Ready, spread, soar

Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Oculus (above) is a bird-like, dazzling white structure with a voluminous interior.
Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Oculus (above) is a bird-like, dazzling white structure with a voluminous interior. PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG, REUTERS
Designed by Santiago Calatrava (above), the Oculus (left) is a bird-like, dazzling white structure with a voluminous interior (below).
Designed by Santiago Calatrava (above), the Oculus is a bird-like, dazzling white structure with a voluminous interior.
Designed by Santiago Calatrava (above), the Oculus (left) is a bird-like, dazzling white structure with a voluminous interior (below).
Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Oculus is a bird-like, dazzling white structure with a voluminous interior (above).

Half of architect Santiago Calatrava's work at World Trade Center is due to open next week

NEW YORK • 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 bird-like centrepiece of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, is scheduled to open next week, seven years later than it was supposed to when the Spanish architect'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 commuter railroad terminal under the trade centre - turned into a US$4-billion (S$5.6-billion) mall, transit centre and pedestrian network, crowned at street level by a 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 idealised architectural renderings.

There is nothing like it back home, unless home is Milwaukee or Liege, Belgium, where some of Calatrava's works have been constructed.

Entrance to the Oculus 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 breathtakingly into space at either end of the elliptical hall, will become Selfie Central.

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

Port Authority officials chose an architectural and engineering joint venture with 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 Calatrava.

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 60m - without any columns - over the passageway between the Oculus and the main transit hall at the mezzanine level.

It reflected more than Calatrava's penchant for structural drama.

He said it also ensures the comfort and security of visitors: comfort because the column-free expanse makes the hub easier to navigate; and 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.

In 2012, hundreds of millions of dollars in damage was caused by Hurricane Sandy. The authority would 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 US$3.7- billion budget figure past the US$4-billion mark.

And just as the finish line neared last year, leaks around the construction site of 3 World Trade Center 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 centre 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," Calatrava said as he gave a tour on Monday, "that public space prevails."

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, he said.

"But they have to be behind the glass. Our idea is to create a concerto and create harmony among the shops."

Restraint is not a defining characteristic of 21st-century retailing. But Mr Patrick J. Foye, 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 autumn, there will be an Apple store in the Oculus, not far from old Radio Row.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'Ready, spread, soar'. Print Edition | Subscribe