Oculus, Centerpiece of Transit Hub and Selfie Magnet, Is Set to Open

by David Dunlap for The New York Times

The World Trade Center Transportation Hub was designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava - Hilary Swift for The New York Times


After a 12-year gestation, Santiago Calatrava’s phoenix at the World Trade Center is ready to soar.

Or, at least, to hatch.

One half of the enormous Oculus, the birdlike centerpiece of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, is scheduled to open next week, seven years later than it was supposed to when Mr. Calatrava’s design was unveiled in 2004. And at double the estimated cost.

It will be a soft opening, unmarked by the kind of ceremony that used to be conducted at ground zero with embarrassing frequency — in part to bolster officials’ egos, in part to assure a devastated city that there was hope of recovery.

Those impulses help explain how a straightforward need — to rebuild the PATH commuter railroad terminal under the trade center — turned into a $4 billion shopping mall, transit center and pedestrian network, crowned at street level by a fantastic, zoomorphic, dazzling white structure with stout ribs and outspread wings.

Say this about the Oculus: It is breathtaking from the inside — luminous, intricate, uplifting and tranquil. Photos of it resemble idealized architectural renderings.


"It is necessary." Mr. Calatrava said during a tour on Monday, "that public space prevail." - Hilary Swift for The New York Times


There is nothing like it back home, unless home is Milwaukee or Liège, Belgium, where some of Mr. Calatrava’s masterworks have been constructed.

Elsewhere at the trade center, a family of four (two parents with a 10- and a 6-year-old) can expect to spend $179 just to get into the National September 11 Memorial Museum and the One World Observatory.

The Oculus, however, will be free. It will be free because it is a public space.

It is bound to be one of the most popular destinations in Lower Manhattan. Its balconies, cantilevered like diving boards at either end of the elliptical hall, will become Selfie Central. A comparison with the balconies at Grand Central Terminal is almost inevitable. Not surprisingly, Mr. Calatrava cites the terminal as inspiration.

He may do some inspiring in turn. As talk turns more to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s redevelopment of Pennsylvania Station, comparisons will inevitably be drawn between the governor’s constrained vision for an international rail crossroads in Midtown and the grandeur of the commuter train station downtown.


The exterior of the Oculus, the crown of the transportation hub, which is opening seven years later than planned and at double cos. - Hilary Swift for The New York Times


Then again, Mr. Cuomo does not have the federal transportation financing that the hub enjoyed.

This is a legacy project,” said Steven Plate, chief of major capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is building the hub and redeveloping the overall trade center site. “We had a moral obligation to do this right.”

Barely two years after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, New York seemed to need a regenerative public work at the trade center site, almost as a counterpoint to what was sure to be a solemn memorial and a cluster of insular, private office towers.

Port Authority officials chose an architectural and engineering joint venture with Mr. Calatrava in the lead. He promised a monument commensurate with their lofty aspirations.

Since then, the hub has been plagued with problems, not all of which can be laid at the feet of the authority and Mr. Calatrava.


Inside the Oculus, which is bound to be one of the most popular destinations in Lower Manhattan - Hilary Swift for The New York Times


For instance, one of the most extravagant engineering gestures in the entire complex involved the construction of what is known as a tied-arch bridge to carry the No. 1 subway line about 200 feet — without any columns — over the passageway between the Oculus and the main PATH transit hall at the mezzanine level.

The gesture reflected more than Mr. Calatrava’s penchant for structural drama.

He says it also ensures the comfort and security of visitors; comfort, because the column-free expanse makes the hub easier to navigate; security, because it eliminates the threat of satchel bombs being placed at the base of relatively slender columns and will also make it easier for crowds to evacuate the spaces in case of emergency.

The subway posed another big challenge. The hub had to be built around No. 1 trains operating around the clock, because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would not consider suspending service to South Ferry. The mezzanine level of the hub was constructed from the roof downward, defying standard engineering practice, because its roof doubles as part of the memorial plaza, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg decreed must be open by Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attack.

In 2012, hundreds of millions of dollars in damage was caused by Hurricane Sandy. The authority will not put an exact figure on the amount because it is negotiating with its insurers. If the recovery from the storm were factored in as a construction cost, it would push the authority’s official $3.7 billion budget figure past the $4 billion mark.


Putting finishing touches on the Oculus. - Hilary Swift for The New York Times


And just as the finish line neared last year, leaks at the intersection of Greenwich Street and Cortlandt Way put off the expected opening of the retail space at the hub by months.

How the retailers present themselves and how the vast space at the center of the Oculus is programmed by its operator, Westfield World Trade Center, will ultimately have as much to do with the quality of the experience as the architecture.

It is necessary,” Mr. Calatrava said as he gave a tour on Monday, “that public space prevail.” He likened the Oculus hopefully to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, an elegant 19th-century shopping arcade under vaulted glass roofs that feels part of the civic fabric.

The curvature of the storefronts in the Oculus and the radiating concourses will help give retailers visibility, Mr. Calatrava said. “But they have to be behind the glass,” he added. “Our idea is to create a concerto, and create harmony among the shops.”

Restraint is not a defining characteristic of 21st-century retailing. But Patrick J. Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority, believes there is a fine precedent.

A balance is struck at Grand Central Terminal, and it will be here,” he said.

Shops, after all, are not new on the site. A half-century ago, a vibrant district of small electronics dealers was swept aside by the Port Authority to make room for the twin towers. By fall, there will be an Apple store in the Oculus, selling a new kind of electronics, not far from old Radio Row.


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