A dove taking flight or a pterydactyl? (source: Go Nakamura/Redux in VFCulture)
A dove taking flight from a child’s hand or Lego’s latest Bionicle? (source: Go Nakamura/Redux in VFCulture)

Some of the criticism of the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub was directed at the giant shopping mall under the striking roof but most attention was on the cost: a staggering $4 Billion, twice the initial estimate, for a station that will handle 8% as many passengers per day as Penn station.

One observer noted the new station, which opened (partially) last week, won’t reduce crowding, doesn’t add services, doesn’t significantly increase speed, and was nearly five years late.

Even the outgoing head of the Port Authority – the body that built the new transit hub – thinks it cost too much for what it delivers.

(As much as $2 Billion) could have been taken out of the hub and put into New York Penn Station, or put into the Gateway Tunnel, or put into Terminal A at Newark Airport. And in my mind that would have been a much more productive and efficient investment.

Much of the disdain was inevitably directed at the Authority’s conception and management of the project, particularly the money spent on the external and internal look. While the design is only one of the cost issues, architect Santiago Calatrava is no stranger to criticism about delay and cost escalation. (1)

Whatever the “look premium” cost, architecture critic Paul Goldberger thinks it’s worth it, describing the giant roofed space over the station’s main entrance as uplifting, full of light and capable of inspiring hope.

He argues the main value of the hub is to encourage New Yorkers to “recognize that investing in the public realm isn’t throwing away money”. The real point, he says, is:

In a city that has built few noble public works in the last half century—a city that in our time has rarely even aspired to grandeur in public space, let alone achieved it—this project stands as a reminder that we have not given up entirely.

He thinks those who focus on the cost are missing the value:

A couple of years from now, we will be hearing not about what this thing cost or about how long it took to build, but about how much people like walking through it.

So it’s a familiar debate; Calatrava’s giant sculpture is visually arresting but is it worth paying a lot extra for? What’s the opportunity cost – how else could that money have been spent?

There are of course other possible uses for those dollars. As with Australian cities, the big transit problem in New York is capacity. I expect there’s no shortage of worthwhile and pressing projects that might lower travel time, reduce crowding and improve reliability and safety.

Or it could’ve been spent on improving Penn Station, which handles more than twelve times as many passengers and in real terms only cost half as much to build as the Hub.

What New Yorkers are instead getting for the premium is a striking and unusual building with a big wow factor. They’re arguably also getting a memorial; back at the time the original (and subsequently much changed) design was unveiled, then Governor George Pataki said:

This is not a station. This is a tribute to those we lost on September 11th and a tremendous symbol of our confidence in the future.

A high standard of design is important in public buildings but I don’t think it follows that the obvious or only way to achieve that is via elaborate and (usually) expensive “grand gestures”. Here are some issues that I think are relevant to the discussion around the Hub:

  • New Yorkers aren’t getting the sort of once in a generation architectural wonder that might justify the monumental cost. It’s not to 2016 what the Sydney Opera House was to 1974; or the Bilbao Guggenheim was to 1997. It’s not even close.
  • Striking looking buildings are now a dime a dozen – Frank Gehry alone has 73 completed works across the world and dozens more in the works (here’s a Gehry in Manhattan). The pay-back from “starchitecture” is much diminished.
  • While it’s impressive in parts (e.g. the white marble interior) there’s nothing about the building that says great architecture. It’s the usual attempt at architectural shock and awe; as architecture critic Michael Kimmerman says, “any really big or unusual object or immense hole in the ground triggers awe”. He could’ve added: at least for a short while.
  • The formula isn’t that different from a host of new airport terminals like Shanghai Pudong Airport and shopping malls like Melbourne’s Myer Centre. The key components are lots and lots of retail outlets (The Hub’s managed by Australia’s own Westfield!) populating a capacious internal volume. Shoppers will outnumber commuters by three to one.
  • It doesn’t work well in figurative terms. In 2004 the architect likened the proposed design to a child releasing a bird (presumably a white dove) but as built it looks more like a robotic predatory monster (pterodactyl?) about to rip apart the nearest child. Inside it could be the ribbed belly of the beast.
  • The rationale for the Jurassic metaphor is unfathomable. What is it about a rail station, or 9/11, or New York, or the USA, or this site, or whatever, that makes the HR Giger aesthetic appropriate? Or is it meant to be ironic; perhaps a mechanical monster captures perfectly downtown Manhattan’s ethos of greed?
  • Architectural grandiosity isn’t the only way of improving the public realm; so is upgrading the operations of public transport and countless other public facilities and services.
  • The idea that the cost will soon be forgotten is meaningless because it’s true of almost everything – who remembers what freeway x cost? It’s a cognitive bias; that’s why real estate agents prey on it. It doesn’t mean there weren’t better alternatives at the time or that the cost was acceptable e.g. see Should we regret ancient Egypt built the pyramids?

This project puts me in mind of The Onion’s demand that tax dollars only be wasted on stuff that’s truly awesome. But even if those fabulously wealthy New Yorkers are of a mind to spend huge licks of public money on grand and noble architectural public works, they should expect to do better in the future than they’ve done this time around.  (2)

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  1. Other than narrow escalators on one platform, at this stage there seems to be little criticism of how it functions. That might change when it’s fully operational.
  2. Why rail stations should even be treated as grand public monuments in the 21st century like they were in the 19th century is an interesting question; best left for another time.