White Dove or White Elephant?

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The below-grade passageways that link the PATH to the atrium on the right. (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey)

On March 3, Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transit Hub opened with much anticipation and mixed reviews. AN reached out to New York’s architects, designers, and engineers to hear their thoughts on the structure.

(Port Authority of New York and New Jersey)

“Gliding through the bleached and sanitized carcass of Santiago Calatrava’s new transit hub is an uncanny experience. Its gleaming white halls are luxury conduits connecting the PATH and subways to several key consumption-and-speculation nodes of Lower Manhattan: The offices of Condé Nast, the WTC observatory at One World Trade Center, the shops at Brookfield Place, and a new shopping center in Calatrava’s above-ground “Oculus.” All of this is held up by rough-surfaced, exposed, bone-like structural supports. In other words, it is a cross between an Apple Store and the Dinosaur Hall at the Museum of Natural History.

A generous observer of the space might imagine that the hub’s skeletal uncanniness has a critical quality, that it might lay bare the surrealism of inequality in today’s Manhattan; that even our most fervently styled immersions in consumption, connectivity, and convenience can’t forestall death in the form of slow digestion by an alien animal. (We could even imagine this as the inverse of what once happened at the site: Before the first World Trade Center was built, the district housed the meat and vegetable vendors of the Washington Market. We digested them, now they digest us?)

I suspect that might be too generous though. You would have to set aside the pretentiousness and poor scale of the Oculus above ground. And then there’s the unavoidable symbolic misfire of such casual and surreal reminders of death on a site of recent carnage. Perhaps this might have made a decent upgrade for Penn Station (and its slimness could work on that site, wedged on a closed 33rd Street). But, at the site of the former WTC, the symbolism of a skeletal building is astoundingly off.

Nonetheless it is difficult to discount the power of being in such a clean, well-lit transit space. For a moment I felt I was in Europe, in a place where infrastructure is taken seriously, and where public spaces receive real architectural attention. What if a New York subway platform had even a fifth of the gleam as the Hub’s PATH platform? What if the state funds directed to the Port Authority for this project had gone to the MTA instead? The hub’s [two billion] cost overruns may have scared off public officials who might otherwise push for bold architectural approaches to public space. But how could the Hub’s gleaming corridors make us hungry for more sophisticated infrastructural architecture? What if this was just one of many redesigned and renewed public spaces in New York, serving not just as bait for corporations and tourist attractions, but for all of us?”

Meredith TenHoor, associate professor of architecture, Pratt Institute

“Though a favorite animal has
always been the porcupine

Though Jersey residents deserve a
ceremonial Manhattan welcome

Though prayers go up every trip
through 1909 trans-Hudson tubes

Though grateful that Rockefeller
threw the PATH train a bone in
exchange for building World Trade

When we see people squeeze
themselves on the escalator shelf

Public space built to deny its public

Like hired help at someone else’s
white party

Making way before incessant
marble sweeping and recorded
announcements:

“Escalators are for passengers only,
always hold children by the hand”

Or maybe communal residents in
St. Petersburg palaces

You have easy targets for
dismissing architecture’s potential
for the universe

Multibillion architectural Leviathans
on Ground Zero stage

Quasi-public funds spent quasi-
democratically

At least Calatrava’s dove got away”

Hector Design Service

“Writing about Calatrava’s WTC PATH station as though it is new is odd. It is certainly not new to anyone who has lived or worked in lower Manhattan over the past four years. Point of fact: The spiky terminal is actually starting to feel familiar. When it was new to the block, the protruding ribs were steel gray and the multiple welded seams were easily visible to the naked eye. Now it’s white and seamless. We are getting used to its strangeness, a familiar fate for lengthy projects—culture changes faster than the construction schedule of an iconic public work. This familiar view aligns with the fact that the public’s experience of most iconic structures is focused on the outside. Here, the outside is the inside and there is a betting chance that the inside will exceed the impact of its exterior form.”

Claire Weisz, architect, WXY

“No wound can be healed by a sugarcoated monument to excess that is disconnected from the trains below and pretends to fly. It is embarrassed by the intestinal complexity of our infrastructure and our lives, thinking of New York as a World’s Fair. The pain of losing the twins is only magnified. Yet this is not simply a big mistake by a big name in a big town. The mistake was the idea of inviting such a designer to this site, the idea that we need to be distracted, and the misdiagnosis that we needed an overwhelming visual anesthetic.”

(Port Authority of New York and New Jersey)

Mark Wigley, professor, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

“Most of today’s criticism regarding the very large budget of the World Trade Center PATH station is intrinsically related to 9/11, local political problems, and Hurricane Sandy. We can’t blame Santiago Calatrava for any of these events, but some of his design choices seem out of place. He demanded column-free spaces and well-crafted steel parts, which, while they did impact the budget, resulted in favor of a better public space. How the large interior will be used is not yet known, but its iconic value, as well as unique character will be cherished by New Yorkers soon.

The fact that a third of the steel had to be manufactured in Italy simply shows us that North America’s construction industry is embarrassingly far behind technologically. However, Calatrava should have reconsidered the design of the Transit Hub after he knew that his operable roof would not be feasible.

This is not the first time an architect or engineer has encountered such a situation and good designers ought to be nimble enough to alter the narrative or design strategy of a project when value engineering becomes a new reality. The visual metaphor of a pigeon taking off may well have significant symbolic value for the site, but once the kinetic aspect of the project disappears, one is reminded of Icarus and his unfortunate predicament. The cantilevering steel members appear far more gratuitous now that the structure is arrested in a non-dynamic state.

There is no question that New York gained a high-end transportation terminal next to one of its most important memorials and is ready for increasing numbers of commuters to and from New Jersey. Whether its commuters really needed to be bathed in marble remains to be answered. It was an expensive endeavor with a complex history, but it also yielded an amazing new public space for the city.”

Duks Koschitz, associate professor of architecture, Pratt Institute

“It’s a great space for future fascist rallies. I envision the room filled with dupes raising their right hands. Yet the aspiration to elevate the public sphere, elsewhere missing, is also here. Some might say, “The space is a little too slick for Trump I’m afraid.” But you could easily chintz it up with some gold leaf and little-fingered slogans.”

Stephen Zacks, urban critic and journalist

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