Chuck Choi Architectural Photography

Calatrava's $4 Billion Shopping Mall

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Critics of the new PATH station designed by Santiago Calatrava say that it looks like a Stegosaurus. Others say it resembles a giant Venus flytrap. As with most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I was hired by Blueprint Magazine to shoot the recently opened but yet to be completed PATH station at Ground Zero. Actually, it's referred to as the World Trade Center Transportation HUB, I think to make it seem more significant. But it's not really a hub that connects transportation lines with each other at a single node. Rather, it is a meandering quarter mile underground passage that runs from the Brookfield Place Mall at World Financial Center, past the PATH platforms, then vaguely on towards the Fulton Center's subway lines. The "Oculus," a soaring atrium which is the emotional moment of the scheme, pops up along this route. Being a warren of hallways rather than a hub calls into question it's very functional, existential purpose. It cost 4 billion dollars, so far.

There are some graceful moments to the building that lend themselves to archiporn, and here I did my duty as a photographer. (See the images). But the dissonance between form, function, and symbolism forces purely aesthetic appreciation into the back seat. The Oculus is cathedral-like in scale and features a soaring vault. It even has a retractable skylight at it's apex, so that on 9/11 it can be opened up ceremoniously.  Nice touch.  It's monumental, yes, but what is it a monument to, exactly? When completed, the Oculus will be filled with retail tenants, such as Michael Kors, Apple, Eataly, Longines, etc. So, it's a temple devoted to high-end retail. On a rainy day, financial workers can walk from the World Financial Center, have a latte and brioche at Eataly, maybe do some shopping at Longines if the trading was good that day, then catch the 4 or 5 train to the Upper East Side, all without needing to take out an umbrella. Worth every penny, don't you think?

This project was begat from the tragedy of 9/11 and was supposed to literally bring light down into Ground Zero. That's why it was dubbed the "The Oculus" and not "The Atrium" or "The Dodo Bird." But so much of this project's energy is spent on excessive expressionism (giant steel ribs cantilevered over 50 feet) and gratuitous sentimentality (retractable skylight that only opens once a year) that it can only be seen as a confounded response to 9/11 and a testament to a single architect's mannered style, not a transcendent piece of public architecture that is of, for, and by the many.