The Curse Of Calatrava: Newly Opened WTC Terminal Is The Most Expensive Train Station in History

Ground Zero, Manhattan: no doubt the location for some of the most complex and challenging design briefs in modern history. Libeskind, SOM, Foster, and many more have had to contend with a vast number of polarized views over what would be deemed appropriate for a site saturated with political, social, and economic significance. Indeed, David Childs’s 1 World Trade Center skyscraper has become a metaphor for the perpetual struggle between emotive design and the city’s addiction to commercial gains.

It is perhaps unsurprising then, that Santiago Calatrava’s design for a new WTC Train Station has been accompanied by contention. However, the controversies here have mounted to extraordinary, extortionate levels.

The WTC PATH Terminal under construction. Via Curbed

The Port Authority selected Calatrava for the job for similar reasons that netted Daniel Libeskind the job of master-planner for the wider site: He has a reputation for grandiose, gestural architecture, with a dedication to form that—on first viewing—can produce a dazzling, impressive display of sculptural modernism. Like Libeskind, he is a protagonist of Brand Architecture, meaning that the Port Authority had fair warning of what it could encounter on commissioning him. On the one hand, he would produce an undeniably iconic structure; on the other, he would saddle the organization with a stream of technical complications and mounting costs as the project developed.

So it proved. At the unveiling of his conceptual design in 2004, Calatrava was truly theatrical in his presentation. “Let me draw for you what I cannot say,” he said to the waiting media. Then, wrote Newsweek, “he fluently sketched a child releasing a bird—a spellbinding image that had inspired his design.”

Calatrava’s original design…

…and a rendering of the revised version.

From that moment onward, the design and the costs have steadily unravelled. Initially, the roof incorporated a series of slender steel and glass ribs, mechanically adjustable to allow increased light and ventilation to the lower concourses. However, as costs spiraled and security fears increased, these ribs were shortened, doubled in number, and lost their glass wings: Calatrava’s bird in flight had devolved into a rather more stationary stegosaurus. These compromises have undeniably diluted the architect’s original vision, and parallels can again be drawn with the design of 1 WTC: they are symptomatic of the underlying paranoia that has shackled the authorities of Manhattan ever since the tragic events of 9/11.

Rendering of the transit hub interior

The design issues, though, are minor in comparison with the eye-watering evolution of the project balance sheet. The construction budget for the Hub was initially slated as $2 billion, but after multiple delays and amendments to the scheme, the overall cost is now estimated at $3.94 billion. To put that into perspective, 1 WTC has cost approximately $3.9 billion – that’s right, this train station will cost more than the tallest all-office building in the western hemisphere. Couple this with the fact that that the station is not even one of the top 10 busiest stations in the city (if you include the subway system), and you begin to wonder who was in charge of the feasibility report for this proposal—if anyone at all!

Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences, in Valencia, Spain, also suffered from wild overspending.

Calatrava has previous experience on this front: The City of Arts and Sciences complex in his native Valencia cost around 900 million euros, almost triple what was originally budgeted, while his firm pocketed a much scrutinized 94 million euros—quite a fee for a project with multiple design defects, schedule overruns, and high, on-going maintenance costs.

It remains to be seen whether the PATH terminal in New York suffers any further from problems like these, but one thing is for sure: The Port Authority must ultimately be held accountable for Calatrava’s appointment, which appears to been a case of heart ruling over head in the emotional aftermath of this city’s tragedy.

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Yours extortionately,

The Angry Architect