Proportion—the relationship of parts to wholes—only makes architectural sense when it’s joined to scale, the actual dimension of things. For millennia, from Vitruvius to Leonardo to Le Corbusier, an idealized body has been used to make this connection. Hence the commonplace phrase “human scale,” merging aesthetic and practical desires. These are clearly revealed in forms and feelings at the extremity, like the half-height floor in Being John Malkovich, too tiny to stand up in, or Albert Speer’s Volkshalle, big enough to hold an army and generate its own weather.
That the sweet spot in human scale isn’t fixed suggests that spaces have to be socially and psychically proportionate, whether to conduce feelings of cozy domesticity or to induce shock and awe. The churches built by the conquistadors were meant to dazzle the natives into docility, much as the great European cathedrals embodied the mightiness of the divinity and the smallness of its subjects, dwarfed by vaulted ceilings reaching to the heavens. This capability isn’t always negative; it can also celebrate and inspire with grandeur, loftiness, and numinous space without end. Chartres is indisputably fabulous, and without it culture would be bereft. But while it may be wonderful as an architectural absolute—much as the pyramids were to their age or the interstates to our own—a Gothic cathedral’s utility is limited by its relative unsuitability for secular purposes. We would not instinctively think to build one for, shall we say, the entrance to a local stop on the IRT. Or would we?
In Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, the entry for “railway stations” states: “Always go into ecstasies about them: cite them as models of architecture.” With the completion of Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus—that remarkable creature at the World Trade Center that’s effectively an entrance pavilion for the PATH train to New Jersey and several subway lines—the utility/expression chestnut is set for a thorough roasting. Finally open after a decade of construction and the expenditure of nearly $4 billion (including $655 million for “administrative costs”), the Oculus is at once incredible and infuriating. It’s a black hole for bucks, a stunningly autonomous monument, and a medium of creative displacement—a vortex that has absorbed the imaginative energy that might have been expended on its surroundings (the vanishing Ground Zero arts center or those mediocre office towers) or elsewhere (a new Penn Station and Port Authority Bus Terminal, the renovation of who knows how many subway platforms, or the desperately needed renewal of the system’s creaky, century-old technical infrastructure and frail capacity). The Oculus struggles to symbolize both the purity of its strictly artistic utility (which is to say, its lordly functional superfluity) and something more ineffable still.
Calatrava has produced a building that is singular but not recondite, a train station and a cathedral. It’s a glistening white steel rib cage, 160 feet high and 392 feet long, enclosing a nave-like space with a volume greater than Grand Central Terminal’s main concourse and a distinctive surmounting crown. Dense rows of vertical ribs alternate with lofty glass to envelop the great room and then turn outward to become gigantic spikes— pituitary versions of those radiating from the Statue of Liberty’s crown—that sprout from the building like enormous porcupine quills or the bones of a pterodactyl’s wings. The mixed metaphor—it’s a bird! It’s a plane! A phoenix! A stegosaurus!—speaks to the irresistibly biomorphic character of the building and its formal originality. It is a real rara avis, albeit one with a strong family resemblance to other members of the Calatrava bestiary.