With its quills poking at the windows of adjacent 3 World Trade, Santiago Calatrava's great, asymmetrical Pokémon porcupine seems caught mid-thrash, or crouched to defend itself from its lumbering neighbors. It is imposing, but wounded: up close, those steel spines are paint-scraped and patched with seams.
It’s clear that the building, if not quite frozen in battle with New York City, is much more a protrusion of the Port Authority’s underground fiefdom than a junction with Lower Manhattan.
This is particularly pronounced right now because the only free access to the Oculus is from an unassuming line of doors in 4 World Trade, some 800 feet of underground passage away. But it will be evident when the whole complex is finished. The great hall itself has only two doors to the street, and visitors from Church Street, instead of descending directly to the floor, will careen down a marble run of zig-zagging escalators.
That floor, though. Who could not be awed by the sculptural grace Calatrava’s design has maintained through years of permutations?
Critics say, disparagingly, that it is a monument for the Instagram age. What’s wrong with that? It literally makes people, even PATH commuters at the end of their morning rush, stop in their tracks. The narrow skylight frames 1 World Trade; the afternoon sunlight falls gently across the ribs, a dust-filtered crosshatch. Like a great Gothic cathedral, the space is mysteriously buoyant, and I found myself helplessly tracing the pressure of its weight.
It’s quiet like a church too. Adults and children simply lie on the floor and look up—as under the Blue Whale at the American Museum of Natural History. This is a testament both to the structure’s beauty and its general incommodiousness. It’s supposed to be a train station, but it doesn’t have a bench. It also doesn't have a clock. Or a one-shot exit to the street. Or very many passengers.
But we have known for a long time that this place—excepting its lack of benches—would never measure up to Grand Central. Even during the morning rush, the hall maintains its rarified air. There is no engine noise here; only the automated bellowing of the escalator messages. The crowds disgorged from the morning PATH trains slink along the perimeter, having neither the mass nor the reason to fill the expanse. As you have probably heard, the hundred-year-old Union Square subway stop—and more than a dozen other subway stations — are busier and more important transit hubs.
What then is the primary purpose of this high-concept dish rack? Shopping! If Grand Central is a train station with some shops, the Oculus is a shopping center with some trains. Retail clients will include an Apple Store. It's as if Calatrava and the Port Authority, in its quest to supplant the streets of the world's greatest downtown with its Zamboni-smooth underground labyrinth, have decided to build a museum of all the rejected urban design ideas of the twentieth century.
It's a mall of disarming elegance. When I first visited, I overheard an awestruck visitor observe that in a few years, nobody's going to remember what this thing cost. (It cost $4 billion, twice its already-extravagant estimate.)
That doesn't have to be a parenthetical. In Mexico City, at the entrance to the Chapultepec Forest, there's a tower of quartz that a Mexican friend once described to me as a monument to corruption. In fact, the Estela de Luz (or Star of Light) is a monument to Mexican Independence, but it so exceeded its budget, and was completed so many months after the bicentennial commemoration in 2010, that Mexicans came to see it as a trophy of incompetence.
We can remember the World Trade Center PATH station that way if we want to. But recalling its dollar sum, which will come to seem insignificant compared to other regional projects, will ultimately mean less than musing on its opportunity cost.
Here’s an idea from the alternate history of Ground Zero. At one point in 2003, a group of transit consultants realized that the obliteration of the underground infrastructure here provided an opportunity to link the PATH to the 6 train, which terminates at City Hall. From an engineering perspective, the 3,000-foot tunnel was challenging but not out of step with other elements of the New York subway system. Politically, it would have required unprecedented collaboration between the PANYNJ and the MTA. For the region, the connection between New Jersey and the East Side would have been transformative.
Instead, we have this "winged dove." If we remember it as a disgraceful misplacement of regional priorities (that is the PANYNJ’s job, after all) and a gross perversion of the responsibilities of public architecture (like many of Calatrava’s works), it can at least be an object lesson.
Because it sure isn’t much of a train station.
Henry Grabar is a writer in New York. You can read more of his work here.