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The new World Trade Center Transportation Hub design had grand vision – but much of it has disappeared

Architecture

Under ground zero

Sitting on the most fraught real estate in the Western World, the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub was designed with grand vision – but much of that idealism has disappeared without a trace

The first portion of Santiago Calatrava's ambitious World Trade Center Transportation Hub, known as the Oculus, opened to the public in March.

The first portion of Santiago Calatrava’s ambitious World Trade Center Transportation Hub, known as the Oculus, opened to the public in March.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

It was going to be a dove. And $4-billion later, it's more of a dinosaur.

The new World Trade Center Transportation Hub, which opened a few weeks ago, serves a modest purpose. It is a below-ground landing place for about 50,000 travellers a day into Manhattan – plus a shopping mall.

But it sits on the most fraught real estate in the Western world. The design, by Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, was meant to bring poetry to this site of commuting and commerce. Its main hall, the Oculus, would be a curvaceous volume of white steel and marble, a secular cathedral for ground zero.

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The ambition was remarkable: to make a public space of grandeur and gravitas, the kind that cities rarely build any more. The result is an object lesson in what happens where architectural ambition runs up against politics and capital. Architecture loses.

In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, ground zero became a focal point for grand architectural dreams. Herbert Muschamp, then architecture critic at The New York Times, brought together a set of luminaries to imagine a grand vision.

Most of that idealism disappeared without a trace. The design of the Hub – nested between a series of transit lines, new skyscrapers, above-ground memorials and the underground museum – proved nightmarishly complicated, and the cost pushed toward an extraordinary $4-billion (U.S.). The politics of the site, caught between the governments of the city and two states, the survivors of the Sept. 11 victims and developers with billions of dollars at stake, favoured expediency and compromise.

The Oculus was originally meant to have 150-foot-long mechanical ‘wings’ that would open to the sky above, but the design had to be altered to save money and increase safety.

The Oculus was originally meant to have 150-foot-long mechanical ‘wings’ that would open to the sky above, but the design had to be altered to save money and increase safety.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Still, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the notoriously dysfunctional agency that owns the land under ground zero, hired Calatrava. The Spaniard has long experience designing stations and bridges, including Calgary's Peace Bridge, that feature a vocabulary of arches and parabolas – inevitably in white – that can evoke the human anatomy, the ornament of Gaudi and the work of jet-age innovator Eero Saarinen.

When Calatrava unveiled his design for the hub in early 2004, he stood before a huddle of the press and sketched, in pastel, a child releasing a bird into the air, then, with a few strokes, the station's 150-foot-long mechanical "wings," which would open to the skies above. "On a beautiful summer day," he said, "the building can work not as a greenhouse but as an open space."

Calatrava's design was altered to save money and for increased safety measures and that particular dream wasn't realized: The wings don't literally move.

Moving the spirit, however, is the building's most important ambition. When I visited a few weeks ago, the Oculus – the nave of Calatrava's cathedral – was largely complete. Thick ribs of white-painted steel rose up on two sides, grazing the skylight 160 feet above. Daylight washed across the white marble of the floor, and the volume of the room – tall, triangular, pristinely colourless – seemed to point to the heavens. (On the morning of each Sept. 11, the sun will stream directly in as a "wedge of light," conceived by architect Daniel Libeskind in his master plan for the site.)

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Odd, curvy balconies, like the spacecraft of an unfamiliar Star Trek species, poked in from either end. A giant Stars and Stripes hung from one of them, in case the magniloquence of the design hadn't already cued you to be solemn.

The cost of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub reached $4-billion (U.S.).

The cost of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub reached $4-billion (U.S.).

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

And those ribs themselves felt, to me, unmistakably like the remains of something enormous and dead. We were in the belly of a beast; it's a remarkably insensitive vocabulary for a place where almost 3,000 people were killed.

Yet the few hundred people in the room seemed to be sightseeing. One day, the space will be surrounded by shops, which are now hidden behind hoardings. For now, it's a place to linger and Instagram. Many visitors to the neighbourhood are tourists, going to the adjacent National September 11 Memorial and Museum; the station is another stop on the sightseeing tour.

It's not clear how the static of everyday life will blend with the hall's solemn organ tones.

Already, the train-station aspect of this train station is pushed to the side. Commuters on the PATH system from New Jersey come up from a lower concourse, with its own set of Calatravean wings, then under a low passage capped with acoustic tile and studded with mechanical acne. And from there, upward!, into the Oculus itself. By August, the Oculus's shops will be open; visitors will be able to buy an iPhone or some unmentionables at Victoria's Secret.

So what is this place? A station? A memorial? A mall? It's all of those. Which makes sense. The World Trade Center site is a weird hybrid of sacred ground and large-cap hustle; of cool skyscrapers by such architectural greats as Fumihiko Maki, sober modernist landscape and highly visible armed surveillance.

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And on that plane of granite, ringed by glass, the station stands alone – an odd bird that tried to reach the sky and never quite made it off the ground.

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