Monday, February 27, 2017

Santiago Calatrava’s New York City Oculus

The main concourse inside the Oculus
I know it’s a cliché to say, I don’t know much about art—but I know what I like. But in my case it is true. I also know little about architecture, but that has never stopped me from appreciating great examples of the form, be they magnificent Gothic cathedrals or cloud-busting skyscrapers; iconic bridges, or beautifully constructed Victorian homes.

On my visit to New York City last year, I often found myself surfacing from the bowels of the massive Fulton Street subway station, from where I made my way into Santiago Calatrava’s amazing Oculus, or to give the building its official title, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. Calatrava seems to have become a somewhat controversial architect for reasons I don’t fully understand, and since I am not qualified to comment on them, I won’t try and explain them here. I have not personally seen any other of his architectural constructions, so I can offer no comment on those either.

What I have seen with my own eyes, however, is the Oculus that sits above the vast underground subway and Path train network that services New Jersey, and sends tendrils of underground railway lines snaking up the island of Manhattan, all the way into the Bronx, and across the East River into the heart of Brooklyn.

Each time I walked into the vast hall that sits below the soaring white ribs that form its outer shell, I have been awed by the grandeur and vast scale. I suspect many New Yorkers don’t take the time to linger in the building or pause to appreciate the towering interior. If that is the case, it is a great pity.

The Oculus seen from Brookfield Place
Might that be why the building has come in for much criticism? Even now that the building is complete, the Oculus comes in for regular bagging. Why? Is it the design? Is it the final cost, which blew out from an initial projected cost of $2.2 billion to around $4 billion? Is it because only 40-50,000 commuters pass through the hub on an average weekday? Is it because, as the writer Martin Filler describes it in his article for the New York Review of Books, headlined New York’s Vast Flop, nothing more than a glorified shopping centre? Maybe it is for all these and many other reasons. 

In the article (which is in fact a review of three newish books examining various aspects of what came to be known as Ground Zero), Filler complains that the construction of the Oculus was a “…stupendous waste of public funds.” To be fair to Martin Filler, the title and thrust of his review seems to be aimed at the whole of the World Trade Center complex, not just at Calatrava’s Oculus.

However, I just can’t bring myself to agree with Filler’s feelings about the Oculus, which, apart from the “…stupendous waste of public funds,” he variously describes as "...this kitschy jeu d'esprit" (meaning: a light-hearted display of wit and cleverness, especially in a work of literature.) Literature? Whatever...

The Oculus and WTC One
Martin Filler also talks about the “…maudlin sentimentalism of his [Calatrava’s] design," and in his most damning paragraph writes in part: “What was originally likened by its creator to a fluttering paloma de la paz (dove of peace) because of its white, winglike, upwardly flaring rooflines seems more like a steroidal stegosaurus that wandered onto the set of a sci-fi flick and died there.”

Wow. Don’t hold back, Martin. And he doesn’t. He goes on to write: “Instead of an ennobling civic concourse on the order of Grand Central or Charles Follen McKim’s endlessly lamented Pennsylvania Station, what we now have on top of the new transit facilities is an eerily dead-feeling, retro-futuristic, Space Age Gothic shopping mall with acres of highly polished, very slippery white marble flooring like some urban tundra.”

And further:
“Far from this being the “exhilarating nave of a genuine people’s cathedral,” as Paul Goldberger claimed in Vanity Fair, Calatrava’s superfluous shopping shrine is merely what the Germans call a Konsumtempel (temple of consumption), and a generic one at that.”

Whew! I think it’s pretty clear that Martin Filler doesn’t like the Oculus. Personally, I’m with Paul Goldberger from Vanity Fair. I love the building. I love the “white, winglike, upwardly flaring rooflines,” and I also love the “retro-futuristic, Space Age Gothic shopping mall” feel of the building. If it doesn’t turn up in a big budget, oversized superhero movie sometime during the next five years I’ll eat my hat.

Who, but a handful of New Yorker’s cares that the complex took twelve years to complete instead of the five originally planned for? Who, but a bunch of bean counters even remembers that the price of the building blew out to $4 billion? And does it matter that Grand Central Terminal has a daily commuter tally of 750,000 subway riders, compared to the already noted 40-50,000 that pass through the Oculus? Of course not. Nor does it matter, that it cost more than One World Trade Center.

What matters today is that the building stands completed, and that as long as it is maintained and cared for properly it will still be standing there in not just fifty years, but in a hundred years. Properly cared for and maintained, no one (apart from a few critics
Visitors gather for the official opening, August 16, 2016
and envious architects), will remember or care about the length of time it took to complete, or the final cost.

Finally, in his March 9, 2017 article, Filler writes that the Oculus "...opened to the public in March 2016. thought with no fanfare whatever." While that may have been the case, it is also true that there was in fact an official opening for the center six months after Filler's article was published, on Tuesday, August 16. I know this because I was there, as were thousands of other people.

Native New Yorkers, and the many thousands of visitors who pass through the Oculus will make up their own minds about how they feel about the building. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of them will stop to look up and admire the sheer scale and beauty of this new architectural gem, which I predict will eventually go on to be lauded for the “retro-futuristic, Space Age Gothic” building it may well be.

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