vision and a grand singular gesture on a site otherwise lacking architectural ambition. Its white curves are a relief from the bedazzled bunkers that are One World Trade Center and the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
The arcing glass and steel ribs, which feel over-scaled and look surprisingly unrefined, rise from below ground to form an elliptical dome over a massive, column-free concourse dubbed the Oculus. The Oculus is taller and longer than Grand Central Terminal the yardstick by which every enclosed public space in New York is measured – and it’s the first space worthy of the comparison. Light floods on to its sumptuous grey and white marble floors. It feels vast. It feels grand. It might not be the successor to Grand Central, but it is at least a descendant.
Though partially open, the building is still under construction. Eventually, visitors will be able to enter the Oculus directly from the narrow eastern and western ends of the building and descend on to a balcony that cantilevers over the concourse in an acrobatic echo of Grand Central’s staircases.
Currently, that concourse is a brilliant white void lined with construction fencing and two floors of empty storefronts. When those shops – and there are a lot of shops – open in August, the 800,000 sq ft hub will be, if nothing else, the fanciest shopping center in New York. But the Port Authority estimates it will also be used by 250,000 daily commuters, who will connect to 11 subway lines (including those at the nearby Fulton Center), the Path trains between New York and New Jersey, and the Battery Park Ferry Terminal.
But is it worth $4bn? That question casts a shadow across this light-filled cathedral of commerce and commuting – which is being both hailed as a monument to perseverance, and reviled as a monument to excess. Much of that cost is due to the complex engineering feats necessary to build the station while keeping the trains running, but it’s hard not to think that the money could have been better spent on system-wide infrastructure improvements. Do we need extravagant, imported Italian-marble train platforms when subways are growing more crowded every day, fares continue to rise, and a new line seems like an impossible dream? We don’t.