Home PANYNJ When an architectural symbol isn’t really an architectural symbol

When an architectural symbol isn’t really an architectural symbol

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the weekend, seemingly in only an article in The New York Times and not anywhere else on the Internet, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles announced a new look for the state’s driver licenses. Beginning in July, New Yorkers renewing their licenses or getting new ones will receive hard polycarbonate cards with two black-and-white photos. Ostensibly this is a move to combat counterfeiters and purveyors of fake IDs.

The details surrounding the new licenses — including word of a lawsuit over the contract reward and bidding process — are laid out in Jesse McKinley’s article. For now, this move will have little impact on anyone’s life as we’re not being asked to fork over the dough to receive new licenses yet. I wanted to take a look at the sample though because something familiar grows in the background.


If you look closely you will see that the background is not a usual symbol of New York State. The seal of New York, the city skyline and Niagara Falls have all been banished from the license, and in their places are the Statue of Liberty and….Santiago Calatrava’s half-built World Trade Center PATH train transportation hub? Pardon my incredulity but since when do semi-realized architectural renderings for a project not due for completion until maybe 2015 or maybe 2016 qualify as a Great Symbol of New York State?

To me, this reeks of an ex ante justification for the transportation hub — or perhaps even an ex post attempt at excusing the project. As of now, the hub is set to cost nearly $4 billion and won’t do a lick to increase rail capacity. It’s supposed to be an anchor in Lower Manhattan and a symbol of the area’s rebirth 15 years after the September 11th attacks, but it’s become a sign of New York’s inability to invest sensibly in infrastructure while keeping costs under control. We should have great public spaces, but we shouldn’t be bilked out of money by an architect more concerned with his vision than New York City’s needs.

And so, we’ll be forever reminded of this multi-billion-dollar porcupine in Lower Manhattan that really serves as a gateway to and from New Jersey because it will be featured ever so prominently on state-issued ID cards. Today, it’s not a symbol of anything really because it doesn’t exist, and when it does exist, it shouldn’t be a symbol New York should embrace so readily.

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Ryan March 19, 2013 - 2:13 pm

Come on NY, Dropping the ball on this one.

Eric F March 19, 2013 - 2:15 pm

So you are objecting to the building as a “gateway to New Jersey”. But you implicitly endorse Liberty Island, which is smack on the border of New Jersey, connected to Ellis Island, which straddles the two states and which served as a way station to ferry immigrants to NJ. You also endorse Niagra Falls, which makes up an international border and the nicest part of which is actually in Canada. The building is in NY and is part of the Trade Center site. It will be a prominent landmark and NYers looking upon it will no more associate it with NJ than they associate Grand Central Terminal with Stamford or White Plains.

I also thought it was odd that they are considering sticking this thing on a license, given that it’s not done and I wouldn’t bet a dollar that’ll be finished by any published schedule. On the other hand, at least it’s something new.

Perhaps you’ll get your wish and they’ll replace it with an illustration of the new Tappan Zee Bridge.

VLM March 19, 2013 - 2:38 pm

Eric: I think you’re missing the point here. It’s not to slight New Jersey; it’s to point out that (a) the state is celebrating a gateway out of the state instead of something like Grand Central that serves as a gateway to other points in the state and (b) the PATH Hub is a monstrous waste of space, money and transportation resources that doesn’t do anything to better the city. It’s a truly ridiculous thing to stick on our new drivers licenses.

Eric F March 19, 2013 - 4:26 pm

It’s well within NY’s rights to slight any state it wants. I don’t care if Ben’s commentary makes New Jerseyans upset. I just think the description is backwards. The WTC station will be an entry point to NY and a NY symbol. I hope it winds up looking nice.

AG March 21, 2013 - 8:46 am

well i agree with Ben – it looks like a porcupine. I find nothing “nice” about it. that said – it’s still an obscene amount of money… I hope it does improve things from a functionality level… but just imagine if more of that money was spent for that purpose.

Ryan-2 March 24, 2013 - 4:37 pm

Yeah, imagine… $4 billion on a station station entrance that looks like… that.

John March 19, 2013 - 3:51 pm

Also, how about the fact that the rest of New York isn’t displayed in any way? I am a native upstater, and I can tell you that there exists a whole bunch of things north and west of the top of the Bronx. The old licenses and license plates used to have Niagara Falls and the Empire State Building as representative bookends to New York State’s boundaries. I guarantee that almost no one who resides upstate and doesn’t come to New York City on a regular basis doesn’t even know what that PATH building is or why it’s on their new license.

Eric F March 19, 2013 - 4:28 pm

Agreed that it’s an obscure symbol. I never would have expected that it would have been picked to symbolize the state. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent the WTC site etches itself in the popular mind once it’s substantially complete.

Someone March 19, 2013 - 2:28 pm

Wow, the NYS government planned ahead already. Why don’t they also put the Freedom Tower and the Moynihan Station on the card as well, while they’re at it.

Eric F March 19, 2013 - 4:30 pm

They could pick the Barclays Center. It’s new and actually open for business.

Matthias March 19, 2013 - 5:56 pm

Look closely–the “Freedom Tower” is on there as well.

Someone March 19, 2013 - 8:11 pm

Yes, as a background, and only because this worthless piece of shit is right next to the Freedom Tower.

Nathanael March 24, 2013 - 3:38 pm

Indeed. Maybe the Second Avenue Subway and the New York High Speed Rail line could go on there too.

The idea of putting *nonexistent monuments* which *won’t be built for several years* on the driver’s licenses is just plain weird.

SEAN March 19, 2013 - 3:05 pm

As the old saying goes… Sometimes an architectural symbol is just an architectural symbol.

Sigmand Fruid.

Jerrold March 19, 2013 - 3:25 pm

The Freedom Tower (1 World Trade Center)would have made sense.
It is mostly finished, and it DOES symbolize our bouncing back from 9/11.

I remember a document from many years ago, probably the late 60’s or early 70’s.
It may have been a lottery ticket back when you had to fill out a lottery ticket with your name and address and then put the face copy of it in a box in the store. (You kept the bottom copy as a receipt.)

Anyway, that document had the Statue of Liberty and Niagara Falls on it, as symbols of “both ends” of New York State. (Or maybe it was the Empire State Building and Niagara Falls; I’m not sure.)

The point is that is WOULD be a good idea to have 1 World Trade Center and Niagara Falls on the license instead of that ugly, expensive, and unnecessary “porcupine”.

Chris C March 19, 2013 - 4:08 pm

to me it does look like the Freedom Tower is featured – the blue band on the right partially hidden by the second portrait of the holder. With the two triangles going up and the one in the middle coming down.

And again it looks (to me) like WTC 2 to the left of the main photo – with the four diamonds at the top

Steelndirt March 19, 2013 - 3:34 pm

My guess is that the new PATH station wasn’t picked for its significance, but for its visual properties. The rest of the ID is covered in geometrically complex shapes with subtle color differences. Of all of New York’s landmarks, the new PATH station is the best one that has both a complex geometry and simple palette. The station also has a width to height ratio that fits well on an ID.

The station is a watermark that is pretending to be an iconic New York structure. I can’t think of another New York landmark that can do that, or at least as well.

Chris C March 19, 2013 - 4:00 pm

lots of curves in the new building.

Complex curves are hard for forgers to replicate properly and if they tried they are more then likely to get them wrong which would then be easy for people to spot.

John March 19, 2013 - 5:08 pm

When I was younger, I don’t remember any forger trying to create exact replicas of New York State IDs. If you were under 21 around then (I’m talking 2000-2005), you either got a fake ID from a completely different state, or used a ‘chalked’ ID, in which a creative hack with talented penmanship could turn a 1986 into a 1980, or something of that nature. It was always my understanding that New York State IDs were already extremely difficult to replicate anyway, so I don’t exactly understand what the problem was in the first place.

If you have a New York State ID, check it out. The curvature of Niagara Falls, and the Adirondack range leading to the complex jaggedness of the New York City skyline is pretty complex to me, as are the various watermarks all over the front of the license, including the concentric circles and state seal. I don’t see why these couldn’t be carried over, they are much more identifiable and seemingly ‘secure’ enough.

Chris C March 19, 2013 - 5:42 pm

that’s the problem they are only just ‘secure enough’ and whilst the technology may not be around at the moment to replicate the watermarks etc it soon will be and that is why old tech is not always included in new designs or new ways found to include them.

hence why bank notes and passports are redesigned on a regular basis too

Adirondacker12800 March 19, 2013 - 3:53 pm

There’s lots on that sample that’s incorrect or out right bad. Why wouldn’t the landmark be bogus too? Or why is New York State issuing licenses to someone who lives in Kansas City? ( The zip code, if it exists would be in metro Kansas City. The zip code is short a digit too. ) And when did the state abbreviation for Kansas or Missouri change to DL?

Matthias March 19, 2013 - 6:00 pm

And what is the meaning of “Customer Identifier”? Customer of whom?

Jerrold March 19, 2013 - 8:09 pm

Isn’t THAT a little bit like arguing that nobody in real life is named “John Doe”?

Jerrold March 19, 2013 - 8:27 pm

Anyway, after answering your post I couldn’t resist checking the Post Office website.

The Zip Codes in Kansas City, MO begin with 641.
The Zip Codes that begin with 678 are in Dodge City, KS.

hal p March 20, 2013 - 2:50 pm

FYI when I moved to TX I lost my NYS license. I had to get it reissued by NYS DMV in order to be able to give it to TX DMV in exchange for a TX license. When it was reissued and mailed to me in TX, they printed my TX address directly onto a NYS license!

Jonathan March 19, 2013 - 4:24 pm

she’s got “bro” eyes, lol. I hate bro eyes on a woman.

George March 19, 2013 - 9:52 pm

There’s a real Second Avenue saga happening with a man trapped underground at 95th & 2nd, and y’all here yammering on and on about some statue in Jersey.

Jerrold March 19, 2013 - 10:25 pm

Oh, shit!
I’m going to turn on WINS-AM right now.

Someone March 20, 2013 - 9:34 am Reply
Stefan March 20, 2013 - 11:59 am

The comment alerting us to the news was posted at 9:52pm.
The post you link to was posted by Ben at 10:42pm.
Your comment was posted at 9:34am the following morning.

I don’t understand the purpose of your comment at all. It’s not like the OP was repeating what Ben had already posted. Why do you feel the need to comment on EVERYTHING, even if it is unnecessary or makes little sense?

Some of your posts on this site are insightful. Some, like this one, are pretty inane and add nothing but noise to the quality of commenting. I think you’ll find that people here will respect you more and give more weight to your on-topic comments if you stop with the silly, non-sensical shit like this.

Here’s a tip: before clicking Submit Comment, ask yourself “Is this comment adding anything productive to the topic at hand? Am I stating an opinion, or facts? Am I sure my facts are correct, to the best of my knowledge? Can I back them up with sources? Am I treating my fellow commenters with respect, like I would if they were sitting across the table from me?”

I don’t think you’re a troll, but you are certainly making it hard to get through what was at one point in time a pretty intelligent and discerning commenting section.

Benjamin Kabak March 20, 2013 - 12:02 pm

To further Stefan’s point, if this keeps up, I will reassess the commenting format here. Point blank: I’ve gotten far too many complaints about Someone’s comments impacting the level of dialogue. Consider this a notice.

Bolwerk March 20, 2013 - 2:55 pm

I beg you not to install DISQUS, whatever you do!

Ryan-2 March 24, 2013 - 4:35 pm

Agreed, from Stefan’s point.

Stefan March 25, 2013 - 5:10 pm

Posting under a different name. Maybe you’re more of a troll than I thought you were originally.

Someone March 21, 2013 - 9:07 am

Um… my internet connection was deprived?

Someone March 21, 2013 - 9:11 am

I was actually planning to post that at 11:00 pm. But my internet connection went out. Besides, I just didn’t have an opportunity to comment further at the time, because when I got Internet connection again, I hit the “submit comment” button way before I finished the task. So don’t blame me for any wrongdoing.


Pete March 19, 2013 - 10:23 pm

I’m all in favor of what is effectively a monument to mass transit taking a central role in the background of the document issued to every registered operator of a private motor vehicle in the State of New York.

Jerrold March 19, 2013 - 11:42 pm

In THAT case, why didn’t they use Grand Central Terminal instead of Calatrava’s monstrosity?

Michael K March 20, 2013 - 1:05 am

I think we are the only two who see that displaying a new transit hub on driver’s licenses is a great thing.

GCT has been around forever. The PATH hub shows NY rising and is something that every driver in the state will see and become aware of.

Essentially, it is free publicity for new transit projects.

Someone March 20, 2013 - 10:41 am

The PATH hub, incidentally, is also a sign of people going out-of-state, rather than a symbol of celebrating what’s in the state (like GCT).

Jeff March 20, 2013 - 11:57 am

Well, people generally use the PATH system to commute INTO the city and not the other way around.

Nonetheless, its also the entrance to what will be the largest shopping mall in Manhattan as well as the most expensively built landmark in the history of the world. So there IS some significance there……

Michael K March 20, 2013 - 7:12 pm

The NY-NJ competition sickens me.

We are one region, divided by politicians.

People working in Jersey City are not different than those working in Downtown Brooklyn.

Other than who they pay taxes to – a politician’s choice.

Frank B March 19, 2013 - 10:29 pm

I really am just speechless.

Jeff March 20, 2013 - 9:22 am

This is a clever marketing tactic for the new structure. Many people don’t know about this thing down on the WTC yet, but it IS something that both NYS and NJ are spending $4 billion+ on.

So what better way to increase awareness than to plaster a picture of it on a card that everybody in the state has in their pockets?

CarrollGardener March 20, 2013 - 10:25 am

+1 for Pete. The bigger, juicier story here is the transit hub engraved on the license carried by every driver in the state. Surely this was a clever joke.

BBnet3000 March 20, 2013 - 10:41 am

A lot of hate on here for Calatrava.

With all the horrible costs of construction on basic tunnels, glass apple store boxes (Fulton), and everything else the MTA does, I really think a lot of the hate for Calatrava is misplaced, certainly all the hate related to the high costs.

Any significant entrance to this station would have cost a ton of money. The WTC area is the largest inflation of costs in the history of construction anywhere in the world as far as I know. Its not the architects fault. I think the entrance is pretty nice looking, it could have been a hell of a lot worse if they had called a real hack starchitect like Koolhaas or Gehry.

Bolwerk March 20, 2013 - 12:03 pm

Calatrava is over-hyped and bland. His popularity stems from some modernist or post-modernist erection boomers inherited from their parents for breaking the urban form. The idea is presumably so the poor suckers forced by circumstances to live in cities don’t have to put up with busy streets, attached buildings, commerce, strangers, or even logic – you know, all the things that add together to make cities at least liveable, if not interesting.

His designs are made to take up a lot of space so nobody else can use it, so narcissistic political patricians can ooowwwh and ahhhh over what a nice gift they left future generations. The intent is the same as brutalism, popular with capitalists and communists alike, even if it’s not as “brutal” about it.

Think about it: while people are driving rents sky-high trying to move into traditional urban neighborhoods, our asshole politicians are blowing billions of dollars utilizing potential living space like that. It’s ego-massaging BS.

Jeff March 20, 2013 - 12:28 pm

Its difficult to tell from renderings, but considering the height and mass of this thing as well as sheer uniqueness it WILL be one of the most famous buildings in NYC for sure.

Someone March 20, 2013 - 10:43 am

“Bro” eyes…

justaguy March 20, 2013 - 4:28 pm

…and maybe it’s just a mockup

JS March 20, 2013 - 11:12 pm

Wait for the Trademark and Copyright lawsuits! Remember how the MTA trademarked “if you see something…”

Andy Battaglia March 21, 2013 - 5:56 pm

The absolutely ridiculous price tag and lack of any discernible improvement in rail service doesn’t change the fact that the station WILL be one of the most famous New York buildings upon completion. Its location, size and flamboyant shape pretty much guarantees as much. Even those that think the design is hideous should acknowledge that it will become a New York landmark. As others have said, I’m glad we’ll have another train station in this city that people will be able to recognize immediately. Sure, I’d have preferred true mass transit expansion over this monument but I’m not going to pretend it isn’t pretty darn cool that we’re actually building a train station this ostentatious in America.

Ryan-2 March 24, 2013 - 4:34 pm

I was tempted to say something… but I guess NYS is now more interested in out-of-state travel than it is in intrastate travel.


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