calatrava via new yorker

Calatrava’s Extravagant Train Station and the Price of Beauty

At this point, it’s nearly impossible to solicit an opinion about Santiago Calatrava’s recently opened World Trade Center PATH station without hearing about the building’s $4 billion price tag and how that money could be better spent elsewhere—namely on any one of a long list of transit projects throughout New York City. And, most critics will point out, the new transit hub is essentially a glorified shopping mall; when the concourse’s retail offerings open later this year, a nearly continuous wall of store facades will usher commuters from train platforms to the street. This critique—that the building cost too much and that public dollars have subsidized a private project—is fair. But it’s also worth qualifying.

In the end, the final bill for Calatrava’s station, originally budgeted for $2 billion, will come to almost $4 billion. To get a proper handle on that number, compare it with the annual operating budget for various city agencies—for example, Housing and Preservation ($718.4 million), FDNY ($1.8 billion), Homeless Services ($1.1 billion), landmarks commission ($4.8 million). Relative to the PATH budget, all of these figures are shocking, but the most viscerally upsetting comparison, of course, is to HPD, the city’s housing department, which will receive barely one fifth of the amount spent on the hub. That a single building—luxury retail for commuters, no less—warrants so much funding feels wrong, given the near-existential  affordable housing crisis facing the city. The lopsidedness of these priorities, and their aptness as a metaphor for the city at this moment, is clearly not lost on most New Yorkers.

In the heady post-911 days, the consensus critical reaction was very different, however. At the time, Governor Pataki called Calatrava’s proposal a “masterpiece,” while New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote that the building was a “major cultural contribution to our city.” Anthony Coscia, the chairman of the Port Authority described the architect’s vision as “a work of unsurpassed beauty.” Compare that with their surrogates of today: while the mayor and governor have generally refrained from commenting on the hub, outgoing PA executive director Patrick Foye called the building a “symbol of excess” and Kimmelman now describes it as the epitome of “political, architectural irresponsibility.”

Why the change in tone?

Part of the answer has to do with aesthetic changes to the building’s design which, since Kimmelman’s early review, has been modified to address security concerns.  The station is squatter, and heavier now, less a soaring aspirational statement, more a manifestation of how the city’s logistics planning has changed since 9/11. Still, the hub bears reasonable-enough similarity to Calatrava’s original designs that the aesthetic changes don’t fully explain the about-face. Similarly, other critics accuse the station of being architecturally derivative, overly indebted to the architect’s own previous work, which was produced for different contexts and, often, different programs. But those buildings—Gare de Lyon Sanit-Exupéry (1994), L’Hemisfèric (1998), L’Agora (2009) are the most striking, though there are others—were all built before 2004, the year Calatrava was picked. Finally, the charge of financial profligacy also seems puzzling. Four billion is too much, but the proposed budget in 2004 was $2 billion. The number topped annual operating budgets for most city agencies that year. It’s hard to see how the figure was ever justified, even without cost overruns.

So where was the outcry?

If the first answer to that question describes how the project has changed in the intervening years, a (more convincing) second one looks instead at where the city was after 9/11, and where it’s come since. In the years since Calatrava’s selection, New York has seen a recession that brought unemployment in the city upwards of 10%; a doubling of foreclosures citywide; protests in Zucotti Park; the realization that nobody would be held responsible for massive financial negligence; and an ongoing affordable housing crisis tied directly to the city’s schizophrenic relationship with its elite class, which drives housing costs but support the city with taxes, spending and philanthropy.

 

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This is not the same city that embraced Calatrava’s poetic vision for Ground Zero—a train station more monument than infrastructure, epitomized by the architect’s drawing of a child releasing a dove. The poetry of that proposal won him the project, and is now his chief liability. The city isn’t looking for poetry. It’s looking for infrastructure.  And Calatrava’s unabashed formalism, his insistence on bespoke Italian steel and white marble, no longer aligns with the city that got behind his bid twelve years ago.

Forgivable enough for a private development, Calatrava’s aesthetic decadence now seems egregious for a publicly funded project. In fact, the same charge of excess has been applied, in more muted tones, to a small handful of recent high-profile public projects. In Harlem, David Adjaye’s Sugar Hill Development, with 124 units of affordable housing, was built in 2014 for $550,000 per unit. In the South Bronx, 222 units of mixed-income units in the Via Verde houses, designed by Grimshaw and Dattner Architects, cost roughly $440,000 each. Both projects were built above the average per-unit cost of affordable housing in New York, which has historically cost under $400,000. Critics argue that excessive detailing and over-design for these high profile projects eat up budget better spent on building new units for people who need them. Using the logic and rhetoric of cost-benefit analysis, it becomes hard to justify these deficits; Mayor de Blasio talks about housing shortages in the order of hundreds of thousands of units. One or two recent projects have sparked criticism, but the same reasoning could be applied to a number of recent smaller public buildings, which include libraries, stations, affordable housing, and one “salt shed,” where aesthetic concerns push costs above lowest standard practice.

What’s happening on the other end of the public-private spectrum often looks strikingly similar. When luxury developers jockey for the most extreme wealthy tenants, one tactic is to commission prestigious firms to design buildings that live by their architectural brand. But for every 432 Park Avenue (Rafael Viñoly) or One57 (Christian de Portzamparc) there are 10 Avalon Riverview North. Never heard of it? It’s one of a dozen co-ops built in along the Williamsburg waterfront, buildings so impossibly generic they could fit just easily along the Shenzhen waterfront as the East River. These buildings are not beautiful but, in a city where form is largely driven by a combination of zoning rules, market rents and price per foot, they are supremely functional. As developers perfect a building type that looks increasingly inwards—basement gyms and all the requisite kitchen appliances—they’ve learned that facades often matter less to their prospective clients. In this way, semi-luxury buildings slowly perfect a formula that value-engineers beauty out of much of the city’s new architecture. Quality of life stays high for residents, but the effect of these buildings on the streetscape, on both the types of uses represented and their architectural quality, is profound.

This is not the same city that embraced Calatrava’s poetic vision for Ground Zero…Today the city isn’t looking for poetry. It’s looking for infrastructure. And Calatrava’s unabashed formalism, his insistence on bespoke materials, no longer aligns with the city that got behind his bid twelve years ago.

 

This cost-benefit logic treats beauty as a kind of perquisite, something quaint but superfluous. In this, its basic accounting is flawed. For private development, the logic shifts the cost of unattractive buildings and their effect onto neighborhoods. Rather than adding to the formal richness of a place, many new buildings exploit that fabric and give little back in return. On the other hand, the same accounting, applied to public architecture, does not adequately value beauty, or the ways buildings have concentric benefits that only start with their immediate beneficiaries—the people who use them—but then spread out to the street, neighborhood and city.

Calatrava’s original vision for the WTC station, and the vision the city embraced after 9/11, appealed to that more generous understanding of public architecture as a driver of civic virtue. The vision was, in retrospect, too generous, overvaluing the symbolic and formalistic value of the Hub to the city and undervaluing its logistical importance, the minimal practical impact it would have on the lives of city residents. As a city, we haven’t yet figured out how to account for these two values—one abstract and long-term, the other utilitarian, immediate and quantifiable—but adopting the first wholeheartedly and uncritically may be as dangerous as the second.

In the end, there’s no way around the $4 billion; the number is just too big. But, as far as the pendulum has swung since 2004, beautiful buildings and spaces are still important to the city, a fact we often forget in discussions about the responsibilities of government to its constituents. At its best, and notwithstanding its architectural flaws, Calatrava’s Hub aspires to an aesthetic quality that should be taken seriously. Even—especially—as the problems of housing and income inequality threaten something fundamental to the city, the Hub’s claim to monumentality is worth celebrating, not shrinking from. We should be careful to assert aesthetic concerns are not frivolous, that they define our city in profound and lasting ways we don’t fully acknowledge or, perhaps, even fully understand.

 

Featured image via NewYorker.com

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