The Epic Saga of the Most Expensive Train Station Ever Built

It’s arriving six years late and almost $2 billion over budget.


Ed. Note: Several segments of the WTC Transportation Hub opened Thursday, March 3. The New York Times, in their review, wrote “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.” Below is the story of how Calatrava’s project came to be.

In January 2004, Santiago Calatrava, the world-renowned Spanish architect, unveiled plans for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The hub would replace the makeshift station constructed in 2003 after the original was destroyed on September 11, 2001. Calatrava’s station would serve as a terminal for PATH trains from Hoboken and Newark, connect commuters to the New York City subway line via passageways and deliver tourists to a luxury shopping center.

The presentation for Calatrava’s grand design matched his typical style. His emphasis was on the visceral rather than the strictly functional; the unveiling featured a chalk drawing of a young girl releasing a bird from her hands, representing the inspiration of the proposed Oculus, the ambitious above-ground section of the hub, formed by glass and steel that in his sketches moved quickly upwards before spreading out like wings at the intersection of Church Street and Vesey Street.

The plan was ambitious. Overly so. But in the time after 9/11 the federal government allocated $4.55 billion for Lower Manhattan transportation projects, unburdening politicians of financial concerns and allowing the approval of a dramatic permanent fixture at the redeveloping site of the World Trade Center without much debate. And Calatrava seemed predestined for the job. Then 52, he was at the top of his game. Joseph Seymour, at the time the executive director of the Port Authority, to which the hub belonged, called him a modern-day Da Vinci; the very next year, in 2005, the Met opened an exhibit featuring Calatrava’s sculpture and architectural models, the largest ever devoted to a living architect. And the Port Authority itself was made up of workers directly affected by the attacks; 84 of their colleagues perished when the Twin Towers, also a construction project of the Port Authority, collapsed. They saw investing in Calatrava as synonymous with investing in a design worthy of the hallowed location.

Other notable Calatrava works: The Liège-Guillemins railway station in Belgium; the Turning Torso skyscraper in Malmo, Sweden; and the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The original plan cost $2.21 billion and broke ground on September 12, 2005, the day after a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of 9/11. At the kickoff ceremony, the architect and his daughter released into the sky what were officially said to be a pair of doves, but were actually homing pigeons — a minor deception for the sake of appearances, an example of the type of pragmatic decisions critics hesitate to associate with his projects. Its expected opening date was 2009.

Now, in late 2015, unfinished and with a budget swollen to $4 billion, the center is notorious for fast becoming one of the most expensive and delayed train stations ever built (which falls closely in line with many of Calatrava’s other projects of the last decade). Still, Calatrava predicts that once the space opens (in early 2016, according to the latest prediction), he may yet win his critics over, associating his stirring design with the dignity of those who use it.

Unfinished and with a budget swollen to $4 billion, the center is notorious for fast becoming one of the most expensive and delayed train stations ever built.

“Bernini, most people don’t know, built a tower at the Vatican that collapsed,” said fellow architect Daniel Libeskind, who also works in Lower Manhattan, in an interview with New York Magazine about the Oculus. “He had such a failure he thought his career would never recover. Now we look back at Bernini and say, ‘Wow, what an architect.’ So, look, you have to give it time.”

Calatrava is no stranger to controversy over his designs, much of it the result of his role at the head of such large projects, leaving the architect open to blame for problems in construction that may not be wholly his own. In an investigation into Calatrava’s budget concerns with the Oculus, The New York Times summarized that “it is hard to find a Calatrava project that has not been significantly over budget.” The report notes that this fact is a reflection of not only Calatrava, but modern architecture generally. In an interview with Fast Company, Calatrava said that both the One World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum had cost overruns and that “the overruns, so far as I know, are comparable. So we are in front of a global problem. It’s not a particular problem of the transportation hub.” Besides a June 2013 ruling by a Spanish court that Calatrava and his team must pay the equivalent of about $4.5 million in relation to a collapsed roof in a conference center in Oviedo, many suits brought against the architect have been dropped, or have been found to be the fault of contractors, not his design.

Part of Calatrava’s problems may stem not only from his designs’ uncompromising attitude toward beauty, and the maintenance required to maintain their aesthetic, but from others’ inability to tell him no. When Calatrava initially failed to convince authorities of his design for the Oculus’s retractable roof, on top of column-free interiors and other impractical designs that would eventually require multiple subcontractors and manufacturing done abroad, he brought David Steiner, a board member of the Port Authority, to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum to an operable roof he had designed, according to the The New York Times. Nearby schoolchildren applauded as the roof retracted; “Mr. Steiner turned to Mr. Calatrava and, according to the recollection of those who were there, said: ‘O.K., Santiago. You can have your goddamn wings,'” reported the newspaper. The idea would be killed three years later.

The hub will contain 350,000 square feet of retail space, and the area under the Oculus will be vast, with 160 feet separating the floor from the intersection of the massive white wings.

While some characterize Calatrava as one of the more hated architects in the international spotlight today, he is also lauded for his daring designs, especially at a time when daring is needed in architecture. Downtown Manhattan is claustrophobic, with closed-off buildings of sky-high concrete and glass. Unlike the private masses of offices in America’s largest financial center, Calatrava’s station will be open to both the public and the sky. The hub will contain 350,000 square feet of retail space, and the area under the Oculus will be vast, with 160 feet separating the floor from the intersection of the massive white wings (which due to bomb-related safety concerns have been reinforced and now was likened to a stegosaurus by Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times). This sky-like space reflects the celestial ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, which cost about $2 billion in today’s dollars to construct and stands as an example of the enduring beauty of daring design.

But Grand Central Terminal stands as a stark reminder of the possibility of not just beauty, but function. On an average day, 208,000 commuters from the Metro-North Railroad pass through the station on their way from upstate New York and Connecticut. The current station at the site of Calatrava’s station serves only 46,000 commuters a day from New Jersey, only a quarter more than come out of the 33rd Street PATH terminal, an easily missed station in Midtown.

As of the writing of this article, the 2015 timeline for completely opening the hub has been missed, with water leaks to blame. The deadline is now somewhere in early 2016, when the luxury Westfield World Trade Center mall, filled with more than 100 tenants — including Apple, Eataly and Michael Kors — will open. Only then will New Yorkers fully realize what $4 billion worth of stubborn design and undeniable beauty looks like.

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