The Oculus — innovation, tradition, and a tremendous expense

The Oculus, the centerpiece of The World Trade Center Transportation Hub, was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, well known for his whimsical creations and lack of practicality. 

A very unusual structure looks like a bird that spreads its wings. In fact, it was inspired by a model the architect made 15 years prior to the project, portraying a bird flying from the hands of a child, symbolizing hope and rebirth. The idea of the Oculus is said to have been inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Its oculus, (from Latin oculus ‘eye’; pl. oculi) a circular opening in the center of a dome, allows the natural light to enter the Pantheon from above. Calatrava took this idea a step further: the Oculus receives the light from above as well as the sides. It permeates the building that receives as much daylight as the street outside. At night, it reverses into giving out the light when it lits up like a lantern. The light also bears a symbolic value — each year, on September 11th at 10:28 AM (the time when the second tower collapsed), the sunlight beams the central axis of the main hall. 

Visually, the structure is so unusual that it gives an impression of completely breaking with tradition. However, the idea of a grandiose and beautiful train station is not new. Historically, train stations weren’t built just for convenience — they served an essential function as the city’s gateways. The Oculus follows in the footsteps of theatrical and grand stations like the Penn Station (demolished) and the Grand Central Terminal. 

Besides its primary function as a transportation center, the Oculus is a multifunctional entity: it has shops, restaurants, and vast public space. This reflects the idea that started with the Grand Central, referred to as a “city within a city” — a self-contained space that provides everything a commuter needs. Calatrava is known and often criticized for putting aesthetics above functionality — a big anathema in architecture. One can argue that the Oculus is following another old tradition, that of the City Beautiful movement, which became popular at the turn of the 20th century and argued that public buildings could not be merely functional, they had to be magnificent and grandiose, aka beautiful.

The Oculus, along with many other Calatrava’s creations, had been justifiably criticized for its lack of practicality. It took 14 years to complete opening in 2016, seven years behind schedule. Its estimated budget of 2 Billion ballooned to double the amount, costing 4 Billion dollars and giving it the dubious distinction of being the most expensive train station in the world. 

The structure was called self-indulgent, kitschy, and “a hideous waste of public money.” The New York Post editorial board described the station as the “world’s most obscenely overpriced commuter rail station – and possibly its ugliest,” comparing the Oculus to a “giant gray-white space insect.”

It’s very hard not to resent a transportation hub that went $2 Billion over budget. It’s also hard not to be bothered by its blatant impracticality: gleaming white floors that have to be kept clean at all times despite the people traffic through the station, the stairs too narrow to accommodate the crowds, lack of benches needed by commuters to rest their weary feet while waiting for the trains, to name a few.

Yet, its shining grandeur is striking, and, despite all, it’s hard not to be drawn into its radiant vision of light and luminance. 

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