At the opening of the exhibition on his World Trade Center Transportation Hub, on view now at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute though August 31, Santiago Calatrava’s presentation was impeccably well mannered. He juggled questions with ease, balancing the answers on the tip of his nose, before finally pulling the “child releasing a dove” formal metaphor out of his sleeve. Like his work or not, he is a magician, charming the public with form, feats of engineering, impossibly white compositions, and notions of public service.
The Great White Spiny station marks a watershed moment for New York City. Even without the site’s recent history, the project’s overriding formalism and object-like nature represents an important point for architecture in the city. Given Manhattan’s density there is an overriding need to fit in snuggly with one’s neighbors. But this time we are getting an object in a field.
Before you smugly think Calatrava and his team have created a sculptural memorial to themselves, he freely admits the building will outlast its designer. Perhaps, this is his media savvy working in overdrive, but even with my overly jaded feelings about the profession of architecture, I found his take refreshing. Without being bombastic or self-serving he noted although he loves Grand Central Terminal he has no idea who designed the soaring space. Should Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore feel insulted by their forgotten contributions? No, according to Calatrava. He understands when White Spiny opens for use, his role, his name, and his fame will eventually be lost, but the building will remain. With true graciousness he understands the public will see the building and not recall the designers.
When asked if he thought the recent whirling drop in the economy had changed architecture and/or the architect’s roll Calatrava took the chance to clarify the meaning of economy. The etymology, he pointed out, means “the order of the house” and by reseting the definition was able to speak to the shift away from glamor projects towards more public work and the lowering role of the starchitect and rise of newer, younger designers.
Of course much of Calatrava’s career has been built on large scale public projects (even as his office has designed its share of ultra towers in Chicago and Copenhagen) and his discussion of the new glory of public work could be thought of as a celebrating his own work. No matter. The Transportation Hub will require a Metrocard to ride the rails, but otherwise is open to public at no charge. This a real public project.
The hub represents the return of “A”rchitecture to the public project in New York. For far too long the United States has selected its public projects based on merits of low cost and speed of construction. But design is now seen to carry value, even in the public realm.
Many factors have led to this moment, including Ed Feiner’s reinvigoration of the General Services Administration and New York City’s emulation of these efforts, the slip/trip/ fall of the idea as market as king, and a new administration recommitting the country to the concept of engaged citizenship. These things are stirring and bring hope. In the end, however, hope can fade and results count most. Whether you like the building or the man or not, is not the issue. What is important is that something of great design and real effort is being built, and that we as a nation again care about the public realm and we as architects are able to play a roll in this process.
Santiago Calatrava: World Trade Center Transportation Hub is on view Queen Sofia Spanish Institute at 684 Park Avenue, New York City, through August, 31.