Home PANYNJ First impressions from the Calatrava WTC PATH Oculus

First impressions from the Calatrava WTC PATH Oculus

by Benjamin Kabak
An American flag hangs over the half of the PATH Hub still closed to people. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

An American flag hangs over the half of the PATH Hub still closed to people. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

I have a series of posts on a few topics that I have in the works, including an important one on the smoke and mirrors behind Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s phony pledge to support the MTA’s capital budget, another on the potential for a looming New Jersey Transit strike, a third on the faulty logic behind the latest effort to revive the F express in Brooklyn, and a fourth on the MTA’s victory in a First Amendment case over transit advertising. But — and you knew there was a “but” coming — I’ve been busy with work and fighting a cold all week. Instead, I’ll leave this list up as a reminder to myself to tackle them soon and a tease for you to come back next week.

So tonight, let me offer a few thoughts on the new World Trade Center PATH Transportation Hub/Oculus/Calatravesty/whatever you want to call it. After the part of the building opened on Thursday at 3 p.m., I swung by on the way home from work today. As it stands now, it’s quite a structure. It’s blindingly white, even at night, with long hallways, high ceilings, and a profound sense of emptiness. The columnless structure of the Oculus with its ribs reaching for the stars feels endlessly vast and cathedral-like. All of the people were who were milling about, either to take photos or get to their PATH train, were doing so in a hushed tone usually reserved for religious buildings.

The inside of the Oculus is an overpowering empty space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

The inside of the Oculus is an overpowering empty space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

As it stands now, half-finished and half-opened, it’s also noticeably vacant. The main hall, which isn’t so much a waiting room as it is a vast and expensive passageway, is ringed with what will eventually be storefronts, but the commercial space isn’t ready. It is nearly impossible to judge the building and its form and function until the mall opens because it is a mall first and a transit center second. Since the Downtown Hudson tubes, well over 100 years old, weren’t shifted eastward, the Oculus isn’t above the platforms but rather serves as the main attraction on an underground walk that will eventually span from Brookfield Plaza to the Fulton St. Transit Center. It’s not quite a train station; it’s not quite a subway stop; and it’s not quite a mall. But it’s more the third than the first two.

One element of the building stuck out at me, and it’s something I’m sure Santiago Calatrava must hate as well. As the silence fills the Oculus, the only sounds are the constantly repeating and far-too-loud instructions emanating from speakers in the numerous escalators that ring the structure. Stand forward; walk lively; don’t run; hold the handrail; keep children in your sight: don’t use the escalators for oversized luggage; and on and on and on and on through the night. I don’t know if these stem from fear of a negligence lawsuit or ADA requirements, but they could not be more disruptive or annoying to ethos of the building. If they’re not mandated message, turn them off. We all managed to use escalators just fine yesterday; we’ll do great without hand-holding announcements tomorrow.

At mezzanine level, the vacant commercial space looms above the Oculus' main floor. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

At mezzanine level, the vacant commercial space looms above the Oculus’ main floor. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Finally, there is still the matter of this structure as a train station, and so far, the early concerns about narrow staircases leading to platforms that cannot handle peak-hour crowds remain a glaringly obvious problem with something that was supposed to be a selling point. How did the Port Authority fail to construct enough staircases that also wide enough to handle people flow? Why did the train station elements of the building come last?

Needless to say, my thoughts don’t touch upon the leaks that have plagued parts of the building still not open to the public, the constant need to clean and buff the slippery floors, or the cost. That’s the $4 billion white marble and steel elephant in the room. But even though the building hasn’t yet fully grown into itself, I’d urge you to check it out. It is certainly a sight to see. Plus, you can take some fun selfies.

No trip to the PATH Hub is complete without an obligatory selfie.

No trip to the PATH Hub is complete without an obligatory selfie.

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Roger March 4, 2016 - 1:11 am

The spikes on the wings of this building really look like fish bones…

Roger March 4, 2016 - 1:22 am

And why can’t we have some respectable form of art today besides the “modern” crap like this? How do art schools grade their homework? Is there even a criterion of good vs bad art these days? Can our dear artists explain, in plain English, what in the world are their random crayon strokes or “Merda d’artista” expressing?

If I were a college president, closing the art school would be the first item on my agenda.

Larry Greenfield March 4, 2016 - 7:21 am

I’m glad you’re not a college president.

Sean Robertson March 4, 2016 - 10:48 am

Well, you’re clearly not an artist. Not everything has to be taken literally. Abstract art invites the viewer to add their own interpretation to the piece, allowing the viewer’s own imagination and creativity to become part of the work.

In the case of architecture like this, there are subtle references to earlier forms like the cathedral aspect noted by the author (something I DEFINITELY picked up on – I was there at 3:00). There’s a certain reverence to the space, one that draws the eyes (and dare I say soul) upwards to the strip of windows providing a glimpse of the towering structures above. It is frankly more moving than I anticipated. From the outside, the wings give the building a sense of flight – it’s not merely a static structure, it almost wants to fly off in a sense. During the day, again like a cathedral, the place is full of light. It is unexpectedly open to the outside for such a structure, connecting the inner space with it’s surroundings by grand views on all sides..

Say what you will about the cost, but architecturally, Calatrava nailed it.

Nathanael March 4, 2016 - 1:00 pm

I like abstract art.

This building has a sepulchural feel. Like the bleached bones of the dead. Rotting away, picked clean by birds, in some ancient desert. The ruin of a train station in the ruin of a city.

Maybe this is actually an appropriate vibe. But I don’t like it.

Nathanael March 4, 2016 - 1:10 pm

The giant flag and parallel lines also give it an extremely fascistic feel.

Honestly, Calatrava may have accurately captured the vibe — death and fascism — but if so, destroy this building now. This is not a vibe I want NYC to have.

Roy March 4, 2016 - 3:32 pm

It’ll be a great venue for Trump Youth rallies for sure.

Jerrold March 4, 2016 - 7:16 pm

“It almost wants to fly off in a sense.”
I wish that the damn thing COULD fly off,
and never come back!

Thomas Graves March 5, 2016 - 1:11 pm

You’ve got to be kidding. Of course any monstrosity this big is ‘stunning’ the first time it is seen. But it’s a dead, empty space, soon to become a shopping mall, so yes – a cathedral – to the only politically-correct god remaining: consumption. As a train station, it is a failure. If you love abstract art, great, enjoy it at MOMA. But $4 Billion of public funds needn’t have been squandered so people could get off on the ‘sculpture’.

Beebo March 4, 2016 - 6:56 am

I’m waiting for the first storm that damages those wings. Ought to be a nasty sight

Jeff March 4, 2016 - 8:47 am

The structure in this thing (heck the entire WTC site) is built like a tank, which of course partially accounts for the high cost. That’s the least thing I’d worry about.

Rich B March 4, 2016 - 9:37 am


Chris March 5, 2016 - 7:38 am

Except for the stegosaurus apparently, which is rusting away as we speak. I wonder how the other parts of Calatrava’s design are going to be affected.

And if I recall correctly, rust will have a negative effect on the structural integrity.

Jeff March 5, 2016 - 12:19 pm

Not sure what you’re talking about, but the steel looks pretty protected from paint last I’ve seen.

Lord Deucey March 4, 2016 - 7:33 am

It’s soooo pretty, but is it really worth the fare and toll hikes Port Authority implemented and have planned?

The $4 billion spent on this could’ve been used to replace PABT…

Andrew Kalloch March 4, 2016 - 9:27 am

Not really. The federal funds (provided in 2002) were specifically for Lower Manhattan transit projects. That doesn’t mean that it should have been spent as it was (increased capacity to Lower Manhattan probably would have qualified), but it wasn’t completely fungible money.

Douglas John Bowen March 4, 2016 - 8:08 am

We’re back to stairway widths?

True, Platform A (Tracks 1 and 2) is a narrow, twisted affair, with narrow, inadequate stairways. But Tracks 2 and 3 have staircases that, at the very least, are standard width; rush hour passenger flows move relatively fluidly here. I haven’t checked staircases for Tracks 4 and 5 recently, but early observations suggested they would equal 2/3.

So we have something deemed a shopping mall that includes transit passengers. That’s fair enough. Not expressly spelled out is the reality that at least the transit passengers gain access before the mall itself opens, which should count for something.

And I’ll go out on a limb just a bit more: I find it notable that railfans and rail advocates, largely a male crowd, always carp over “shopping” as a negative or distraction, whether it’s at Calatrava or Union Station in Washington, D.C. Stores in train stations were not an unknown event in the halcyon days of railroads. The protestations over this supposed near-heresy strikes me as odd.

I despise malls myself, go out of my way to avoid using them. But plenty of people disagree with me — as they did with the previous WTC mall prior to 9/11.

One thing I’ll agree with Mr. Kabak about; Those darn escalator warnings bring all the charm of Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta right into downtown New York. Condescending and patronizing and annoying, rolled into one — and apparently, per Mr. Kabak, the messages echo throughout. Ugh. Shut them off, if legally possible, please.

Jeff March 4, 2016 - 8:50 am

Platform A isn’t meant for full revenue service anyway once Platform C opens. And basically all of the egress issues will be addressed once the full site opens. Of all the things to complain about, lack of space should definitely not be one of them.

BoerumHillScott March 4, 2016 - 9:18 am

In addition, the stairs and escalators are largely set up to move people to and from the center of the PATH Hall (Mezzanine) for easy access to the Oculus.

For the last 7 years, the only exit was at the North end of the Mezzanine so the North stairways/escalators are much more crowded than the south ones.

This should somewhat balance out soon, although in the final configuration there will still be more people on the north end compared with the south.

Thomas Graves March 5, 2016 - 1:15 pm

Sure train stations of the classic days of railroading had shops, but most of them were useful to travelers: barber shops, shoe repair places, restaurants, newstands, florists. I’ll hazard a guess that the retail selection in the transit hub will be long on Gucci bags and $10,000 watches, and short on shoe-repair joints and other things useful to people riding PATH.

Eric March 5, 2016 - 4:37 pm

I don’t think people repair shoes any more. They throw them out and get new ones.

Phantom March 6, 2016 - 10:29 pm

You’d be surprised. I’m on a second resoling of a much liked pair of Mephisto shoes.

NYC has a number of very busy and much loved shoe repair shops, on Wall St and all over.

Business travelers from outside NY will bring their old shoes to town for repair by the best.

Eric March 5, 2016 - 4:41 pm

“I find it notable that railfans and rail advocates, largely a male crowd, always carp over “shopping” as a negative or distraction, whether it’s at Calatrava or Union Station in Washington, D.C. ”

Shopping is fine when the private sector pays for it. Here, billions of dollars of our money were spent to provide shopping.

BoerumHillScott March 5, 2016 - 8:11 pm

Westfield paid over $1 Billion.

Eric March 6, 2016 - 11:23 am

That doesn’t come close to covering the cost.

Larry Littlefield March 4, 2016 - 9:26 am

The test is how it looks after 20 years of little if any maintenance, as a result of operating expense cuts necessitated by high Port Authority debts.

BoerumHillScott March 4, 2016 - 9:30 am

The advantage of the place being a mall first is that the mall operator will make sure it stays looking good.

SEAN March 4, 2016 - 10:03 am

Westfield spent a shitload of money to build the mall portion of the WTC & I think they want to have it as a top tier property. Therefore it will be maintained despite Larry’s comments above. As a footnote, Westfield sold several US assets to raise capital for the WTC project.

Nathanael March 4, 2016 - 1:06 pm

It’ll be a pigeon sanctuary like the old TWA Terminal (TWA Flight Center) designed by Eero Saarinen was for most of its history.

(I notice that the record of what a god-awful pigeon-shit-covered hellhole the TWA Flight Center was has been scrubbed from most of the Internet. Someone should update Wikipedia if they can dig up the old newspaper articles on it. I remember it well from the 1980s and 1990s.)

There’s another example of Bad Architecture.

I would teach the TWA Flight Center and the Calatrava PATH “oculus” in the same architecture course: the “what not to do” course. Examples of how to completely fail functionally due to obsession with appearances.

These designs are failing-grade designs which should get any student flunked out of architecture school. Architecture is not art of the sort which hangs on a wall. Architecture has to be practical.

Benjamin Kabak March 4, 2016 - 1:24 pm

In fact, it already is. In the 10-15 minutes I spent inside last night, I spotted at least one pigeon flying through the upper reaches of the building.

Stewart Clamen March 4, 2016 - 2:25 pm

The early bird gets the worm!

SEAN March 4, 2016 - 2:58 pm

Good call. I thought pigeons were a sign of good luck?

Nathanael March 6, 2016 - 7:46 pm

Buildings with very high ceilings and complicated rib structures near the top seem to be particularly attractive to pigeons.

It would be interesting to do a comparative case study of what sort of architecture attracts indoor pigeons and what sort of architecture deters them. I think this would be a useful piece to put in an architecture journal; it would quickly be a standard reference material.

adirondacker12800 March 6, 2016 - 10:10 pm

No food, no water. The same thing that deters the wingless rats.

BoerumHillScott March 4, 2016 - 9:27 am

From a very selfish perspective, this morning I got to avoid walking an extra 4 minutes on nasty slushy slippery sidewalks.

I think that’s worth $4 billion 🙂

Nathanael March 4, 2016 - 1:07 pm

I think we could have built a cheaper hallway. $1 billion should have done the trick.

smotri March 4, 2016 - 9:36 am

Can’t agree more. What constitutes artistic endeavor worthy of being called that is a constantly evolving idea. For example, when impressionism first started, it was decried.

Herb Lehman March 4, 2016 - 10:01 am

Ben, considering your opinion of this building, I’m kind of surprised you’re smiling in that picture.

I agree with yesterday’s post – I’m kind of relieved this obscenely expensive clusterfudge is finally open. We can finally move on, and I can only hope, learn something from this.

Aria March 4, 2016 - 11:23 am

Very impressive. However, why wasn’t this money spent on rebuilding the original real Penn Station instead? A simpler less expensive structure would have sufficed downtown.

Michael549 March 4, 2016 - 12:31 pm

Basically because the “original real Penn Station” was not destroyed by terrorists bent on destroying our American way of life! These terrorists tried destroying this symbol of American economics not once but twice!

Snarky! (Yes, I know!)

In the process killing a heck of a lot of people, destroying a major business district and transportation center – and screwing up lower Manhattan for years! Those impacts are still felt by many!

I know that there are plenty of folks that gloss over just WHY the re-construction works is taking place at the World Trade Center, and prefer to argue about costs, stairways to platforms, architecture, etc.

And that there is plenty of carp about “spending the money some place elsewhere” as if the money could have been used for other purposes (which some political folk tried mightily to do!)

Never ever forget WHY there had to a restoration of the World Trade Center complex!

In the super-hero movies and comics – the acts of destroying cities and neighborhoods is blood-less – because no one in the movies and comics ever have to deal with the real world, day to day process of building anything! The real world is no where as simple!

This makes me wonder if folks carped about the costs of reconstructing the naval base and replacing the destroyed navy ships at Pearl Harbor in the 1940’s!


Nathanael March 4, 2016 - 1:08 pm

You might be amused by Marvel’s comic “Damage Control”, about the construction company which specialized in rebuilding after superhero-supervillian clashes.

SEAN March 4, 2016 - 3:05 pm

This is why most Americans have a cartoonish sense of justice/ right & wrong.

Horatio March 4, 2016 - 11:31 am

I admire your restraint in not referring to it as Oculus Prime.

actualartist March 4, 2016 - 12:33 pm

I am shocked by the effusive praise I read about this building. it’s a hideous, glaring white monstrosity. Nothing about this building makes me want to visit it or spend time in it. It appears to be an over-designed, empty canyon. The proportions look wrong on the outside (probably a result of value engineering). It does not elegantly serve its purpose.

This station is a disgusting waste of $4 billion and will go down along with Fulton Center as an example of the utter bankruptcy of design in public spaces during our era.

Nathanael March 4, 2016 - 1:09 pm

At least most of the money at Fulton went to the highly practical underground hallways.

Most of the money here went to the bleached skeleton artwork.

Jeff March 4, 2016 - 3:32 pm

Most of the money here when to infrastructure supporting both the PATH station and the WTC site, as well as to underground hallways connecting the people at the four WTC towers with the subway and PATH network. So that’s simply untrue.

Especially since Fulton Street already had (somewhat inconvenient) hallways. These were built from scratch.

NattyB March 4, 2016 - 5:29 pm

We really need an architects analysis of the entire WTC complex. I just moved from Battery Park City to Brooklyn and in the past 5 years of living downtown, my experience was that the entire WTC complex was something that was just “in the f—ing way” and lacking all functionality altogether. Just a massive complex with few ingress/egress points, bounded in part by the totally inhospitable West St.

If I wanted something delivered, they’d have to “go around it,” and when I would leave BPC, I would have to “go around it.” Its massive footprint, coupled with all the roads terminating in the campus, minimizes the number of north south and east west routes. It’s like a mini-Central Park but lacking the transverses or even a nice circle drive.

Oh, and the Oculus itself, made miniature by comparison by the gray and silver towers that flank it. It’s just so grotesque.

Brooklynite March 4, 2016 - 7:09 pm

To be fair, the WTC has been an enormous construction site for the last decade and a half. When it’s done it will have streets cutting through, and pedestrian walkways under it.

Jeff March 5, 2016 - 8:41 am

Thats really just a function of it being a construction site.

AMH March 4, 2016 - 2:12 pm

When I walked by the other day, the white exterior already looked dirty. Not very practical. It looks cool, but doesn’t seem like a good design for a constrained site with large buildings on either side.

Agree about those obnoxious escalator recordings, and the same goes for all the recorded announcements in the subway. DoT is installing more audible pedestrian signals, which emit constant noise on the street. Audio pollution is really out of control.

SEAN March 4, 2016 - 3:14 pm

The audible crossing signals have value for those with limited sight, but on escalators I find them annoying. The worst offender to me are the escalators that go to the lower bus gates at the PABT.

Stephen March 5, 2016 - 7:48 am

You want noise pollution? Those new buses (the ones with the yellow poles) are absolutely the worst. Besides that ridiculous ‘please use rear door for exiting’ announcement that few follow, they now have ‘push yellow tape to open door,’ ‘doors closing,’ and ‘MOVE AWAY FROM THE DOOR!’ that is even more useless. Even with headphones on, I can still hear them. If you don’t know to push the tape, well, you don’t belong on a bus. If you’ve never been here before, you’ll ask before you go. The ‘move away’ announcement gets really annoying because on a crowded bus (as if there were a non-crowded bus option), that announcement keeps going on and on, not just when the driver stops the bus to let folks off and on.
They also have retrofitted some of the other buses with this system.
Tell the MTA to stop it with these announcements. Short of that, then make the happen with the frequency of the ‘assaulting a bus operator is a felony’ announcement. Like maybe once or twice during the run.
/end of rant.

JJJ March 4, 2016 - 3:41 pm

How does one open a new train station mall without even a Dunkin Donuts?

SEAN March 4, 2016 - 10:56 pm

A Starbucks?

David Brown March 5, 2016 - 12:26 pm

The reality is people may bitch, moan and complain about the cost of such projects, but having every ammenity known to man is EXACTLY what they want, regardless of cost. You see that with “Affordable Housing.” They want to give people who live there the lifestyle of living at the Waldorf, despite the fact that it is one of the reasons why they cannot afford to built the amount of housing that is actually needed. When it comes to transportation, that is what we are seeing with all of the plans for 34th Street despite the cost involved.

SEAN March 6, 2016 - 8:37 pm

From Citylab.

A Long Chat With Santiago Calatrava on What Train Stations Mean to Cities

“I love Grand Central, but I think our station is even more urban,” says the architect behind New York’s new $4 billion transit hub.
Mark Byrnes

Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub opened Thursday in Lower Manhattan. It’s basically a light rail station that connects riders to ferries, subway lines, and office towers through a shopping center (which will open later this year), anchored by a public area with a stunning glass and steel roof called the “Oculus.” All for the cost of $4 billion.

The price is still the most notable fact about the hub—something that clearly bothers the architect, who has been giving interviews and tours of his first U.S. transportation project in recent weeks in hopes of assuring everyone that what he has made for New York is indeed worth it.

It’s hard to justify the $4 billion spent. Custom-imported steel and marble floors aside, the high price does not rest much on the architect. A New York Times report in 2014 noted that administrative costs alone had exceeded $655 million. Besides the engineering complications of the project, Calatrava tells CityLab that he “proposed solutions but there were administrative issues and cost estimates that were the responsibility of others.”

Compared to the new skyscrapers around it that can feel cold to strangers, Calatrava’s hub begs you to come inside, where its curved steel and manipulation of sunlight make for a rewarding architectural experience. From the outside, its steel ribs poke out to announce itself from blocks away in multiple directions—a helpful gesture for disoriented pedestrians.

The Spanish-born architect has had the rare luck of designing seven of train stations in his career. Looking through his portfolio, you can’t help but wish his work had more aesthetic range, or that it all had the edge of his earliest efforts. What he’s built for Manhattan doesn’t veer too far from recent projects in Milwaukee or Valencia. At the same time, it’s an earnest attempt to honor those who perished on 9/11 while showing his admiration for Grand Central and the works of Eero Saarinen.

CityLab caught up with Calatrava at his office last month, and again inside the Oculus during a media tour earlier this week, to discuss some of his first transit stations, how they influenced his current thinking, and the experience of building New York’s most recent and expensive public space.

Talk about your first ever station: Stadelhofen, in Zurich.

Stadelhofen is important to me because it’s my first commission. Also, I spent over eight years on the project, so it was a full immersion in the world of railways with all the possible difficulties. It was a building in the city with trains passing through and with houses so close to the train that we had to work around them.

There are several aspects to Stadelhofen, but one of the most important aspects is the terrain. The terrain is very different from the lake to the station than from the station up to the hill, and the frontier is marked by Stadelhofen. The city is very different on both sides of the train station. Down below, you have the dense city that is slowly becoming a very important area of Zurich: there’s Bellevue, the opera, there’s the whole area of Seefeld. There’s also the area around the hill that has been developed. There are a lot of schools there and the university.

There were a lot of technical challenges coming from the fact that there was housing there. We had to keep all the services running and let the train go around the site. Not being an enormous station, it took us eight years to finish. It has also activated commerce around it and it’s on its way to becoming the second most frequented station in all of Switzerland after once being fourth or fifth. Now, it’s really another point out of the central station and in a crucial area where a lot of people are working, where the university and the schools are, and it’s so close to the lake. It’s an area that is very alive because it’s almost the center of the life of Zurich.

I think we won the competition because our response was very precise to the place. It’s now a little over 20 years old and it’s already been awarded the status of [Swiss Inventory of Cultural Property of] National Significance. It means the people like it and it works well. It’s not a pretentious station. It was done with a very modest budget, something like 48 million Swiss Francs, which at the time would be $50 million. It was a precise answer for a very precise part of Zurich.

You were working on another Swiss rail station in Lucerne around the same time.

Yes. It was a collaboration with two other architects. I thought it was important to create a kind of portico towards the city. Behind it, there is a hotel which runs parallel. The pieces are interesting in relation to each other and the people. The portico brings the real scale of the station to the top of the building, creating an intermediary element which, being closer to the people, represents the real station.

It has a minimalist character like the rest of the building. My colleagues solved the problems of the trains, but my thought was to just introduce a piece that links the trains with the city. To be something that everyone can tell that this is a station. To make it open, clean, and a place for gathering. All the questions of transparency, accessibility, and gathering were [addressed] there. Very different from Stadelhofen, which very much related to the place. It cannot be repeated.

Moving away from your urban projects, what’s different about your Lyon-St. Exupery Airport station?

The French were developing their high-speed system. They wanted a route like Paris-Marseilles, which is something like 800 kilometers, as fast as possible to compete with airplanes. So they decided to do stations from airport to airport, because then they can go the entire route at full speed and even traverse the station in high speed.

The first time they did this was for the Lyon-St. Exupery. I won the competition around the time I was finishing Stadelhofen. It was a pure HSR station built from scratch, and then we later added a secondary station for the regional train. The ambition of the HSR at the time in Europe was to get from Rome to London in around six hours. Right now they’re finishing the tunnel which goes through the Alps and arrives in Lyon at our station. This will reduce the time to Milan, when everything is done, to 1.5 hours.

For Lyon, it was the Roman capital of Gaul, so they’ve grown with a sense that they’re still kind of a capital city. They decided to do a really beautiful station and the regional government was eager to have something symbolic … . I wanted to do a shallow building integrated into the landscape. The train is also passing it entrenched in a cut in the ground, so you almost don’t see the trains as you’re approaching the station. So I did very shallow vaults and I did a roof with two symmetrical wings and a high ceiling.

It’s not in the city, so it [works as] the centerpiece of development around the airport. The station is a feature devoted to the train, a symbol like a gate to the region and a landmark of the airport.

You took on a multi-modal project in Lisbon in the ‘90s in a massive urban redevelopment zone. How did that project come together?

My idea was not a station on top of the hill but over a bridge on the axis of the bus station and the subway station. It was, at the time, the largest multi-modal platform in Europe. There was a street called Avenida de Berlim that was not in the axis of the bus station so we we proposed a new [Via Reciproca] running [along side of] Avenida de Berlim towards the bridge.

By moving the street, we could then create a plaza in front of the multi-modal platform and link it with the new development of the Expo by two bridges. So we created a new order: the busses are on the ground floor, the trains are the upper floor over the bridge, and the subway is underground. It’s very logical. It’s very easy to orient, which is the key in those very complex situations where you have to offer a very logical and tranquil way to go from [transit mode to transit mode]. You go up from the subway and you arrive to the bus. Then up above are the trains.

Before Expo, the area was a former oil refinery. When you walked around there was grass up to [your chest]. In a decade, it became a really beautiful part of the city right along the river. There’s also a shopping mall, sports facilities, complimentary things around it. Workdays and weekends, it’s full. Oriente Station shows how important multi-modality is for cities. It’s maybe one of the most radical city-related interventions we have ever done from scratch.

What have you learned from these projects in Europe, and how have they been implemented into your design for Lower Manhattan?

Stations are mottos of the city, but we have to reinvent them. I’m doing my seventh train station now in Liege, which is my second in Belgium. There, we’re having a sculpture exhibition in the station of some 60 or 70 works of Salvador Dali. Even the museum has a display for art inside the station.

In Europe, you don’t always go to a station to catch a train. Maybe you make an appointment to meet with someone at a restaurant inside. Inside our station here, where we have the towers [feeding into] all the retail. It will be an enormous anchor for the current neighbors and the future development of Lower Manhattan. I love Grand Central, but I think our station is even more urban.

It flows in a much more subtle way. It travels through the Fulton corridor until the subway station on Broadway. It travels under Towers 3 and 4, with Liberty Plaza on the way to Wall Street. It is present for the visitors to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It’s really much more than a station. It’s a piece of city that we’ve tried since day one to make so that when you walk in you don’t feel like you’re walking underground, but in the city. You’re in a New York network of movement with daily life, and you see the city from the roof. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a fantastic urban feature. Our central hall should have a similar character, where people can sit, walk through or shop.

I came into this having already designed five stations with a range of needs from something as simple as an entrance to new high-speed rail, or fitting into an urban setting. So I thought that this station can become so much more that just a station. So the first thing I proposed was this attached station from the building and let the station become an autonomous building. We’ll never compete with the cultural center or the towers or St. Paul’s. So I said, attach it and put it in the center of a block of Manhattan. And in the middle of them I will put my station and have a plaza around it … . So let’s do a single element standing by itself. St. Paul has character with a central bell tower and garden behind it. Other buildings have character around it, too, so let’s give a sense of symbolism to [the station].

What do you want users to really notice or experience most?

One of the big satisfactions you have doing a station is that it’s genuinely a public place. Everyone can go there. You don’t pay to go in and enjoy it. For an anonymous person who lives modestly and takes the train every day for work, they will have five or 10 minutes inside our project that tells them, “this building is here for you.”

If I’ve learned that from any one place, it’s Grand Central. It’s a civic monument and I wanted to emulate that with this project. It is a gift for New York and New Jersey, tourists, workers, and neighbors. If you look at European railway stations, they have very beautiful spaces, like St. Pancras or Milano Centrale or all the stations in Paris. You have these enormous ceilings, originally because of the steam of the train engines like in the Monet painting, “La Gare St-Lazare,” with the blues and grays and whites coming from the engines. If you look at Grand Central or old Penn Station, they also have enormous ceilings. They’re American civic monuments.

“I love Grand Central, but I think our station is even more urban.”

With Grand Central, they have created this very generous space, and today, 100 years later, the same space is serving almost 500,000 compared to 38,000 when it first opened. When I go there I am moved, really, and I’m grateful to the architects.

We will not be able to see it, but 100 years from now we’ll have precipitated the development of Lower Manhattan. It’s necessary to have a lot of faith in these things because people move according to a city’s transportation system. When they opened Grand Central none of the skyscrapers there now had been built yet—Chrysler, Seagrams, Empire State Building. If you look for the center of gravity around these towers, it’s Grand Central. It precipitated the development of this area. I believe my station is going to be like that for Lower Manhattan.

You mentioned your affinity for Grand Central, but if the inside of your World Center Hub resembles any New York transit building, it’s Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center.

I was fascinated by his work as a student. The TWA terminal is a masterpiece and a symbol of the ‘60s. With Dulles Airport, his building still works after multiple expansions. There, you have the frontal typology—a long structure that is the wall that leads to the airplane. Here, with my building, I have the wall that leads to the city.

He produced buildings that have a poetic side to them while also giving a new vision of how structures be expressive. People have not had to replace Saarinen’s buildings with something different. They’re still contemporary. I never try to copy him but I want to honor his name and his memory because he was a great, great architect.

You mention how Stadelhofen turned out to be such an affordable project despite site complications. Why did the World Trade Center project end up being so expensive?

Well, the World Trade Center project is so much bigger than Stadelhofen, and much more difficult. Also, Stadelhofen is just a pure train station, and in the case of World Trade, we have provided the underground connections for all the towers. Also, we did a new 1 [train] subway line passing through the site. We are very far from being a station that’s only about trains. The base for the towers connects to the station, which connects the workers to the shops. People who aren’t just catching a train are circulating around and it’s revitalizing. There’s no comparison.

I am responsible for the project, including a big part of the engineering—I do the engineering work for all of my stations. Here, I’ve done a lot of work with the steel and with the underpinning of the 1 [train]. I proposed solutions but there were administrative issues and cost estimates that were the responsibility of others. That’s the reality. But it’s important to underline that it’s an enormous project and also has already delivered support to the buildings that are in place including the memorial and the memorial garden.

Safe to say this has been your most challenging project?

Yes. It’s the most challenging project I have ever done.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Roxie March 7, 2016 - 8:27 pm

Ah… It’s really got that stark look to it. It’s pretty appealing for photography… maybe I’ll stop in this week, since the weather’s so nice.


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