Boondoggle or Beauty? A First Walk Through Calatrava’s Transportation Hub

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FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2015, file photo, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, center, overlooks the September 11 Memorial  north reflecting pool in New York. When it opens in early March of 2016, the hub will connect visitors to 11 different subway lines, the PATH rail system, Battery Park City Ferry Terminal, the World Trade Center Memorial Site, WTC Towers 1, 2, 3, and 4, the World Financial Center and the Winter Garden. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
The World Trade Center Transportation Hub will open next month.. Photo: Mark Lennihan

In early 2004, the architect Santiago Calatrava stood beneath the palm trees of the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden and drew a quick sketch of a child releasing a dove. That was the showman’s prelude to unveiling his design for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, a great white bird that charmed a roomful of skeptics. Finally, after all the earthbound squabbles and depressing compromises, here was an expression of upwelling joy. A lot has changed since then: Towers have risen, trauma has been enshrined in a cryptlike museum, and the scar tissue between the site and the city has slowly begun to heal. Calatrava’s design, too, has evolved: The glass cocoon, delicately veined with steel, thickened its hide after the attacks on railway targets in London and Madrid. The cost, as we’ve all heard, leapt from the huge to the inconceivable, topping out just under $4 billion. If those of us who felt the exhilaration of that day understood the financial implications better than the Port Authority had, would we have swallowed hard and rained brimstone down on the design? Maybe, but hardly anyone did. Like most critics, I waxed rapturous: Calatrava, I wrote, had conceived “an optimistic emblem of flight as an answer to airborne disaster.”

After a dozen years, many doubts, and a walk through the nearly complete station this past week, I feel exactly the same. It seems miraculous that Calatrava’s daydream should now finally exist, altered yet recognizable. Its frame is a little less lithe, its skin a little less smooth, its concept more mature. What remains is an extravagantly idealistic creation unlike any in New York. It challenges the city’s public architecture to rise above habitual cut corners and rectilinear repetition. The cost of beauty is often high.

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Photo: Santiago Calatrava

The rest of the World Trade Center complex evokes its history with a pair of deep memorial pits and a plan for four skyscrapers around a stone-paved plaza. The station disrupts this relentlessly Cartesian arrangement. It roosts at the foot of towers, steel-veined wings almost brushing an adjacent façade. Sitting aslant the grid of streets, it turns toward the morning sun. The Transportation Hub is a buried, tentacled affair, stretching toward both rivers and linking the PATH with 11 subway lines, but the part that pokes above ground is the oculus, the building’s great white eye. Observed from a high floor of a neighboring address, it seems to squint — especially when the retractable skylight blinks — and the wings metamorphose into lashes. Does any work of architecture in New York turn such an expressive face to the clouds?

Calatrava originally designed the wings to dip, a ludicrously literal flourish that was wisely scrapped. What remains of that urge is the illusion of motion contained in every view. Outside, the eye is drawn up and out in a parabolic swoop, as if vertical piers on an Art Deco skyscraper were being whipped by speed. Look along the exterior flank, and the parallel columns appear to accelerate like bicycle spokes. In the PATH Hall that extends beneath the memorial plaza, the steel lines flow horizontally, undulating across the ceiling to make an underground chamber feel like a dive beneath the waves.

The oculus merges a flock of organic allusions, but its most astute homage to nature lies in the way it makes visible the forces of gravity and shear. Calatrava began with a basic engineering tool, the bending moment diagram, which shows the stresses on a cantilevered beam. Those calculations gave him the shape of each rib: an immense boomerang that he could balance on one tip with the other tilted toward the sky. He lined up all these freestanding sculptures and attached them at the elbows, creating a pair of immense arches along the spine. If the whole massive ensemble seems held together by nothing at all, it’s because the oculus is effectively a pair of separate clamshell-like structures, lightly joined at either end. You could knock one half down and the other would barely budge. (This is the most graceful of fortresses: A bomb could also snap half a dozen ribs near the base and their upper extensions would remain in place.)

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How the ribs would have fluttered, in the design's earliest forms. Photo: Santiago Calatrava

Despite the scale, you enter at either end through a low vestibule no grander than an ordinary subway entrance. A short flight of stairs leads to an observation deck that juts out over a vast white marble plain. Light slips between the columns, which curtain the view like Venetian blinds. From here the walls seem to merge into translucent shells that curve away to a distant point, so that you could almost be standing in the cavity of a scooped-out egg. Escalators continue down past the mezzanine ring of shops that will help pay the bills once it opens, probably around the end of the summer. More escalators, hidden behind the curved wings of an operatic staircase, drop down to the oculus floor.

The large hall competes with Grand Central Terminal in its vaulted drama, but if you stand in the center and look up, the effect is more Pantheon-like: Instead of a central arch, the eye finds a feather-shaped length of air. The site’s master planner, Daniel Libeskind, had imagined a “Wedge of Light,” a frame for the rays that fall across the site at 10:28 every September 11 — the moment when the second tower fell. Calatrava, honoring that idea, has the sun slice through the open skylight. And the rest of the year, when the vault isn’t serving that particular Stonehengian function, it still allows a generous portion of sunshine to cascade down into the hall.

The elaborately minimalist design is all the more astounding because of the site’s gnarled complexity. Calatrava has been attacked for invoking facile metaphors from nature, for randomly defying convention, for pushing against the limits of buildability, for bequeathing intolerable maintenance burdens, for indulging in visual razzmatazz instead of just getting the job done, and, mostly, for erecting budget-guzzling luxuries. A man of grandiloquent visions and erudite charm, he has managed to cajole unsuspecting bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic into buying more than they could pay for. He has sometimes sacrificed practicality on the altar of amazement.

But the fault is hardly his alone: A building that is years late and fantastically over budget is the sign of a troubled client. Calatrava’s originality unquestionably drove up costs here, and siphoned off money that might have been spent, or maybe wasted, elsewhere. At the same time, the site’s intertwining components took the Port Authority’s leadership by surprise, over and over again. At the tapering end of the oval hall, the 1 train runs through an MTA tube that the Port Authority’s builders had to support on an underground bridge without interrupting service or letting the tracks budge more than a couple of inches. PATH platforms thread beneath the memorial and the underground museum. Once all of the parts are finished and open, the temporary entrance at the corner of Greenwich and Vesey streets will be dismantled to make way for a performing-arts center. Mechanical systems for one facility intrude into others. Somehow, Calatrava extracted elegance from this tangle.

Cost is an objective fact; value isn’t. Whether you consider this station splendid overkill, an ugly boondoggle, or a lasting work of genius depends on a host of intangibles. Granted, you can move 100,000 commuters in and out of New Jersey every day a good deal more modestly and cheaply. (Penn Station manages five or six times that number of passengers.) But the Hub serves an area that is both the oldest and newest part of town, and keeps changing in ways that planners have never been able to predict. There’s a good chance that more commuters will arrive as new offices materialize, old ones become apartments, and the neighborhood acquires residents who will flow through the oculus in search of dinner, a shirt, or a meeting spot. I doubt it will ever feel empty. In the end, we are left with a structure that must endure a century or more. Calatrava’s skeletal dove joins the tiny circle of New York’s great indoor public spaces, serving not just the city that built it but also the city it will help build.