Op-Ed: Reflecting on the Oculus

Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus transit hub was $4 billion and 12 years in the making. But the soaring atrium was well worth it — at least according to the author’s daughter.
Associated Press / Mark Lennihan


When my 4-year-old got her first glimpse of the World Trade Center’s Oculus transit hub, she ran to the balcony’s edge, looked up at the imposing ceiling and had an instant reaction: “This is awesome Daddy!”

I imagined architect Santiago Calatrava smiling as he heard her enthusiasm for the design. Then I thought about what the critics of the train station might say: “Yeah, but is it worth $4 billion, little girl?”

As we walked on the mezzanine overlooking the mall on our way to a free performance of “The Nutcracker” earlier this month, I kept close watch on my girl, but I also was on the lookout for any sign pointing to our destination — the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place in Battery Park City. There were none, but I knew we were going in the right direction, and assumed the elevator would take us down to the underground passageway.

It didn’t, so we went up and walked through the WTC Memorial and across the West Side Highway. I recalled the twists and turns in the old WTC underground that existed before the 9/11 attacks, and the many attempts I made before I found the most direct route from the subway to what is now called Brookfield, but was then the World Financial Center.

After the ballet, we took the underground passageway in search of the WTC-Chambers Street A, C, and E subway stop, but we turned too early, and ended up having to ask a security guard for directions before we found our way to the E. I knew not to pay attention to signs for the A and C, because on a previous visit I ended up walking one stop out of my way by blindly following the signs down the underground passage all the way to Downtown’s “bargain basement” transit hub at Fulton Center (which cost “only” $1.4 billion).

Both train hubs were built largely with federal 9/11 rebuilding money with the aim of making more sense of the confusing earlier network of underground stations — and to some extent they did. But in the case of the Oculus, there is a sense that there’s not been a lot of effort put into helping people find their way.

In addition to having no A or C signs at all pointing to Chambers Street, the E signs there are tiny compared to the ones directing riders to Fulton Center — a place that happens to be filled with shops, which may have something to do with it.

There’s room for the western elevator to go down to the main level, where there’s indoor access to nine lines, the PATH commuter trains — but it doesn’t.

When I returned to examine things more closely, I was at this elevator for a few seconds when a mother with a stroller and three young children asked a security guard if it went down, only to be directed about a block out of her way — past a bunch of shops — to an elevator she could use.

Someone wrote to Tribeca Citizen recently wondering whether the elevator inconveniences were meant “to force visitors to pass by as many shops as possible. That might be acceptable at a normal mall, but at a transportation hub?”

Despite the problems, the mall’s openness is undoubtedly an improvement over the cave-like original. My daughter and, yes, even I, are not the only ones, of course, to be wowed by Calatrava’s design.

Even Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic wrote “that virgin view, standing inside the Oculus and gazing up, is a jaw-dropper,” that “can almost — almost — make you forget what an epic boondoggle the whole thing has been.”

The b-word (“billion”) is the one most often used by naysayers. Despite the pricetag, the Oculus serves a small fraction of the number of commuters who use Grand Central or Penn Station. Early in the planning, there was enthusiasm from Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg for connecting the WTC hub to the Long Island Rail Road and JFK Airport. That would have dramatically increased the number of riders, and probably would have provided a long-term boost for the Downtown economy, but the idea died quietly, in part because it would entail even more staggering costs. The Oculus may have cost $4 billion, but the JFK link alone would have cost $6 billion.

Longtime Battery Park City resident and Community Board 1 member Tom Goodkind complained that the Port Authority didn’t pay much attention to what locals were asking for when designing the transit hub, such as more seating, better signage, and “escalators that actually went up instead of down.”

But he admits that the final product is dazzling nonetheless.

“Otherwise, the space is absolutely gorgeous. It’s one of the few places I’ve ever seen where the outcome was way more spectacular than the architectural drawings,” Goodkind said. “As far as the price tag goes, this is money well spent.”

When Calatrava unveiled the drawings almost 14 years ago, the design received a standing ovation. It was the first WTC design to receive near-universal praise.

“When you do a station, you are doing it for the next generation and even the next generation [after that],” he told CB1 in 2004. “The people who built Grand Central are not there, but you feel that they wanted to tell us something.”

The Oculus could indeed last a century or more, which would make the costs acceptable. In the meantime, moving elevators and escalators now would probably be too expensive, but better and bigger signs wouldn’t.

Now, it’s past my girl’s bedtime.

Josh Rogers is a freelance writer and the former editor of Downtown Express.

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