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The void left by the destruction of the Ground Zero buildings has been filled with another kind of void: the massive $4 billion Oculus hall, which houses an efficient (if still complicated) convergence of rail and subway lines. of downtown New York and a A spacious but ghostly shopping mall within blindingly white steel bones.
It is the work of Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava, the once celebrated master of off-budget projects. He began his career at resorts such as the spectacular winged canopy of Lyon Saint-Exupéry and the super-refined Stadelhofen in Zurich. So what is perhaps more surprising than his whitewashed eyesore at the World Trade Center site is a much smaller, more delicate and seemingly almost unnoticed building in a corner of Liberty Park.
When Tower 2 collapsed on September 11, it took with it a small building built as a tavern but which had served as a Greek Orthodox church since 1916; In 2001, it was surrounded by a rather dilapidated parking lot. The city promised to rebuild it and Calatrava was commissioned in 2014. The church, dedicated to St. Nicholas, opened late last year but attracted little international attention despite its star architect and prominent position. However, it is worth a second look as it is a rare example of a new church on a prominent site with a very public function not only of worship but also of remembrance. It has been named a National Shrine, a cenotaph dedicated to the 3,000 victims of 9/11, open free of charge to the public all day, every day.
In Calatrava’s terms, it is a tiny building. If anything, it’s a bit reminiscent of a 1930s radio (a nice touch, if you will, since this neighborhood used to be known as Radio Row, thanks to all the workshops and repair shops). Clad in bright white marble, it has the slightly unsettling pallor of a new tombstone, but, with its faceted façade, shallow dome and bulbous corners, it looks friendly and approachable, a sort of art-deco throwback to those radio sets, only more delicate.
From the twilight, its central section and dome glow as the thinly sliced marble radiates a warm light. It’s a delicate effect quite overwhelmed by the lights of empty offices and city backlighting, but it’s also a welcome variation in scale and delicacy, a highly articulated form contrasted with the silly glass towers that surround it.
As with the architect’s Oculus, the problems start when you enter. First, the marble is very white, almost clinical. Secondly, although the dome is allowed to glow, every rib and joint elsewhere is backlit with bright white LEDs. The effect is strident, more Vegas than Athos.
Then there is the embellishment. Calatrava typically creates theatrical effects without extra embellishments; Here, I assume, the client wanted more traditional iconography. And boy, did they get it. There is carved foliage, crucifix-shaped door handles, embossed vines, and marble doors pierced with dozens of crosses. It looks like a luxury mausoleum, money is not a problem.
Using traditional Greek Orthodox imagery, the interior is adorned with brightly painted iconography. While I quite enjoyed the Virgin spreading her arms over a stylized Manhattan, there’s an inescapable cheesiness to the interior. Those icons, which seem so powerful in the somber context of a Byzantine church, seem strident here.
It’s a shame, as this is Calatrava’s most modest and humane building in decades (although it cost $85 million, perhaps making it one of the most expensive buildings per square foot in human history), an interesting exploration of the borders between the popular and the supermodern, between the sacred and the profane. It aspires to everything from art deco to Constantinople and in many ways I think it’s quite admirable.
It’s also virtually empty, aside from the two ever-present security guards. And that makes it a strangely pleasant place, despite its contradictions. Calatrava may now be much derided, but he is also a rare and intriguing figure, a figure still potentially capable of producing genuinely popular, if expensive, architecture.
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