Visual Arts

Ground Zero’s new transport hub: Crash landing or ‘dove of peace’?

New Santiago Calatrava-designed Transportation Hub at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, as seen from across Memorial Park.
New Santiago Calatrava-designed Transportation Hub at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, as seen from across Memorial Park.

Editors, critics and citizens of Greater Gotham have been straining to find the right metaphor for Santiago Calatrava's World Trade Center Transportation Hub, finally open this week after years of controversy, political in-fighting, delays and a $4 billion budget double the original estimate.“Boondoggle,” “lemon,” “dino carcass,” “train wreck,” “winged defeat” and simply, “the monster,” are some of the epithets hurled at the 75,000-square-foot complex in the past week or so. Some observers have compared it to an immense clam shell, a porcupine, a winged dove and a beached whale. The ever-whimsical New York Post dubbed it “Calatrasaurus,” while The New York Times called it a "stegosaurus.”

But it doesn't really matter what any of them say or think, because the deed is done. And when you see it for yourself in the right light, at the right time of day, the thing speaks of a post- 9/11 future that we haven't even processed. The perfect word to describe it may not yet exist.

The first view is quite a shock. Like many, I arrive expecting to dislike it, and I sneak up from the east, past St. Paul's churchyard just around the corner from Wall Street. Even 15 years after the terrorist attacks, this is still a semi-militarized zone with armed troops, concrete bollards and anti-blast barricades. There's construction going on, and it's hard to get a good view of the building because of the concrete mixing trucks. Still, right away I'm thrown violently against my own expectations.

There's a velocity to the architecture that one hasn't seen before. It's about the sudden sweep of scale and the way the thing sort of dives into the mosh-pit of Lower Manhattan with its fangled crown of steel spikes. It is neither a comforting nor a healing gesture, as some had promised, but more dissonant, even dystopian — a bone snagged in the city's gullet. It doesn't fold gently into the urban tangle of buildings and streets, but more accurately descends, and I find myself thinking about the trajectory of the second plane when it hit the south tower at 9:10 a.m. that fateful September morning. I notice that the protruding steel ribs — feelers, quills, fingers, feathers, antennae, whatever they're supposed to represent — are not symmetrical as I'd assumed them to be, but are angled back to fit the narrow site.

I walk past a group of heavily armed soldiers who seem to be huddling around the base of a sculpture called America's Response by Douwe Blumberg. The bronze statue depicts a special-forces soldier rearing back on horseback, a shockingly kitsch piece of art that was paid for by Wall Street bankers and stands near the main entrance to the subway.

I get lost and end up having to buy a one-way ticket to New Jersey just so I can go down to the Path train platform and then come back up via a glittering escalator to the mezzanine area, still under construction. A set of elegant crescent-shaped steps lead to the main concourse, a 350-foot-long hall called the Oculus that is oval in plan and reminds some viewers of being inside the belly of a whale or the skeleton of a dinosaur.

When I stand in the middle of the Oculus and stare up at the flaring ribs of the ceiling's 160-foot-high superstructure, I experience a kind of reverse vertigo, a twinge of nausea, as if I were a man defying gravity and somehow falling upwards into the long knife-slit skylight above me, the so-called “Wedge of Light.’’

And there are other spatial anomalies as one wanders further west through the labyrinthine complex. Structural ribs and buttresses appear to be bowed. The flaring support structures seem mottled in places, as if the concrete had been splattered on by an angry elephant. There are rough edges and barely perceptible flaws, especially at intersections and points where the structural elements converge. Clunky protrusions jut out from either end of the great hall and support the mechanical under-workings of escalators leading to a higher level. While the wildly cantilevered forms caused headaches for the contractors, the final effect doesn't appear to have justified all the fuss. They are quite ugly and detract from the overall sense of uplift and spatial transcendence.

Despite such relatively minor problems, this is a major civic gesture the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time — an architectural moment reminiscent of Antonio Gaudi, Erich Mendelsohn, Eero Saarinen and Felix Candela. I'm also reminded of Jørn Utzon's Sydney Opera House, an equally controversial “boondoggle” that ran far over budget but also helped to transform Sydney from a backwater into a global city. While Calatrava’s dinosaur does not rise to Utzon's opera house, it will no doubt change the perception of New York's post- 9/11 landscape in equally significant ways.

The architecture may be a bit hokey and bloated in an Oz-meets-Mormon Tabernacle way, but it presents us with a most timely dilemma: what exactly are the standards we are expected to use today for critical analysis? What do we look for in a major civic building such as this? What is its primary role and what is the responsibility of the architect? What, exactly, is this building trying to suggest or embody? What future? What Utopia?

Certainly not a Socialist worker's paradise, nor a "people's cathedral,” as one critic naively suggested. It's more like a creamy smooth, terrorist-free Utopia suitable for Hollywood and Wall Street consumption. There’s precedent; numerous scenes in Disney's Tomorrowland (directed by Brad Bird, starring George Clooney) were shot in Calatrava’s all-white urban complex in Valencia, Spain, and it’s easy to imagine similar scenes being shot here. As soon as it's fully finished, the cathedral-like Oculus at Ground Zero will be rented out for corporate events, while the perimeter area becomes a glorified shopping mall with more than 75,000 square feet of retail space. Think Prada, think Gucci.

Certainly, there are flashes of genius. Such is the long ethereal passageway that runs westward from the Transit Hall and Mezzanine areas with cartilaginous buttresses and bone-like spandrels that support the ceiling and perpetuate the sensation of being swallowed by a mythological creature.

The ghostly white marble was imported from Italy and hand-picked by the architect himself, who is said to have stood there telling the masons exactly how to place each panel. Against such a pale backdrop, humans appear as so many emanations, drifting past, hardly touching the ground. It feels like a passageway to the Hereafter, to some spacey Stanley Kubrick version of Valhalla. (I keep thinking of the commuters who have to pass through such a refined environment on their way to the same out-of-date train system they’ve been riding for years and imagine what a $4.4 billion upgrade might have done.)

Spanish-born Calatrava, star architect, branding genius, engineer and sculptor, has had a most prolific career built largely from the same vocabulary of acrobatic engineering, flaring fins and soaring atria, almost always executed in white, in a playfully anemic Baroque. He is best known for the harp-like bridges he designed for cities such as Seville, Toronto, Buenos Aires, Dublin and Venice, and for undulating railway concourses in Zurich, Liege, Barcelona and Lisbon. He's also designed major institutional projects like the Milwaukee Art Museum, and in Florida, the central building at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

He is part showman and part con artist, known as much for his spectacular budget-busting overages as his flamboyant signature style. The Arts and Sciences complex in his native Valencia ran triple the projected cost. He was sued by another city in Spain, Oviedo, for major design flaws on its new convention center — it collapsed; the Dutch city of Haarlemmermeer threatened to sue for three bridges that cost more than double what they should have. But Calatrava shrugs off such offenses and goes on to the next project without looking back.

“My goal is always to create something exceptional that enhances cities and enriches the lives of the people who live and work in them,” he said in his cheerily generic response to a negative 2013 story by Suzanne Daley in The New York Times. Calatrava is a well-worn image, a safe off-the-rack architectural bet in the eyes of corporate CEOs, politicians and the boards of private institutions: flamboyant, yet predictable. (As a shape, the new transit hub in New York is a copy of Calatrava's railway station in Lyon, France, only bigger.)

I circle around and come back up from the underground passageway, as if returning from Hades, into the brightly lit atrium of the Palm Court and Brookfield Place designed by Cesar Pelli in the 1980s. Once I step outside again — now on the western side of Ground Zero — to find there's no apparent coherence linking Calatrava’s transit hall with any of its neighbors. The effects are disorienting and disconcerting, with too many overwrought gestures, buildings and monuments pressing into the same public space, too many angular planes of glass, reflections, and mobs of tourists. Memorial Park itself feels like an afterthought — the land of dueling selfie-sticks — with symmetrically planted trees sprouting up through a grid of gray pavers. One moves through it as quickly as possible.

The energy of the whole of Ground Zero, the feng shui, as the ancient Chinese called it, seems to be flowing outward in a centrifugal pattern rather than the other way around. Instead of a gathering, there are scattering lines of force that make one want to leave the immediate circumference. (I keep thinking of the way those people ran away from the plumes of debris when the towers finally collapsed.)

The light is almost blinding where it reflects off the glassy new buildings that surround the park, at once disorienting and vaguely menacing. It's hard, almost impossible, to grasp so many divergent players, elements and forces at play. There's the oddly beveled spire of the Freedom Tower (#1 World Trade Center) by David Childs of SOM, a building for which I have no affection or understanding that stands for nothing in particular. The upper pavilion of the WTC Memorial Museum — designed by Snøhetta, a Norwegian firm — is all slanting glass and metal sheathing, as if it were tipping and sinking into the earth in elegiac distress. The twin pools of the National 9/11 Memorial ("Reflecting Absence" by Michael Arad and Peter Walker) match the footprints of the original WTC towers, deep black holes in the earth with water streaming down all four sides into an underworld that we, the living, will never quite understand. (Who, after all, owns the emotional rights to such a site, if not the dead?)

Only now, approaching from the west, from the far side of Memorial Park, do I begin to see Calatrava’s transit hall in a different light. From this angle, the multi-ribbed structure reads more like a crash landing than a "dove of peace fluttering up from a child's hand,” as the architect described it. He may be offering us an extravagant vision for the future but who is it really for? Even the authorities are not sure. No grand opening events have been planned.