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Ground Zero Sum | The Nation

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Ground Zero Sum

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I was unwilling to visit the memorial for some time after it opened. One reason was that I wouldn’t submit to the regime required to gain admission; another was that I feared I would be disappointed by architecture inadequate to the event. I finally went on an evening when neighborhood residents could dodge the advance-planning hassles. My misgivings were initially confirmed by the airport-style scrutiny at the threshold, but as I passed through the magnetometers, wound my way past construction fences and the ubiquitous cops, approached the two black canyons, and was drawn in by the sound of rushing water that veiled the sound of the highway and helped produce white noise against the distractions of the background, I was more and more moved. The voids were signifying. The design was eloquent and the execution deeply concise.

About the Author

Michael Sorkin
Michael Sorkin, The Nation’s architecture critic, is the author of numerous books on architecture and is also the...

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I’d expected the concept of the excavated footprints to be a too-familiar gesture. The voids have a strange ontological status, not having been dug, but constructed within the much larger void of the excavated site. Numerous entries in the project competition—ultimately won and built by Michael Arad—were, like his, such intrusions into the earth. But Arad’s had so much particularity and solved so many problems—the disposition of the victims’ names, the shotgun marriage with a landscape architect, the uncontrolled architectural periphery, the clumsy encroachments of the museum entrance and mechanical stacks, the recalcitrance of the water to flow just so, the transition from day to night, the question of what a downward gaze would grasp—that the work impressed me as powerfully apt. The conclusive move, which truly makes the project, is the “excavation” of a smaller void in the floor of the big one. Looking over the edge, one sees water roiling at the bottom of the great chasm and then spilling into the small square at its center, disappearing from view—an incredibly moving evocation of loss.

* * *

Last summer, I slipped and suffered a fracture, which led to surgery and a long round of physical therapy. I was treated at a place on lower Broadway with windows that command an amazing view of the construction site, looking almost directly down on the oval hole that is to become the PATH station, designed by the renowned Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava. The vantage point made clear the effort, energy and complexity of the labor—never mind the eventual nature of the results, which at the time remained energetically unclear. Seeing this efficient determination, I understand the thrilled reaction of many at seeing the gigantic tower finally completed, giving them a sense of recovery and another step toward the physical closure of that gaping hole.

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I often pass by the station to watch the complex steelwork as it finally rises above the surface (a process that has suffered yet another delay, this one a year and a half, and blamed on Hurricane Sandy). But there is an issue with Calatrava’s hub, and again it’s about numbers. To serve 50,000 passengers a day, the station is being constructed at a cost of more than $3.8 billion, nearly double the initial estimate of $2 billion. Calatrava is purportedly among the richest architects on the planet, and questions about expense have dogged him in, among other places, Valencia, where his City of Arts and Sciences has been attacked by many (especially on the left) for his titanic fees, alleged to be around 100 million, and for the cost of the complex itself, somewhere north of 1 billion! There’s a local website, calatravatelaclava.com, dedicated to attacking the huge expenditure for a project that Spain can no longer afford.

This criticism fits PATH. A structure larger than Grand Central Station is being built to serve a ridership that’s less than 8 percent of what passes through the terminal uptown, and does nothing to increase the capacity of the system. I can think of three fairly flimsy arguments in defense of this expense. The first is the potlatch theory, the ritual cultural heft in willed extravagance, especially when it’s ginned up on behalf of public space at a time when public budgets are tight. The second is the notion that the flamboyant station, which is all about the value in surplus, can be paired with the austere monument to demonstrate our refusal to surrender our capacity for joy. The last is that Calatrava’s building will redress the demolition of Penn Station, that soaring masterpiece of steel filigree and spatial generosity. Thin reeds.

So what, then, of the building? I’m ready to like it! There has been an assault by a number of critics on Calatrava’s style that deprecates his skeletal symmetries and the flamboyant, often biomorphic shapes that his bridges, airports, train stations and cultural buildings have so long embodied. To me, these are manna, and I have long found Calatrava’s work to be beautiful and disciplined. It adheres to a set of structural and aesthetic logics that give it a pedigree beyond simple exuberance (or extravagance). At its best, it is refined, elegant and simply thrilling. The charge that his work is too “representational” can be easily dismissed. Architecture is surely elastic enough to accommodate such fine examples as Calatrava’s bone structures inspired by bone structures, not to mention winged forms that find some affinity with winged forms (jet plane or bird). There is something a tad wack about the disappointment of more than a few observers over the elimination of a feature of the station’s original design, which had allowed the 150-foot-high steel wings on either side of the roof to open and close mechanically to let in light and air. The structure is now less avian and more closely resembles a stegosaurus, according to David Dunlap of The New York Times, an impression I share. I am not unhappy with this result, both because the stegosaurus was always my favorite dinosaur and because the operability of the roof plan struck me as only marginally cool and, as with Calatrava’s “operable” and birdlike addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, likely to be down for repairs most of the time.

Calatrava’s train station is almost certain to be the only work of ambitious architecture at Ground Zero. I urge you to pass the site frequently to watch the fast-forward cathedral kinesis of this creature being assembled. The completed building will affront the dour math that has dominated the rest of the operations. Crowds heading to and from New Jersey, circulating turbulently through the space, will embody the unregulated mixing thwarted aboveground, with its careful zoning for mourning and money. Attentive to questions of architectural proportion, the PATH station will be unique in New York. Whether it’s worth 4 billion bucks in light of the larger scales of neglect of our infrastructure and public realm, however, I will leave for you to judge.

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