Santiago Calatrava is naive and arrogant — or perhaps too naive to know how arrogant he sometimes sounds. When his City of Arts and Sciences, a sprawling complex of bright-white, zoomorphic buildings in his hometown of Valencia, was denounced as so expensive that it threatened to bankrupt the provincial government, he lashed out at his critics, saying: “They are not attacking the Alhambra in Granada. They are not attacking the Prado in Madrid.” Then, when his transit hub at New York’s World Trade Center started going off the financial rails — eventually costing an an astonishing $4 billion, more than twice its original budget — he took the same tack: No one remembers what Grand Central Terminal cost, Calatrava insisted, comparing his creation to a building that has been loved for generations.
Arrogant? Self-serving? It also happens to be true. Calatrava’s hub — centered on a giant oval room, 320 feet long and 100 feet wide, topped by a pair of steel wings reaching 160 feet into the sky — is a crowd-pleaser the likes of which New York has never seen. The room, known as the Oculus, is likely to become the most photographed component of Ground Zero, easier to capture than the memorial fountains outside, or the ungainly 1 World Trade Center (nee Freedom Tower) a bit further west. It has been called a selfie-magnet, Instagram-bait. Just what it represents is still being debated. Michael Kimmelman, writing in The New York Times, called it a boondoggle, carping that if “architects need a free pass, a vain, submissive client and an open checkbook to create a public spectacle, then the hub is a disaster for architecture and for cities.” But Paul Goldberger, in Vanity Fair, called it “the exhilarating nave of a genuine people’s cathedral.” The public, for the most part, seems to be on Goldberger’s side. “At last an inspiring public building. It’s now my secular cathedral. Hallelujah,” wrote Florent Morellet, the well-known restaurateur, on Facebook.
With reactions like that, pretty soon the cost overruns, egregious as they are, will be forgotten.
At least that’s what Calatrava is hoping. But there are a couple of reasons the station provides somewhat less of a thrill than the architect intended. Much of the hub — not just the base of the Oculus, but also the long, white-on-white passageways connecting it to the rest of the World Trade Center complex — is below-ground. Those underground portions were meant to be framed in concrete, a material that would have easily assumed Calatrava’s exuberant, Silly Putty shapes. But, according to a source at the Port Authority, early in the process that organization “reached out to the concrete industry requesting mock-ups of selected areas in the desired finish and color, with the intent to ensure constructability. However, it quickly found out that the industry had little to no interest in being involved in bidding on even the mock-ups. The complex forms, lack of redundancy and unique finish demands, at a time when the industry was very busy (with flat, unfinished, redundant work), led the Port Authority to believe that changing to steel was, essentially, the only way to get the project built.”
So steel it was. But local fire codes require that structural steel be covered in an intumescent paint, which, when exposed to heat, expands, providing insulation and emitting moisture. Unfortunately, the coating gives a cottage-cheesy texture to much of the structure. And unlike the hoped-for concrete, which would have been naturally pale, the steel needed to be painted white, a vast job that was completed at the last minute, and not particularly well. Calatrava’s building are all about repetition of details, and large imperfections distract from the overall effect.
Even more ominously, security concerns at Ground Zero meant the steel ribs of the above-ground portion of the Oculus had to be thicker and deeper than in Calatrava’s original design—so much so that the ribs largely obscure views through the glass panes overhead. The roof doesn’t feel like a glass surface supported by steel ribs so much as a steel surface with thin glass insets. That’s no small matter. And the amount of sky visible overhead will be further diminished when two new buildings rise just north of the Oculus — the World Trade Center Performing Arts center (by Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX) and the 1362-foot-tall 2 World Trade Center (by Bjarke Ingels of BIG). The view, like so many views in New York, will be of neighboring buildings.
Then, too, Grand Central Terminal, built 115 years ago (no wonder nobody remembers what it cost) helped spark development of an entire section of Manhattan. Calatrava’s station, by contrast, can’t do much to help the already jam-packed financial district of Lower Manhattan, which — to everyone’s surprise — has boomed to the point of bursting since September 2001.
And of course Grand Central is truly a hub, connecting interstate and commuter rails with half a dozen subways lines. Its vast central hall is criss-crossed by people going somewhere, not merely posing for pictures. By contrast, Calatrava’s station is largely an empty room, an add-on to a terminus for trains that cross the Hudson River from New Jersey. Those trains serve a modest 50,000 commuters a day, compared to Grand Central’s 750,000 daily riders. Service on the so-called PATH lines hasn’t been significantly expanded in decades, and even now the platforms on which commuters wait are oddly narrow (which the Port Authority source says was “dictated by the alignment of the tracks, which is very restricted, just as it was pre 9/11”). The Oculus, in other words, is a large bauble on a very small finger.
But the city wanted a bauble, and Calatrava, architecture’s biggest drama queen, was the man to provide it. At the press conference announcing the project in 2005, he released two pigeons (described at the time as doves) into the air, promising that his station would be a symbol of peace and — continuing the bird metaphor — would have wings that flapped up and down at the touch of a button. The flapping was eliminated as too expensive. What was left was stationary, and somewhat more like a dodo than a dove.
Or is it a brontosaurus? Or the ribs of the old World Trade Center towers, revisited as a vast public sculpture?
Calatrava has said he is remaking architecture as “an abstract, figurative art.” And his buildings tend to support multiple interpretations. In 2003, the architect unveiled his Auditorio de Tenerife (in Spain’s Canary Islands), with a winglike canopy that rises almost 200 feet before swooping back to earth. Some saw the canopy as a crescent moon, some a wave crashing against Tenerife’s shore, some a seashell, others as a gull’s wing, still others as an analogue of the volcano at the center of the island. Reviewing the building, I wrote approvingly of its ability to be understood in so many different ways. But other critics saw the wide range of interpretations as a sign that Calatrava was undisciplined, unwilling or unable to control his symbol-making.
There is one thing the Oculus resembles for sure: the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion (2001), a smaller space with a ribbed glass roof that can be opened to the elements. (That project, too, went far over budget, but is now beloved by Milwaukeeans.) The Oculus is also reminiscent of the shapes of the Valencia complex, and pretty much every other high-budget Calatrava building of the last two decades.
And Calatrava’s forms aren’t derivative only of Calatrava. They are, in large part, descended from Antoni Gaudi, whose experiments with catenary curves are almost exact precursors of Calatrava’s, and Pier Luigi Nervi, the Italian engineer known for expressing structural elements as almost surreally-fluid concrete forms. Not coincidentally, Nervi’s most zoomorphic building is an underutilized, and under-appreciated, bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge, about 10 miles north of the new transit hub, and also owned by the Port Authority, which Calatrava says he has explored from every angle. (Calatrava’s home, a lavish Park Avenue townhouse, is equidistant between Nervi’s station and his own.)
Calatrava’s work at Ground Zero also owes a debt to the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen — it’s as if the Oculus combines the bird-like forms of Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport, and the graceful ribs that hold up the roof of his Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. Another apparent influence is the Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki. Yamasaki, of course, was the designer of the original World Trade Center towers, whose shortcoming — too many ribs for too little glass — Calatrava repeats.
New York’s mass transit infrastructure is woefully inadequate, and there is nothing in the pipeline that will change that — certainly nothing to compare with London’s 73-mile Crossrail system. (A subway line beneath Manhattan’s Second Avenue, under discussion for a century and under construction for a decade, is a mere 33 blocks long.) Adding insult to injury, the Oculus will soon be ringed with high-end boutiques (the “people’s cathedral” is really a mall), and the central space itself will be rented for corporate functions. (Grand Central, as an actual station, could never be closed for private events.)
Even Calatrava’s fans wonder what real transit improvements $4 billion could have bought — for example, how many subway stations could have been made handicapped-accessible (a desperate need in New York City)? Or, for that matter, how many homeless people could have been housed for all that money? Calatrava may be right that nobody will remember the cost of his station. But they may well remember the consequences.