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.

Agree? Disagree? State your case over on The Angry Architect’s Facebook page.

Yours extortionately,

The Angry Architect

Paranoid Giant: Ground Zero’s Cathedral of Commerce Is The Ultimate Failure of Courage

A significant event in the 14 year saga of New York’s Ground Zero took place last month, as the observation deck of One World Trade Center was finally opened, allowing the public to rise up to the summit of SOM’s steel and glass spire for the first time.


Now the dust of construction has settled, we take a look back to the beginning, when designs on this – the fragile heart of NYC – began to take shape. How has the design of this skyscraper evolved over the past decade, and what does the process say about post-9/11 Western Society?

The timelapse elevator ride up WTC 1 includes a brief glimpse of Yamasaki’s Twin Towers


December 2002 – Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Freedom Tower’ was unveiled. Saturated with meaning, the ‘Skyscraper as Symbol’ was taken to a whole new level of complexity, in keeping with the extraordinary social and political demands of this loaded design brief. There were layered references to the past here: the tower’s offset spire echoed the raised arm of the Statue of Liberty… then, of course, there was that 1776-foot height, matching the year of American Independence.


Defining the height of a skyscraper using a historical date appears to laugh in the face of design by function, form or any tangible sense of architectural logic. However, these kinds of symbolic gimmicks were exactly the features that won the public over in the torrid months following their national tradegy: Libeskind successfully tapped into the emotional rationale of New Yorkers. I’ll call that ‘Libeskind Logic’.

Ground Zero’s Cathedral

Evolution of the design for WTC 1… then and now.

11 years on and after many fractious debates and redesigns, Skidmore Owings and Merrill – led by David Childs – have well and truly stamped their authority on the final incarnation. The spire is centered, the form filled out (incidentally creating thousands more square feet of lucrative commercial office space), and the base is encased with concrete and steel in an effort to deter would-be terrorists from attacking at ground level.

This last feature tells its own story: One World Trade Center has been the subject of exponential pragmatism, as the metaphor-ridden glass sabre of Libeskind was diluted to incorporate more leasable space – money talks – and security measures to calm the shredded nerves of the populous. The original American symbol of strength – the skyscraper – has become a paranoid giant, wearing a steel crown and the heaviest pair of lead boots imaginable.

Ground Zero’s Cathedral

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, with all these practicalities dissolving Libeskind’s original vision, the most irrational of design features – the 1776-foot height – remains. SOM stole the freedom away from the Freedom Tower, but left the public with one small reminder of why the USA is still a country of liberty and independence… just.

Yours metaphorically,

The Angry Architect

Images: © 2011 Studio Daniel Libeskind and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP