We’re S.H.O.P.P.I.N.G. (The Oculus, New York (NY), USA)

I was in America on September 11, 2001. Not in New York, fortunately, but on a train somewhere between Oakland and Merced. It ground to a halt in the middle of rural California while Amtrak tried to work out whether there was any risk to train services, and the passengers on board  frantically tried to work out what was going on from the confused reports coming in over the radio. And then, when we eventually arrived at Merced, hours later and hours late, we saw the television pictures…

As a result, I’ve always taken a keen interest in the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site. It’s been a difficult and sensitive job. How do you rebuild it without seeming crass and insensitive to the reason for that rebuilding? What do you do on the footprint of the fallen towers? In the end, I think New York City has got it about right. The new One World Trade Center Tower is taller even than the Twin Towers, a statement of optimism and defiance against those who sought to destroy the city’s spirit when they destroyed the Twin Towers. The footprints of the twin towers themselves have been turned into huge water features. There’s a real sense of pause in these deep squares, with the names of those who died cast into bronze panels around the edges. Out of the fire of that awful day has come something affectingly peaceful, the sound of falling water proving a soothing and respectful presence.

One World Trade Center. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The destruction of the Twin Towers severely damaged the New York City Subway and PATH stations underneath. Train services were reinstated remarkably quickly given the scale of the devastation, but there was a longer term question around the rebuilding of the various PATH and Subway stations, which themselves were only parts of a much wider reconstruction effort above ground. The rebuilding of the Subway and PATH stations was another cause for soul-searching as to what would be an appropriate replacement. In the original masterplan for the area around the footprint of the Twin Towers, there was no grand station entrance to the Subway lines below. A plaza onto which the sun would shine on September 11 was proposed, featuring solid blocks angling its rays onto the Twin Towers’ footprints.

Plans changed though, and city authorities took the opportunity to create a grand new railway station entrance and concourse, one which might rival the drama of Grand Central Terminal and even go some way to redressing the scandalous loss of Penn Station in the 1960s. For this, a design was needed which showed that public transit would carry on in the city unbowed by, yet which would also acknowledge the enormity of, the events of 9/11.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land on which the new station was proposed, turned to renowned (if controversial) Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava. He has featured on these pages before, his organic-skeletal designs having graced several mainline railway stations at locations including Liège, Lyon and Lisbon. It is not hard to see the appeal of his soaring, dazzlingly white architecture for the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub, as the complete complex of various PATH and Subway stations would become known.

Calatrava’s initial designs were based on the idea of a bird being released from a child’s hand. Although the floor of the main entrance/concourse building, named the “Oculus”, would be several floors underground, it would break the surface in the form of an elongated glazed dome with slender spines sailing outwards from its central ridge. The dome would be aligned with the sun on September 11 (carrying over a concept from the original masterplan for the site) and included the idea of an opening roof, to be used on that date. Calatrava has had some success constructing such kinetic buildings, for instance at the Milwaukee Art Museum, so it isn’t the far-fetched plan it might seem. The plans were initially warmly welcomed, with commentators calling them “a major cultural contribution” to New York City. Although it’s not easy to find pictures of the original design, it can be glimpsed in this video:

Construction commenced in 2005, with an estimated cost of $2bn. However it soon became clear that the WTC Transportation Hub project was going to be considerably more expensive than forecast, and the final cost would be in the region of $3.75bn. The Oculus soon became known as the Billion Dollar Boondoggle (or sometimes just a boondoggle, either way a wonderful American word), as residents and the local media struggled to understand how one building, albeit an adventurous and dramatic one, could cost so much. Even the original cost estimate seems eye-watering for a new station, but part of the problem was that critical voices frequently (and possibly deliberately?) confused the cost of the Oculus with that of the WTC Transportation Hub as a whole. Those billions were also paying for vast amounts of underground work, better connecting PATH and no less than 11 Subway lines to each other and to the surface, on a work site that had to contend with the continued operation of those lines. Costs also rose as the Port Authority changed the plans mid-build, always an expensive undertaking. Economies were applied to the design of the Oculus and the opening roof was abandoned in favour of a more conventional retractable skylight running the length of the dome. Calatrava’s original design for the spikes had already been scaled back, apparently on cost grounds.

But finally, in 2016, the Oculus opened to the travelling public. So what did New York get for its billions? Perhaps, simply, one of the most astounding subway stations in the world.

The main concourse of the Oculus. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Its vast size, 106m long and 49m tall, means the Oculus can stand should to shoulder with Grand Central (I still haven’t found a definitive measure of the latter’s dimensions, but it’s around 40m tall) as a grand railway space. But while Grand Central was built for mainline trains, the Oculus serves Manhattan’s two underground railway networks. It is highly unusual, possibly unique, for a subway/metro station to be built on such a scale. The Oculus makes even the cavernous Jubilee line Extension stations in London seem scaled down by comparison.

Exterior of the Oculus. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Yet externally the Oculus, despite its size, itself seems surprisingly small, dwarfed by the huge skyscrapers which surround it. It’s wonderful though, as much sculpture as it is building. Though they might have been scaled down, its spines still succeed in giving a sense of freedom and flight. Passengers enter through doors at either end of the oval. Stairs lead down to matching balconies which allow a view down into the Oculus. You realise that like an iceberg, there is much more below the surface than rises above. It is a brilliant, in its original meaning, sight. The white exterior of the building is repeated on the interior, with white metalwork matched by gleaming white marble floors. Light floods in through the skylight and the glazed sides of the building.

Looking down into the main concourse of the Oculus. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Down below the balconies, a gallery runs around the Oculus. Cloister-like, its open side marked by white ribs which continue down from the glazed dome above, it gives access to some of the many shops at the WTC Transportation Hub.

The gallery at the Oculus. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Further stairs lead down from this balcony level to the main floor of the Oculus. It is a vast space and looking up to the windows and long skylight of the surface building is a properly inspiring transport experience. Such matters will always be matters of personal taste, but I think it works as the suitable tribute to 9/11 that the Oculus was intended to be. I’m sad to report, then, that on the day I visited, the open space had been encroached upon by pop-up retail units. Long-suffering users of busy British railway stations, accustomed to discovering that passenger flow through the concourse of their station has been blocked by some numpty handing out free promotional cereal bars, will be familiar with the phenomenon.

At the east end of the main floor, doors lead out to a warren of pedestrian tunnels linking to various Subway lines, and indeed Subway stations; there is a direct link to the Fulton Transit Center, another part of the WTC Transportation Hub which I’ll write about in future. These tunnels dispense with the gleaming white finishes of the Oculus in favour of the darker colours more typical of Subway stations. At the west end, however, is the new PATH concourse and a long corridor leading to the lower levels of the One World Trade Center tower.

PATH concourse. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Here the bone-like design of the Oculus is continued but transformed. The ribbed roof no longer soars up into the daylight, instead folding over in several shallow barrel vaults above the escalators which lead down to the PATH trains. Those platforms are easily the most modern-looking of any on the PATH network, and a vivid contrast with PATH’s other Manhattan terminus at 33rd Street.

WTC PATH station platforms. By Calvin411 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Of course, as a dramatic new building, the criticism of it (and its architect) which started when the budget began to inflate hasn’t yet died down completely. In May last year, heavy rain found its way into the building, with the New York Post saying Calatrava had declined to comment (not unreasonably – surely it is the fault of a construction company rather than an architect if a building isn’t made watertight?).

Meanwhile, some visitors still have reservations over the tension between transport and retail within the station.

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When I tweeted my recent visit there, one reply (click on the embedded tweet above to bring up the replies) echoed a comment already made during my visit by my long-suffering partner, which was that although impressive, the Oculus felt more shopping centre than Subway station.

This was always the plan; the WTC Transportation Hub was intended to provide retail space lost at the Twin Towers. Indeed, the World Trade Center Mall within the Oculus is managed by retail centre specialists Westfield. For what it’s worth, my take on it is that one of New York’s key occupations is shopping. What better way to show that a terrorist atrocity will make no long-term difference to the city than to carry on doing that, here at this place, in this building which is itself a memorial that complements the official memorial alongside which it stands?

In any case, those who dislike the emphasis on shopping at the WTC Transportation Hub will draw comfort and perhaps a degree of Schadenfreude from the fact that business hasn’t been good for all the shops there (see this news story). It turns out that passengers using the station don’t want to dawdle in clothes and shoe shops. Much more popular are food or drink outlets, from which many passengers just want to ‘grab and go’. The essential station-ness of this station is asserting itself over the attempt to make it a shopping mall. Sorry, Westfield.

The Oculus is much more successful in its other additional role of memorial, and statement of the refusal of New Yorkers to be cowed by 9/11. Though its roof might not open as planned, its skylight does retract on September 11 and the sun can shine in.

The cost of its construction is already being forgotten, as always tends to happen with expensive new buildings, and its merits are becoming more appreciated. You can practically feel the conflict coming off the New York Times‘ March 2016 review of the Oculus: “At first blush, Mr. Calatrava’s architecture can almost — almost — make you forget what an epic boondoggle the whole thing has been. That virgin view, standing inside the Oculus and gazing up, is a jaw-dropper.” It truly is. Like Grand Central, it is a draw in and of itself. People visiting or passing through stop to look and take photographs. Lower Manhattan has gained a worthy companion for the older terminal to the north, some compensation for the loss of Penn Station, and something which is wonderful on its own merits.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Calatrava’s project page for the Oculus, here

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s offical webpage for the WTC Transportation Hub, here

Westfield World Trade Center, official website, here

How to find the Oculus

Click here for The Beauty of Transport’s map

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