A Glorious Boondoggle: Will the New WTC Station Permanently Taint Santiago Calatrava’s Career?

Photo: Jacqueline Roberts
The Glorious Boondoggle
Santiago Calatrava was commissioned to design an architectural extravagance at ground zero. He succeeded, an accomplishment that threatens to destroy his reputation.
Photograph by Jaqueline Roberts

Santiago Calatrava, the world-renowned architect, was standing on a street corner the other day, gazing up at the grandest train station New York has built in the past century. High above the plaza of the new World Trade Center, welders were working on platforms suspended between the massive ribs of an arresting steel structure. “They will start mounting glass very soon,” Calatrava said. The most important project of his career was nearing completion — at long last and great cost, to both the government and his reputation. Calatrava had designed the terminal to evoke a bird taking flight. But after years of delays and budget revisions, it was preparing to spread its wings beneath the weight of an unflattering superlative: “the world’s most expensive train station.”

Whether that title holds true against the entire sweep of history, the amount of public money so far committed — nearly $4 billion — is double the inflation-adjusted cost of the station’s nearest living referent: Grand Central Terminal. The figure befits Calatrava’s designs for the building, which is officially known as the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. Sunk beneath the structure that bursts from the ground at Church and Fulton Streets is a sunlit hall. It is larger and taller than Grand Central’s main concourse, with its starry ceiling mural, to which the Spanish architect mellifluously compared his own station. “I was trying to do something very light and atmospheric,” he had told me earlier. “Where the sky and the firmament is real.”

If Calatrava is hoping that the virtuosity of his work will vindicate the extravagance of his expenses, the early reviews have not been encouraging. Other architects have ridiculed what they see as his grandiosity. The New York Times has singled him out for unusual scrutiny, publishing a pair of front-page stories about his history of cost overruns. While critics —­ including this magazine’s—have so far held off on official reviews, the signs look ominous. On Twitter, the Times’ Michael Kimmelman called the unfinished product “a kitsch stegosaurus.” Not long ago, the New York Post real-estate columnist Steve Cuozzo — who has labeled the project “a self-indulgent monstrosity” — tweeted a picture and asked, “Is Calatrava WTC Hub already rusting?”

Rust? Calatrava couldn’t believe the naysayers could be so ignorant. “This is not yet painted!” he said as we stood across from the construction site.

Calatrava expects the building — and its architect — to be vindicated once the public is able to experience it in full. For now, though, he was outside in the cold, just another sidewalk gawker in a soft suede jacket. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which will run the PATH train out of the station, was in a defensive crouch after a year of scandals, subpoenas, and exposés — some of them related to the hub and its budget. Calatrava’s relationship with his client was strained. (A Port Authority spokeswoman refused to authorize a photograph of the architect inside his own building.) In light of the tension, we had planned to keep our stroll confined to the World Trade Center’s public areas. But Calatrava is a temperamental artist, and he bridles at limitations.

“Let’s go,” he said. We walked briskly to a guard booth at the south end of the plaza. Richard Diamond, Calatrava’s man on-site — “He’s God,” Diamond explained, “and I’m king” — invoked the architect’s name. IDs were presented and hard hats appeared. Once we cleared security, we followed Diamond through a plywood door spray-painted KEEP CLOSED, descended a set of raw-concrete stairs, uncertainly navigated temporary passages, and came to an opening covered by a white tarp. Calatrava pulled the curtain aside like a showman, raising his bushy black eyebrows.

“Welcome to the big space,” Diamond said. Calatrava appraised his work with a deep, satisfied laugh. A trained engineer, he eschews ornamentation, bending and curving steel until it takes on a sumptuous, naturalistic geometry. The second-story walkway where we entered was lined with white-coated columns, a signature Calatrava element, imitating the rounded shape made by a spread thumb and forefinger. The colonnade overlooked the puddled floor of the hall — or “oculus,” as it is called — which will soon be paved with white marble. Calatrava pointed down at a construction worker wearing an orange vest. “He is almost three or four floors underground,” he said. “But my goal was to give the impression you are in a plaza of New York.”

Light filtered in through the exterior ribs, which come almost together in an arc 160 feet above the floor. Up at ground level, a pair of observation decks faced one another across the vaulted space. A floor below, the walkway where we were standing will one day be ringed with shops — Calatrava pointed out a space he said was reserved for an enormous Apple Store — and passages offering access to 11 subway lines. At the east end, there will be a new glassed-in stop on the 1 train. The floor of the oculus leads to a grand staircase and yet another enormous space, the PATH Hall, as well as train platforms and shopping corridors, all clad in marble to Calatrava’s precise specifications.

No recent addition to the cityscape has aspired to combine public utility and aesthetic daring to the same degree. Craig Dykers, whose architecture firm Snøhetta designed the adjacent 9/11 Memorial Museum Pavilion, says the hub will “open the site in a way that people don’t truly comprehend.” While much of what’s been built at the World Trade Center is sealed off as fortified office buildings or dedicated to commemorating deaths, Calatrava’s subterranean expanse is supposed to be animated by the bustle of everyday life. After years of delays, the hub and its 350,000 square feet of retail space are scheduled to begin opening in stages this year.

The question remains, however, whether it will all have been worth $4 billion. Calatrava’s patrons at the Port Authority no longer seem convinced. “If we were looking at it today,” says Patrick Foye, the agency’s executive director, “we might come to different judgments about how those dollars ought to be spent.” In private, Foye is apparently openly hostile to the project. “He thinks it’s a boondoggle,” says a former government official who remains engaged with the redevelopment of the World Trade Center.

Even if so, once you’re inside, it’s a magnificent boondoggle. “We wanted to give the sense that it is not the tower that makes the place,” Calatrava said, referring to One World Trade Center, “but the station.” He has insisted on “creating a unity,” leaving his personal mark on details as small as the door handles. As we walked through, Diamond noted imperfections — an uncaulked gap here, a discolored marble tile there — and barked out orders to contractors.

“Tell your foreman,” he said, “that Calatrava was here.”

The station last month. Photo: Joe Woolhead

It is fitting that the Port Authority — a two-headed toll-taking giant with a poor sense of political timing—has chosen this moment to express buyer’s remorse. For it is only now, nearly 15 years in, that the World Trade Center redevelopment actually, finally, seems to be coming together in all its compromised glory. Condé Nast moved into One World Trade not long ago. Developer Larry Silverstein has finished one skyscraper, Four World Trade, and is constructing its neighbor, Three World Trade. Even in the wintertime, tourists congregate around the twin voids of the 9/11 memorial, leaving flowers in the etched names of the dead. But on a warm day, the leaves are green on landscape architect Peter Walker’s plaza, you might almost be able to forget the redevelopment’s tragic origin.

“Immediately after 9/11, it was really difficult for most folks to grasp what the possibilities were,” says Ric Clark, CEO of Brookfield Property Partners. His company’s adjacent complex—formerly the World Financial Center, now called Brookfield Place—is undergoing a $300 million renovation, bringing in new restaurants and stores to suit changing demographics. One of the initial assumptions of the rebuilding — that its aim was to rescue the historic Financial District — has been pleasantly confounded, as lower Manhattan (and its lower rents) has proved attractive to tenants from creative industries. At Brookfield Place, Time Inc. is moving into space once occupied by Merrill Lynch, and the advertising firm GroupM will be leasing a major portion of Three World Trade.

When it is completed and fully leased — still a distant prospect — some 100,000 people will work in the World Trade Center and its immediate surroundings. The tangible effects of the billions in public investment can be seen across the Hudson River, in Jersey City, where 24,000 new residential units are currently approved or under construction along the PATH train’s route. The hub is meant to be more than a destination for commuters, though. Westfield, an Australian mall operator, has agreed to pay $1.4 billion for the hub’s retail space and has signed up tenants like Michael Kors and Eataly. The station’s underground corridors are meant to act as the whole area’s circulatory system, creating a link running from Battery Park City to Broadway and the recently refurbished Fulton Center subway station, which serves 300,000 riders each day.

“A railway station is something that can generate a city,” Calatrava told me when I first met him last year at his studio, which is in one of three adjoining townhouses he owns on Park Avenue. Although business at his 120-person firm still seems to be brisk — in addition to projects in Brazil, Switzerland, and Qatar, he recently broke ground on a second building at the World Trade Center, a replacement for a destroyed Greek Orthodox church — he was in a counter­punching mood. He knew he was about to receive another roundhouse from the Times: an investigation examining how the PATH station, originally budgeted for $2.2 billion, had doubled in cost. He was still smarting from a 2013 article, mainly about his work in Europe, that described “an unusually long list of projects marred by cost overruns, delays and litigation,” like an arts center in his native Spain where the budget quadrupled and a mosaic façade ultimately had to be taken down because of faulty tiles.

“It’s bullshit,” Calatrava said bitterly. He blamed his problems back home on Spanish politics, and when it comes to New York, he said, he delivered what he promised. He retrieved a leather box filled with red-ink sketches, dated 2003, that closely resemble what has been built. He mentioned several times that he has designed seven railway stations. “I was also chosen,” he added, “because I presented an idea.”

That idea — a soaring response to the September 11 attacks — was initially irresistible. Two powerful currents came together to whisk the project forward: the heightened emotions of the time, and the unique internal political culture of the Port Authority. The PA is a state unto itself, financed by a torrent of revenues from bridges, tunnels, airports, and other infrastructure. Its leadership has traditionally been divided evenly between appointees of the governors of New York and New Jersey, making it prone to political factionalism and meddling. (The recent scandal surrounding New Jersey governor Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge is just a particularly piquant instance.) But the authority’s political appointees are vastly outnumbered by its permanent civil servants. They built the original Twin Towers, and when the buildings collapsed they lost 84 colleagues.

As a matter of pride and defiance, the Port Authority expected to rebuild the entire 16-acre disaster area. But a newly created authority called the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation managed to take control of the design process, appointing architect Daniel Libeskind to create a suitably ambitious response to the tragedy. “The Port Authority was infuriated,” says Alex Garvin, who initially headed the LMDC’s planning. Years of wrangling would ensue over who was to own, design, and pay for the buildings laid out in Libeskind’s master plan. There was more than turf at stake. The federal government had appropriated $20 billion in aid — enough money, it was presumed, to build almost anything. “Post-9/11,” says a former Port Authority official, “people lost their minds a little bit.”

While various interests could stake claims to other parts of the 16 acres, the PATH hub was the one project that always belonged indisputably to the Port Authority. Its powerful engineering department, working with federal-grant funding, decided on the best architect money could buy. “They were enamored of Santiago Calatrava,” says Joseph Seymour, the Port Authority’s executive director at the time. “Some people have suggested he’s the da Vinci of our time.” Early on, that comparison was thrown around a lot. “If there was anybody who thought it was overkill or unnecessarily expensive,” says another former PA official, “it would have been so politically impossible to say that.”

Calatrava was coming off a series of acclaimed commissions, and he skillfully played the role of the starchitect at a time when the city yearned to fill the holes in its skyline. At the PATH station’s 2004 unveiling, Calatrava gave a memorable performance, sketching a girl releasing a dove to explain his vision. Herbert Muschamp, then architecture critic at the Times, called the design “breathtaking” and predicted it would “cast out the defeatist attitude that has clogged New York’s architectural arteries since the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station.”

Calatrava proved to be a master of shifting political dynamics, charming and winning over one decision-maker after another. “He’s quite devastating,” says one of the other architects involved in the redevelopment. “Probably no architect in New York can come on as strong and as cleverly as he.” Libeskind was the first obstacle. The hub was positioned where his master plan had a plaza called the Wedge of Light. “If he had opposed it at the time,” Calatrava told me, “we were in a very weak position.” Libeskind was wary, but he visited Calatrava’s studio to preview a model before the unveiling. “Daniel looked at it and said, ‘You know, this is absolutely magnificent, you have embellished the Wedge of Light,’ ” Seymour says. “And Santiago, you know, is all theatrics. He gave a big sigh of relief, they all embraced, and everybody had a glass of wine.”

Calatrava seems to have figured out early, though, that the ultimate power over the redevelopment would not reside with the public, the newspapers, or the master planner. Libeskind’s influence receded after the initial planning stages, and the Port Authority reasserted control. The PATH station became a pet project of the New Jersey faction on the board, and Calatrava gave its members special attention. “He seduced them,” says a former PA official. One New Jersey appointee, a professional engineer named Anthony Sartor, accompanied Calatrava on a tour of his projects in Europe, along with Anthony Cracchiolo, a PA executive overseeing the rebuilding. With the early support of both the board and the engineers, Calatrava had a first-mover’s advantage. To preserve his spacious interior, his plan distributed crucial but cumbersome elements like air vents to other parts of the site.

Officially, Calatrava is working as a “subconsultant” to a pair of heavyweight engineering firms, one of which, STV, has very strong ties to the Port Authority. (Cracchiolo subsequently went to work there, as did Robert Davidson, the PA’s powerful chief architect at the time the contract was signed.) The Port Authority has paid the venture $413 million. An STV spokeswoman confirms that Calatrava’s firm has a 20 percent share of the contract, which indicates he has made around $83 million to date.

Calatrava told me that it wasn’t his job to monitor the budget. “It is very difficult,” he said. “I have never estimated anything in this project, because there was a whole team, maybe 25 people, working the whole time on cost estimation and cost control. But I kept looking at those fellows and telling them this is like geology: You only know what you have under your feet when you excavate.”

A rendering of the oculus as it is supposed to appear later this year. Rendering Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava, LLC

A decade ago, Calatrava would have made any short list of the world’s most esteemed architects. Today, many within the profession are aghast at what they see as his irresponsibility. When I spoke with his peers, more than one used the derisive phrase “capital-A architecture.” Recently, at a public talk that was later widely circulated as a web video, the architects Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman offered a scathing assessment, accusing him of “arrogance” and immoderation. “Cala-fucking-trava! My God, what a waste,” Graves said. “ ‘I will make wings for you, and this subway station will cost $4 billion’ … Meanwhile, the kids don’t have erasers on their pencils.”

While it is difficult to feel much pity for an architect whose firm has made $83 million on a single project, it is fair to say that Calatrava does not deserve all — or even most — of the blame for the building’s price. The oculus draws the eye and the barbs, but it accounted for only $319 million of the original budget, while elements like mechanical systems and foundational work made up the difference. It is the hidden costs, buried in the corridors that underpin the entire site, that have truly ballooned. In 2010, a federal monitor found that the project had absorbed $1.2 billion in shared infrastructure costs, only some of which was to be reimbursed. But the hub project wasn’t just a convenient catchall. The Port Authority also treated it like a shrine: an institutional symbol in the form of an engineering solution.

“It’s the most architecturally complex structure ever built by humankind,” said Steven Plate, the PA’s director of construction at the World Trade Center. “But it’s a piece of art.” Plate met me one weekday at the site to offer an update on the progress, which was everywhere in evidence on a winter lunch hour. As we walked through the first portion of the station to an open, white-bathed corridor beneath West Street — it brings to mind the set of a Stanley Kubrick film — well-dressed young Condé Nast employees were heading up the escalators to Brookfield Place’s restaurants. Port Authority workers with squeegees were stationed at strategic points, standing ready to buff. (White marble is not the most practical material for heavily trafficked corridors and train platforms, and some skeptics — pointing to the problematic Calatrava buildings elsewhere — wonder whether maintenance may prove to be an ongoing drain.) At the top of the escalators, we took in an impressive view of Calatrava’s work.

“I think we are even more beautiful and more functional than Grand Central station,” Plate said. Though he is a civil engineer, he is no political neophyte — he used to be the mayor of Glen Ridge, New Jersey — and when he escorted me into the areas still under construction, he seemed intent on sending a calculated message: This isn’t our building’s fault. Standing beneath the undulating white ceiling of the PATH Hall, the entry to the train platforms off the oculus, Plate noted that a decree that construction of the memorial plaza be finished for the tenth anniversary of September 11 caused the station to be constructed from the roof down. “It was counterintuitive to how you usually build buildings,” he said. When we heard the rumble of the 1 train, Plate explained how a suspension system was necessary to keep it running to South Ferry for Staten Island commuters. That reportedly cost at least $355 million, several times what was originally estimated.

The Port Authority can’t deflect responsibility, though, for the many arcane management decisions that contributed mightily to the overruns, according to others involved in the redevelopment. And an untold amount of the price is intrinsically tied up with the building’s exoticism. Constructing it has required an enormous amount of custom fabrication. The steel of the oculus, cast in specialty shops, came over from Italy on nine ships. As early as 2005, a federal risk assessment noted that “delays have been experienced on other Calatrava projects” and warned of potential overruns on account of the “complex and unique” design. “Calatrava is a very high-risk architect,” says a former government appointee who was involved at the time. “He does stuff that by its very nature is expensive, and anyone could see that when you saw that design. I’m astounded that it actually got built.”

It very nearly didn’t. When it became apparent that billions in federal aid and insurance money would not be sufficient to pay for everything planned at the World Trade Center, and the Port Authority would foot most of the bill, bureaucratic battles erupted. In 2008, Anthony Shorris, the PA executive director appointed by Eliot Spitzer, wrote a memo to the then-governor, proposing to save $200 million by making the hub more “quotidian in design,” for instance, by raising the floor of the oculus and turning the PATH Hall into a two-level space with a food court. Calatrava “is a strong-willed figure and has a global reputation,” Shorris warned. “While we would make every effort to appease his outrage, and even appeal directly to his pecuniary interest … there is a very real risk he would turn to the design community to protest these changes.”

Three days after the memo was written, Spitzer was implicated in a prostitution case and resigned; Calatrava dodged the threat. Throughout the construction process, though, he has had to fight to protect his building from what he saw as interference. A new executive director, Chris Ward, arrived with a mandate to reassess costs and speed the 9/11 memorial’s completion, which would require Calatrava to accept some structural compromises. When he called a showdown meeting at Calatrava’s townhouse, however, two sources told me that Sartor, the chairman of the board’s World Trade Center redevelopment committee, arrived to defend the architect, sitting on his side of the table.

Calatrava made a few concessions but was able to preserve his architectural concept. The Port Authority scrapped his idea of allowing the oculus’s wings to retract; instead, there will now be a much more modest skylight. The structure became stockier and spikier — arguably more Jurassic in appearance — to strengthen it against bomb blasts. He allowed four columns to obstruct his interior space. After vociferous argument with the designers of the memorial and its board chairman, Michael Bloomberg, Calatrava gave up on the idea of having natural light shine through glass set in the plaza into the PATH Hall below, because it interfered with the mayor’s priority: planting trees. “You have to live with the necessities of other people,” Calatrava told me, saying that he’s now reconciled to the foliage.

Calatrava says he collaborated closely with the Port Authority’s engineers on all the changes. “They’ve never complained,” he said. “They are very happy with me.” In recent years, however, the high-level politics have turned against him. His friends in New Jersey have faced a cascade of corruption investigations since Chris Christie’s bridge scandal. Sartor resigned last year, soon after it emerged that the Manhattan district attorney had subpoenaed records related to the World Trade Center redevelopment. In 2008, the New York Observer reported that even as Sartor was defending the PATH project, the engineering firm that bears his name was exploring a sale to Calatrava’s partner, STV. Sartor says he didn’t have an ownership interest in the firm at the time, and that his resignation was family related. (The DA’s office declined to comment on its investigation.) Calatrava suggested I interview Sartor about the PATH project, but through a PR firm, he declined further comment.

Neither Christie nor Andrew Cuomo attended last year’s notably perfunctory opening ceremony for One World Trade, which itself cost $4 billion. The governors seem eager to rid themselves of the whole project. Last year, they appointed a panel that recommended strengthening the Port Authority’s “core mission” by selling the World Trade Center real estate and offloading the PATH, which loses nearly $400 million annually, on a third-party operator. “I’m all for leaving a mark on history, but we’ve got to be reasonable,” says Kenneth Lipper, a Cuomo board appointee. A financier and film producer, Lipper told me he examined the hub as a case study before proposing internal-governance reforms. “You can’t hide behind the fact that the star wants to do it his way. In the end, the responsibility is with management. You have to take a cold hard look at all this and say, ‘Hey, on paper it looks nice. But, buddy, it’s not going to work, because we can’t afford it.’ ”

Cuomo’s executive-director appointee, Foye, has tried to find cost savings. The PA recently shifted the completion of the 1-train station inside the oculus, and at least $100 million of expense, to the MTA, which says it will build to its own specifications, not Calatrava’s. But it’s too late for the kind of thoroughgoing bowdlerization that other parts of the redevelopment — most notably One World Trade — were forced to endure. Whatever you think of the PATH station, it won’t end up looking banal.

“He didn’t walk when some key parts of his design had to change,” Ward says now. “Did he fight a winning battle, and was he savvy and canny about it, and at the end of the day will that be Calatrava’s station? I give the guy credit for that.”

Of course, you can simultaneously admire the design’s ambition and wonder whether it was worthwhile. “He’s one of the great designers,” says Mitchell Moss, director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation. “But this is a fucking train to Jersey.”

Unlike other types of monumental architecture, transit infrastructure is judged not just by how it looks but how it works on a daily basis. Calatrava wanted to show me the outcome he was trying to achieve, so he had proposed we meet at Grand Central. “It is my favorite space,” said the architect, who has never learned to drive, when he found me at the central clock. “It is giving you the time. Giving you something.”

Grand Central, built to be the terminus of the Vanderbilt family’s interstate railway, was designed by a pair of feuding architects chosen partly for nepotistic reasons. And yet it was lauded from the moment it opened in 1913. The Times immediately deemed it “the greatest station, of any type, in the world.” In Calatrava’s opinion, that was because the builders didn’t scrimp. “Think about the person who was living in the suburbs 100 years ago, when this building opened. They enter here inside and see all these stone details, all these lamps, all these mirrors,” he said. “You could say it is a luxury of the railway, but it is not true. This was a gift.”

We walked up to one of the balconies overlooking the concourse to watch the afternoon dance of tourists and commuters. One woman tipped her head back, far, to appreciate the celestial ceiling. Calatrava imagines that one day people will do the same thing in his oculus, taking in the sky and a constellation of Manhattan buildings. He told me that recently, while visiting another one of his stations, in the Belgian city of Liège, he was recognized by a group of adoring schoolchildren. “It happens to me, sometimes, to have signs of gratitude,” he said. “You are telling them something about their dignity, you understand?” Calatrava predicted that New Yorkers would respond similarly. “They have this space. And because they have this space, they will understand the other one.”

Grand Central wasn’t just an architectural triumph, however. It was also an extremely successful business proposition. Its privately financed budget of $80 million — about $2 billion in today’s dollars —­ included the cost of sinking obstructive railway lines and decking over them to create valuable real estate along Park Avenue. By contrast, the original Pennsylvania Station, built at the same time by a competing railroad, cost even more — an adjusted $2.7 billion, including associated tunnels — but had fewer platforms and involved little surrounding development. It couldn’t survive financially when the company that owned it slid toward bankruptcy. “Penn Station was torn down,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, a partner at SHoP Architects and an urban-planning professor at Columbia University, “because the building, beautiful as it was, was a white elephant.”

Form runs into danger when it fails to follow economic function. The current temporary World Trade Center PATH station serves 44,000 riders each weekday, one-fifth the number of commuters who pass through Grand Central. While the Port Authority predicts use will increase, the station will have only five platforms, leading to a pair of ancient tunnels beneath the Hudson and just seven stations in New Jersey. Some urban planners advocate adding rail capacity to the station, but in the current fiscal climate, the notion of digging new tunnels seems fanciful. (And addressing the deteriorating tubes to Penn Station would seem a higher priority.) The PATH needs upgrades to basic hardware like signals. But with money in short supply, the PA has put off investing in many infrastructure projects, while raising tolls to please bond investors. Recently, it delayed a $3.6 billion renovation of La Guardia airport.

For the time being, Calatrava’s building will have to make its claim to significance as a sculptural element on the skyline and a public space. “Look, it’s not a cheap building,” says Libeskind, who remains a supporter. “In olden times, civic buildings were very valued. But we live in a different era.” Someday, Libeskind thinks, people will revel in Calatrava’s creation and the controversies will be forgotten. “Bernini, most people don’t know, built a tower at the Vatican that collapsed,” he says. “He had such a failure he thought his career would never recover. Now we look back at Bernini and say, ‘Wow, what an architect.’ So, look, you have to give it time.”

Standing back at ground level at the World Trade Center, not far from the memorial, I asked Calatrava if he was satisfied with his handiwork. He looked up at the building and told a joke, which may make sense in one of the eight languages he speaks but didn’t come across in English. The punch line was: “It is a matter of taste.” After September 11, in a rare show of collective will, New York had demanded a stirring architectural statement at the World Trade Center. And then it changed its mind. Calatrava hopes he can win the city back, but he recognizes his powers are limited. He likes to say, “You can only implore the architecture to come.”

Calatrava had saved one view for last. We walked around the side of the oculus and gingerly climbed down an ice-covered concrete slope to one of the observation decks. As we stood at an orange mesh barrier, the ribs of his structure arched before us like the rafters of a church ceiling. The welders were still working, the sparks from their torches falling faintly into the chasm below. Through the steel, you could glimpse the memorial plaza. The new One World Trade filled the roof’s central gap. The skyscraper, hardly beautiful when standing alone, looked perfect in composition. The sun glinted off the triangular element of its façade, pointing downward like an arrow toward the westbound trains.

*This article appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.