After 12 long years and a series of construction headaches, Santiago Calatrava’s $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub has finally opened to the public. Once widely regarded as a symbol of hope for post-9/11 New York, the project’s ballooning budget and security-related revisions gradually soured the opinions of the public and top design minds including Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman, and provoked a multitude of mocking nicknames ranging from “Calatrasaurus” to “squat hedgehog” to “kitsch dinosaur.” All the while, Calatrava urged critics to reserve their opinion until the project’s opening. Now that day has arrived - did Calatrava receive the vindication he was insistent would come? Read on for the critics’ takes.
“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.” - Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times
The Times critic Kimmelman starts off his assessment on a positive note, marveling at the structure’s signature view and envisioning a smattering of snowflakes floating through the operable oculus and down into the hub’s pristine, white interior. But as his eyes move down, his mind is brought back to the reality that the project’s revisions have created:
Aside from the obvious Pantheon allusion, I no longer know what the hub is supposed to mean, symbolically, with its now-thickened ribs, hunkered torso and angry snouts on either end, weirdly compressing the entrances from the street. It’s like a Pokémon.
It also doesn’t take Kimmelman long to return to the matter of the budget, which at $4 billion comes in at twice the inflation-adjusted price tag of New York’s greatest cathedral of transportation, Grand Central Station.
Grand Central spurred a building boom that transformed the surrounding blocks and the city’s economy. This new hub is shoehorned into an unfinished office park in Lower Manhattan whose development it has complicated, not hastened — while the whole area has been evolving into a livelier live-work neighborhood despite what’s happening at the World Trade Center, not because of it.
Kimmelman admits the building is awe-inspiring, but worries that Calatrava has matured into a “one-trick pony,” and that the trick is not compelling enough to warrant the project’s potential political implications:
Mr. Calatrava has given New York something for its billions. But if the takeaway lesson from this project is that architects need a free pass, a vain, submissive client and an open checkbook to create a public spectacle, then the hub is a disaster for architecture and for cities.
“The real point is that in a city that has built few noble public works in the last half century—a city that in our time has rarely even aspired to grandeur in public space, let alone achieved it—this project stands as a reminder that we have not given up entirely.” - Paul Goldberger, Vanity Fair
Long-time New York critic Paul Goldberger also focused on the political message the transportation center sends, but from the glass-half-full perspective that just getting a building of this caliber constructed on public funding in New York City is an incredible achievement in itself. Rather than comparing the hub to Grand Central, Goldberger compares the soaring curves of the oculus to Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal and the hub’s elegant grandeur to the lobby of Philip Johnson’s Grand Promenade at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, a space Goldberger considers to be the city’s most majestic interior.
Goldberger does find aspects of the project disappointing, but they don’t keep him down for long:
This place cost billions of dollars of public money, and it’s still a shrine to the commercial marketplace. I wish it were otherwise. But that doesn’t destroy the impact of the architecture, or negate the fact that this is the first time in a half a century that New York City has built a truly sumptuous interior space for the benefit of the public.
Goldberger’s take concludes the same way it began, by praising the project’s bold initiative:
At a time when this country spends far less on public works than it should, the Hub is a rare exception to the trend. Its best legacy would be to encourage us to take more chances, and to recognize that investing in the public realm isn’t throwing away money. It is investing in the future, a gift from our generation to the ones that follow.
“Is this the grand civic space we’ve been longing for? Is it a new Penn Station? Not by a long shot.” - Julie V. Iovine, Wall Street Journal
Off the bat, Iovine seems to lament the state of our insta-culture more concerned with wow factor than with considered beauty and functionality:
The Hub is the apogee of a kind of architecture that wows rather than elevates, emblematic of a time when dazzle outweighs aesthetic coherence and gold swan faucets trump measured details.
Great architecture can assume all kinds of shapes when it reflects a functional purpose. The Hub’s spiked wings, by contrast, are there mostly as metaphor.
While Iovine stays true that tune, she is more impressed when traveling down into the hub’s connecting corridors, complementing the detailing and calling the clean aesthetic “serene, compelling and well worth celebrating,” qualities she wishes were expressed in the structure’s exterior and main space:
Restraint is not usually Mr. Calatrava’s style. But applied to the whole Hub, it would have made for a stronger, more lasting statement about New York’s resilience than the inflated spectacle offered now, a constant reminder of a time when all we wanted was something off the charts.
“Calatrava’s skeletal dove joins the tiny circle of New York’s great indoor public spaces, serving not just the city that built it but also the city it will help build.” - Justin Davidson, New York Magazine
The most upbeat of all of the critics thus far, Justin Davidson forgives the project’s budget expansion as a consequence of great design, approving of Calatrava’s proclivity to “sacrifice practicality on the altar of amazement.” Davidson also astutely notes the building’s presence from a bird’s eye perspective, a highly-contextual viewpoint that can only be obtained due to the dense arrangement of streaking skyscrapers in southern Manhattan:
Observed from a high floor of a neighboring address, it seems to squint — especially when the retractable skylight blinks — and the wings metamorphose into lashes. Does any work of architecture in New York turn such an expressive face to the clouds?
Finally, Davidson compares the product to his initial hopes for the design - and concludes Calatrava is indeed redeemed:
Like most critics, I waxed rapturous: Calatrava, I wrote, had conceived “an optimistic emblem of flight as an answer to airborne disaster. After a dozen years, many doubts, and a walk through the nearly complete station this past week, I feel exactly the same.