Inspiration in the Big Apple: The New World Trade Center Transportation Hub

By Ellen Gilbert 

Designed by the Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub is now the third largest transportation center in New York City. It serves 250,000 Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) daily commuters and millions of annual visitors from around the world. At approximately 800,000 square feet, the Hub’s concourse will ultimately connect visitors to 11 different subway lines; the PATH rail system; the Battery Park City Ferry Terminal; the National September 11 Memorial & Museum; World Trade Center Towers 1, 2, 3, and 4; and Brookfield Place (formerly known as the World Financial Center), which houses the Winter Garden.

A spectacularly-constructed “Oculus” is intended to serve as the centerpiece of the Hub. A placard for this year’s 9/11 memorial event explained that, weather permitting, the skylight of the Oculus will be opened “to allow the sun to fill the entire space” on this day each year.  Envisioned by Calatrava “to symbolize a dove released from a child’s hand,” the Oculus is situated at an angle in contrast to neighboring buildings and even the entire grid of the city, thereby allowing the light to shine directly overhead and for the sun to move across its axis exactly on September 11 each year.

“There’s no doubt about it: Calatrava’s Oculus is an awe-inspiring piece of architecture,” writes Amy Plitt in nycurbed.com. “While the design has changed from its original incarnation (when the wings that make up the Oculus were meant to open and close, similar to the architect’s design for the Milwaukee Art Museum), it’s no less impressive for it. The steel rafters create a cathedral-like effect, letting in an abundance of light; the glass skylight at the tip of the Oculus, which can indeed open and close, adds to the feeling of airiness.”

The new structure also includes some 78,000 square feet of multi- level retail and dining options, with concourses emanating from the Oculus that link the entirety of the site above and below grade. It has been described as “the most integrated network of underground pedestrian connections in New York City.”

Like any big project, the new hub has generated a certain amount of controversy. In addition to cost overruns, critics say that the presence of so many commercial enterprises detracts from the Oculus.

A true “transport hub,” they say, is a place where passengers and cargo are exchanged between vehicles or between transport modes. Public transport hubs include train stations, rapid transit stations, bus stops, tram stops, airports and ferry slips.

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman is among those who emphatically don’t like the new, all-encompassing version of the term. “It’s not really a hub,” he reports. “A maze of underground passages connects the site to far-flung subway lines, but there are not free transfers. The place is a glorified PATH station for some 50,000 weekday riders commuting to and from New Jersey.”

Kimmelman describes “The Port Authority’s stegosaurus-skeleton of a Path Station” as “a $4 billion shopping mall and ego trip by Calatrava”.

Calatrava is used to controversy, though. A 2014 fastcodedesign.com article by writer Karrie Jacobs asked whether Calatrava might be “the world’s most hated architect.” Critics “blast Calatrava for wildly overbudget projects,” writes Jacobs. Still, she is willing to wonder if, perhaps, he is “just misunderstood.”

The real problem, suggests Jacobs, “may have less to do with budgets and more to do with who and what Calatrava is. He’s an architect whose reputation is based on form, not function. In this era, the grand aesthetic gesture is deeply suspect.”

CALATRAVA’S VISION

“This is much more than a station, isn’t it?” suggests the architect. Interviewed in Architectural Digest last March, Calatrava talks about creating the new space. “New Yorkers will take this and will use it and I hope they use with all their forces and with an enormous intensity because it has been done for them,” he says. “Finding the way in a station is essential. I wanted to create a place that delivers to people a sense of comfort and also a sense of security.” Calatrava says that he envisions a “person coming to New York one day to work very hard. He may be living in a very modest house at a very modest job. For me this person is very important; they are an important person in our community. This thing is here for you.”

A respondent to Joann Gonchar’s assessment of the new World Trade Center site in a recent issue of The Architectural Record was not so sure it was there for him. “Try walking 300 feet to get from the PATH to the escalators when you are 80 years old, like I am,” he wrote. “Too bad 4 billion dollars didn’t buy a shorter walk for commuters; same old narrow PATH platforms, fancied up with marble crowded as hell. Didn’t anyone think about the distance between the WTC station and the Fulton Street station? Is it too late for a tram or moving sidewalk or perhaps an elevator to ground level and then a cable car to Vesey Street?”

Gonchar herself is willing to be impressed. After describing the “ballooning price tag” and various delays that beset the project, she notes that “even in its not-quite-finished state, the Oculus’s interior should wow people who pass through the elliptical, cathedral-like space. Its gleaming white steel ribs soar 160 feet, and during daylight hours the sun streams between the bone-shaped structural elements and down from a 330-footlong central skylight, making it hard to believe that the pristine white marble floor sits two stories below the street.”

“Unfortunately,” she adds, “this subterranean drama doesn’t translate into coherence above ground. Outside, the Oculus ribs transform into outstretched wings that in Calatrava’s first schemes pivoted to open the glazed skylight. Although the operable skylight survived value engineering, the movable wings did not. But kinetic or fixed, these elements are too literal—intended to suggest a flying dove. And the building, which has been likened to everything from a stegosaurus to a porcupine to a Thanksgiving turkey carcass, is ill at ease on its site.”

Calatrava’s second project-in-progress at Ground Zero, a replacement for the century-old St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church also lost on September 11, has fared somewhat better. To prepare for turning a small local church into a national shrine, Calatrava visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and studied its famous mosaics. When the first concrete was poured on August 28, 2015, Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, expressed the hope that the “nondenominational bereavement center” would “project something that will open a window to eternity.” It looks promising: when it is finished in 2017, the $35 million domed structure will glow at night. Materials used in its construction include a veneer of white Pentelic marble from the same vein in Greece that was quarried to construct the Parthenon.

“INSTAGRAM CATNIP”

The World Trade Center Transportation Hub is “sure to be Instagram catnip,” according to writers like Amy Plitt. There are, she writes, “cantilevered balconies that allow visitors to take in the expansive view from above, and “it’s all rather lovely.” Still, she can’t help describing it as “somewhat sterile—if it’s possible to feel both stunned by the beauty of something while also underwhelmed by it, that’s what this inspires.”