World Trade Centre Transportation Hub: Santiago Calatrava’s Metaphor of a Bird Rising from the Ashes of a Sacred Site

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Samuel Nguma

Samuel Nguma is an Editor for Archute. He enjoys taking long walks and reading short stories. He is an ardent lover of architecture which he studied at the University of Nairobi.
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The World Trade Centre Transportation Hub may as well be the most important architectural project by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava. The design that was unveiled in January of 2004 brought with it the promise to be a worthy replacement of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) rail system that was destroyed on September 11, 2001. Now over a decade later and USD 4 billion in damages; New Yorkers have a chance to appreciate if the hub will live up to its billing. In many ways, the WTC Hub is the very heart of Daniel Libeskind's master plan for the Ground Zero site. This is because in addition to serving the PATH commuters trains, it serves 3 New York City subway train lines, provides a pedestrian linkage to Brookfield Place, access to four towers in the new master plan as well as a connection to the new Fulton Street Transit Center.

Calatrava's design manifests itself on the street level as a singular free-standing object that has been dubbed the 'Oculus'. Located on the southern edge of Daniel Libeskind's Wedge of Light, the Oculus is a welcome relief and counterpoint to the tall towering forms of its context. From the gardens of the Memorial, one is able to see the architect's refined signature ribbed form on display. Reminiscent of the Byzantine mandorla, the wings of the cherubim on top of the Ark of the Covenant or the sheltering wings of Eygptian canopic urns - it is obvious that Calatrava has perfected the art of abstraction especially in producing flattering and grandiose displays of architecture. For the Oculus, inspiration was drawn from the image of a bird released from a child's hands. The result is something pure, pristine and dynamic; almost angelic.

An array of glass and steel ribs come together to frame an imposing elliptical form that is 102 metres long and 35 metres at its widest part. The steel ribs extend and jut outwards to create perpetual canopies over the north and south sides of the plaza. The visitor approaches and accesses the building from the east and west abutments of the Oculus. If the building is modest and unassuming on the outside; then nothing can prepare one's mind from the interior spatial experience. Going down via ample cantilevered stairs, one reaches the Transit Hall - a vast and immense column-free space that is gloriously flooded with light. From here, elevators, escalators and stairs provide key linkages to the upper and lower retail concourse floors. Santiago Calatrava claims to have used light as a structural element - a statement that seems so outlandish and outrageous. However, whilst in the Transit Hall the play of light and shadow in the changing hours of the day become an almost tangible thing - and the 'columns of light' as the architect calls it, don't seem far-fetched at all.

Perhaps the most remarkable icon of the grand space and the thing that seems to quickly catch the eye is the operable axis of glass at the very apex. The apex will be opened to the sky every September 11 (as well as on temperate spring and summer days) and a slice of the New York sky will be let through in commemoration of 9/11; serving in this regard as a symbol of hope and vitality. At night, the Oculus lights up like a lantern and becomes the focal point and way-finding beacon of the newly reconstructed World Trade Centre site. When asked to explain the basic principle that guided the circulation concept of the hub, the architect is quoted to have said: "I have always said, “I will build a station that my mother can find her way around very easily and comfortably.” Why? Because finding one’s way in a station is essential. I wanted to create a place that delivers the people a sense of comfort through its orientation, while also delivering a sense of security by opening everything to the naked eye."

I have always said that I will build a station that my mother can find her way around very easily and comfortably

Santiago Calatrava may be the world's most polarising architect. Few are able to march the adoration and repulsion that he garners from swooning fans and hostile critics. While most agree that the elliptical interior is befittingly ethereal and catherdal-like; some feel that the drama doesn't quite materialise on the outside; insiting that the building doesn't sit well and fully express itself on the site - with its wings clipped on one side to fit amongst its towering neigbours. That aside, if Calatrava's vision for the hub to be the 'Piazza of New York' is anything to go by - where chance encounters are fosterd amidst having coffee or doing some retail therapy while waiting catch a train; then maybe in time New Yorkers will come to view the hub as an intergral part of their daily lives.

Project Information
Architect: Santiago Calatrava
Location: Broadway, ManhattanNew York, United States
Client: Port Authority of New York & New Jersey
Architect-of-Record: Downtown Design Partnership
Engineer: Santiago Calatrava
Area: 74 300 sqm
Status: Completed, 2016
Photographs: Hufton + Crow

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About the author

Samuel Nguma

Samuel Nguma is an Editor for Archute. He enjoys taking long walks and reading short stories. He is an ardent lover of architecture which he studied at the University of Nairobi.
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