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With the World Trade Center site incrementally becoming more a part of Lower Manhattan, and the blades of the Transit Hub peaking interest from behind the fence, Santiago Calatrava sat down with former AN executive editor Alan G. Brake to discuss the civic role of his architecture, which he hopes will rank among New York’s great infrastructural works of the past. He is also completing the Greek Orthodox Church at the south side of the site, his first religious structure, which is scheduled to open for Easter 2017.
Alan G Brake: You’ve been working on the World Trade Center site for a long time, what do you think of how it’s coming together as an urban composition, now that people are able to access it more?
Santiago Calatrava: You see, it’s a little bit early to judge it. Fulton is not yet open. Greenwich is also cut in two, or is only accessible at one end. And at this point the platform where the Greek Orthodox Church is is still a construction site. Even the skyline is not finished, but in any case it’s very promising. You see that the site will be concluded. Once Greenwich is open and you have the church in place and then the skyline is concluded and the PATH is working and the plaza we have done is also accessible, it will become a very interesting site, just from the pure urban point of view. You see I always considered my project from beyond just the architectural aspects and the engineering aspects—very much from the urban point of view. The mezzanine under the 1 and 9 [subway] is like a plaza. The oculus is like a plaza, very light with open views out to the skyscrapers. My project was always about the urban configuration and even complementing the original master plan. I proposed detaching the station from Tower Three and making it an autonomous building in a plaza, which was different from the master plan. My approach has been looking at it as a contribution to the city. I think the whole scheme with the memorial gardens and the enormous towers is very powerful, and also the station is like one block of New York with a plaza around. We create a lower scale, it brings the scale of towers to the scale of the pedestrian.
The East/West Corridor has opened, and it’s giving people a preview of what’s to come. How does it relate to the larger composition of the station?
I tried from the very beginning to do that whole network of connections extending from the oculus as a single unit. So the character of the structural members you can see with the ribs, and a certain character in the paving, and a certain character in the front of the shops is already delivering a character that a person will see all the way through. So if you are in the oculus or the mezzanine, or in the other corridors to Liberty Street or the other internal streets towards Liberty Plaza, or towards Wall Street or towards Fulton, all these areas are marked with the same character. My goal is to create a space where as soon as I arrive in the transportation hub I know I am in the transportation hub, no matter what corner I enter from. Also, something that the corridor delivers is a sense of quality of spaces. I have built seven of the major transportation hubs in Europe, in Lisbon, in Lyon, in Zurich, in Italy, and so on. Getting out of this experience, it’s very important to create places of quality, because people behave according to that. You see after all the enormous effort to bring all the subways and the trains to this place and see to maintain the service through all the construction—why shouldn’t these places have a certain material and structural quality that you can enjoy in a day-to-day way, not just commuters but visitors who arrive in this place. I think the station will match with the tradition in New York of great infrastructural works, as you see today in Grand Central and in the former Penn Station. If it had not been demolished it would be recognized as one of the greatest stations worldwide. I hope people can see some of these material qualities in the East/West corridor.
The development of the World Trade Center site as a whole has been very complex, and there have been a lot of delays, and changes of authority and ownership. Can you talk about how that has impacted the transit hub and what you have fought to keep through all those changes?
The transit hub is more than just a series of stations that are linked together, and maybe that is difficult a priori to understand. It is conceived to represent all the transit access to the towers, also all the vehicular access of cars and lorries, it represents the energy center for many of the towers, for the museum, the memorial. The transit hub is also the basement of Towers Two and Three. The first three or four floors of Tower Three have been built as a part of the Port Authority’s commitment. It is also the support for the memorial plaza. It is the support to the entry to the museum, and the support for the future art center. All these things will let you understand materially what extends into the transit hub. It is also the 1 train diagonally crossing the site, which we have had to underpin, and keep in service the whole time. All of this has been done while fully preserving service of the subway lines and the commuter trains to New Jersey. To build the hub has been an enormous challenge.
Courtesy Santiago Calatrava
Your work has often been described as cathedral-like. What has it been like to work on your first religious structure, the Greek Orthodox Church?
I have been working in Greece for a number of years because of the Olympics in 2004, on the Olympic Ring covering the stadium and the velodrome. So I have an enormous sympathy for the culture and for the Greek diaspora. I discovered the beauty of the Orthodoxy. I knew Hagia Sophia, but I had never approached it from a religious point of view. I approached it as you approach the Parthenon. You can study it. You can buy books. But you can never fully understand it as a religious place. If you look at the project, it’s very anomalous with the rest of my work. I’ve never used a dome before, except in the competition for the Reichstag in Berlin, where I proposed a dome. Also there is the problem with scale, simply because the building is very small. The restraints that the Greek Orthodox Church negotiated with the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is a small building where the height is limited, the width is limited. But I knew that the monumentality was important. It will bring an accent to the site, as the entry to the PATH will do. This building will bring you a relation to the scale of the person because they have almost a domestic scale. I like that. We try with these two buildings to give a sense of the human being, the scale of man. It’s like a three-story house. I have to say it was a great idea from the Port Authority and the church to put it on a podium, which is the vehicular entry for security screening. It’s a small church floating above an oak forest. The oaks will not become enormous because they are in planters. I like this scale in relation to the pools of the memorial. We came up with this idea of making the dome out of translucent stone, so the light from the interior will have a little glow. It will never be excessive, but it will help give the impression of a 24-hour open place. So that people who need help, they will be able to find a place to go. Finally, the interiors, we are trying to do a place for everybody, an open place.
So it won’t have heavy religious iconography?
Certainly it will have the necessary iconography to officiate the liturgy. People can enter and light a candle if they are believers or not believers, if they are Christians or not, they can light a candle close to the memorial.
There has been a certain architectural language that runs throughout much of your work. Can you talk about the shared language of the church and the transit hub, and what you are working toward in terms of light, space, and structure?
I am also an engineer. If you look at my work, there is a very marked presence of structure. This is without any doubt the case with the hub. All these beams are steel and they are carrying the weight. The structure is used as an expressive element. So if you look back at all of the transportation hubs and railway stations in Europe, this is the case. In the hub you see the idea of bringing in light and making a very clear place. I employ it because it is also a matter of comfort. In places with high levels of security concerns, the feeling of safety is not only an objective feeling, it is also a subjective aspect. So a woman waiting for a train at midnight when the station is not so busy has to feel comfortable. For that, the ambience of clarity. Also orientation, if you take the East/West corridor as you see today you end up in the Fulton corridor. And you can see that optically through, because easy orientation, particularly in chaotic or dangerous circumstances is the most important aspect. So I am mixing architectural aspects—the color and the light—with functional aspects and the sensation of comfort for the users and also the quality of the spaces.
It’s interesting to compare with the Greek Orthodox Church. These aspects are much more mitigated because we’re not making an expressed structure. We’re trying to make a building that is expressive through the relation of the volumes. So I am stepping into a more complex and maybe a more classical aspect of architecture: the game of the volumes and delight. There are the four towers, the front facade, and the dome. Not the expression of the nerves or the tendons or the muscles of the body, but an expression of the relations of volumes and proportions, related to the person. It is much more classical. The Hagia Sophia, why is it what it is? You see the effort of carrying this enormous dome, but you do not feel it in the interior—it is all sublimated by the light. And also you enter the narthex and the anti-narthex and then into the nave. It’s a continuous crescendo. We also have this in our building.
Mission accomplished: The mid-town brownstone block where Alfred Barr and his fellow Modernist pioneers placed their Museum of Modern Art as America’s definitive destination for the Euro-centric discovery, interpretation, and advocacy of the Western world’s most progressive and putatively inevitable artistic trajectory will soon complete its path to final, filled-in form.
It began officially when the townhouse leased from John D. Rockefeller in 1932 was demolished for the first purpose-built International style MoMA headquarters by Goodwin and Stone, standing in breathtaking contrast to the 19th century context of residential masonry facades on the surrounding lots. It was precisely this bold juxtaposition that told the dynamic story best. And with it, the Museum set in motion its enduring dual role as both museum and real estate developer.
Manhattan’s mid-blocks as placeholders of lower density and contrasting styles in a joyful discordance of design history and shifting accommodation of existing fabric to contemporary needs is headed towards extinction, excepting designated landmarks sandwiched amid the leapfrogging glass curtain walls scraping at a disappearing sky. This unfolds despite Section 81-00 in the “General Purposes” section of New York’s Zoning Code (as approved and enforced by the City Planning Commission) calling for “the historic pattern of relatively low building bulk in mid-block locations, compared to avenue frontages.” Such good intentions yield to overriding development interests amid what seems yet another ceaseless real estate boom; landmark designation holds as the sole buffer to demolition, and the street wall uniformity following it, and is labeled therefore as an impediment to change. “Amber” (as in “fixed”) is just another word for nothing else to lose.
Somehow it seems fitting that with the exception of a few narrow mid-blocks, as between Madison to Park, where two midcentury Avenue-fronted lots accommodated new towers touching in the middle as of right, Barr’s bold 53rd Street launch pad signals the final victory of Modernism’s 80-year old call for what was back then a radical paradigm of new form.
MoMA president Glenn Lowry as much as said so back on April 10, 2013, when first announcing the plan to demolish Tod Williams Billie Tsien’s 12-year old American Folk Art Museum: “The building’s design does not fit our plans because the opaque facade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the building…” This is official modernism writ large as proscribed four generations beforehand and apparently non-negotiable across time. When contemporary classicists appeal for comparable design deference, they are generally labeled reactionary.
The block is now maxed out and done. It is not easy to demolish 50+ story buildings. To refurbish or redefine interiors like downtown’s residential conversions of old corporate towers is possible, even likely, but by and large the formal exterior envelope is now sealed excepting perhaps some occasional decorative refreshment (as usually regretted eventually when styles shift and the original integrity seems right after all).
This final transformation is made official at two sites: one nearing completion, the other finally set to start with the financing in place. The Folk Art Museum demolition is under way, starting with facade removal for placement in storage as a trace of a lost landmark, like the eagles from the parapet of the old Penn Station pulled from a New Jersey landfill years after its destruction.
That nearing completion is the Enrique Norten TEN Arqitectos 46-story flagship Baccarrat Hotels and Resorts replacing as it did Aymar Embury II’s restrained classically-tinged yet modernist 1955 limestone-clad Donnell Library Center. The new library, housed at street level and subterranean as is so often the trade off on such zoning deals, is reduced in size from 97,000 square feet to just 28,000, including space-consuming “bleacher steps” eerily reminiscent of Koolhaus’s Soho Prada. Just when public library usage surges to unprecedented demand, Norten’s clients have set aside one third the total size for this oddity and future users can only hope that these bleacher steps have some sort of relevance to intended function as opposed to a spot for noisy and noisome crowd congregation.
The city sold the old five-story Donnell for a measly $39 million, which is about one half the price of the new luxury hotel/condo’s penthouse sale price alone. While it is unfair to yet judge the design result on its own merit, its role in “completing” the block’s south side facade is fact. It fills it in with the side street facade of Caron and Lundin’s 1957 666 Fifth Avenue to the east; to the west is Kevin Roche’s 1986 red granite–clad pharaonic Post Modern EF Hutton Building and the fabled CBS Black Rock tower of Eero Saarinen and Florence Knoll, completed in 1965 and daring to veer from high Miesian orthodoxy with emphasis on unbroken, order-free vertical columns instead of a glass curtain wall.
Meanwhile, the urban infill at its block-wide maximum on the northern street wall is the last piece, namely the MOMA-hatched real estate deal leading to what will open in 2018 as Jean Nouvel’s Tower Verre. It will be an 82-story luxury residential tower rising to 1,050 feet after the City Planning Commission knocked off a submitted 200 feet more despite ambiguous authority to do so as back then (prior to approval of the 57th Street mother lode of needle towers) it was deemed unseemly to equal the height of the Empire State building envelop and even eclipse that of the Chrysler. Times change, values change when it comes to the sky and the impact on infrastructure and existing communities alike. Three street level floors designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro will again expand MoMA’s gallery and programming space, including easy, transparent access into the Sculpture Garden with the rest of the tower reserved for the world’s wealthiest, who will thus sadly most likely never actually reside there.
So except for MOMA’s sequential architectural iterations and the abutting St. Thomas Episcopal Church the inn is full.
This glimpse of midtown’s now inevitable future began in part in the 1970s, when the Museum set out successfully to secure zoning permission for the revenue-generating and facility expanding mid-block tower on land it owned by drawing on the air rights of the Philip Johnson-designed Sculpture Garden. This seminal exception to the planning tenet mixing the density of Avenue vs. side streets that characterized midtown’s archetypal form and function set a precedent. It was granted the variance despite vociferous objection from local neighborhood and civic organizations alike, presciently knowing that that act alone spelled the end to the Manhattan plan as evolved. Excepting landmarks and designated historic districts, all midblock lots would be replaced eventually by a seamless continuity of the Avenue street fronts in what would be finally a colossal uniform cube of street wall verticality.
That path-breaking commission went to Cesar Pelli Associates, who delivered the 52-story Museum Tower at 15 West 53rd Street in 1984, along with a coat checking friendly atrium, expanded restaurant and gift stores, and new gallery spaces of still conventional scale.
The Pelli commission led a generation later to another major overhaul and expansion, this time built largely with capital contributions and the taxpayers of New York City. The demolition of all remaining 53rd Street brownstones and the Dorset Hotel behind it on 54th Street heralded Yoshiro Taniguchi/Kohn Pederson Fox’s 2004 six-story David and Peggy Rockefeller Building, eight-story Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, and tucked in 16-story Museum Office Building, all framing a refurbished Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Following its completion was the sale of the remaining empty lots to the Hines Corporation for $125 million and then, finally, the purchase of the imperiled Folk Art Museum lot, completing the Tower Verre footprint.
The initial variance became the rule and today it’s inexorable as this finished block offers surest sign. Visit and see the future of zoning in Manhattan, and likely soon beyond.
To announce the end of history in this way in any social, economic, or cultural context is a fool’s errand as best demonstrated by what is now a fairy tale prophecy of political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his utopian, post-perestroika 1992 book, The End of History and The Last Man.
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human governance.
So much for that prediction, as shown with such brutality in the last weeks of global unrest deconstructing what seemed irrevocable. It turns out there is no end of change whether progressive or regressive and that history keeps unfolding in a constant, tautological, and occasionally violent way.
Just as such, wishful thinking and its inherent delusion fade, it is equally foolish in the fullness of time to declare a place and its architecture or other hands of man to be complete. Change is constant whether going forward or other times back; user needs, expectations, and capabilities adapt, including the ample supply of cheap financing, which underpins much of our present bounty.
At the same time, however, are there limits to growth? It is a question of particular currency in the absence of any commensurate will or allocation of resources to expand the public networks of transportation, communications, and essential services that any increased density demands. The failure to do so imperils the social contract on which all else relies.
Brooklyn Bridge Park has evolved in the past 15 years from a landscape of abandoned piers and fenced off concrete parking lots to a spectacular 84-acre greensward along the East River. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the owners of the site, once planned to build 3 million square feet of residential towers on the land that would likely resemble the current Williamsburg waterfront wall of residential skyscrapers. Fortunately the powerful and politically connected Brooklyn Heights Association opposed the 1986 plan and instead proposed a “harbor” park, which has, in many respects, been realized by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). The park is a stunning template of a 21st century open space in a dense urban site. The park is divided into various sections, each with its own formally programmed landscape, hardscape, and pier play areas.
However, the central area near Pier 3 (the park runs from Atlantic Avenue to Jay Street) is not only a narrow area, but is squeezed between the river and busy Furman Street. Overhead, is the double stacked and always-busy Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), which sits beneath Clarke & Rapuano’s Brooklyn Heights promenade.
The area of the park beside Pier 3 has been a no-mans land since it opened due to the noise emanating from the BQE—which directs the sound of traffic away from the heights and toward the water. It was so intense park goers could barely hold a conversation, let alone relax on the park’s future green grass.
Brooklyn Bridge Park officials and MVVA came up with an ingenious idea that has dramatically transformed this once inhospitable landscape into an oasis. Labeled Pier 3 Greenway Terrace, the new area has a south-facing landscaped sloping lawn and a walkway that is part of the 14-mile Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway. The walkway is outfitted with 30 benches made of long-leaf yellow pine salvaged from warehouses on site and is bordered by stacked blocks of recycled granite that rise 6 to 8 feet. Plantings of flowering shade trees and evergreens provide shade for the seating areas.
Behind the terrace is a 30-foot-high berm planted with trees and meadow grass that hides the BQE from the park and acts as a sound attenuating barrier, reducing noise pollution in the park up to 75 percent (or from above 80 decibels to below 68 decibels). The granite blocks, all of which were salvaged from the reconstruction of the Roosevelt Island Bridge and demolition of the Willis Avenue Bridge, act as the foundation of the berm.
This summer, visitors to the area will also encounter Dahn Vo’s: We the People, a new sculptural installation sponsored by the Public Art Fund, which is inspired by the Statue of Liberty. The berm runs along the entire length of the Pier 3 Greenway Terrace. Michael Van Valkenburgh has said that contemporary parks are not escapes from the city but are escapes in the city. To make this space an urban escape it was necessary to create a man made hill that may not look natural on this flat waterfront site (in fact it effectively replaces the escarpment that was cut down when Robert Moses built the BQE) but works perfectly.