More May Be Less

Last week, hundreds of city officials, journalists, photographers, construction workers and police swarmed to a spot in Lower Manhattan for the official opening of the Oculus, the transportation hub that will occupy the former World Trade Center site.

“Oculus” is Latin for “eye,” and in ancient architecture referred to a circular opening in the center of a dome or in a wall. In French, it is also known as an œil de boeuf, or “bull’s eye.”

That English phrase as we use it would certainly be a jarring one to use in connection to the project’s meeting of its time or expense targets. The plan has lagged years behind schedule and has come in at twice the original projected cost.

The transportation complex is composed of a train station with a large and open mezzanine connected to the above-ground space — the Oculus — located between 2 World Trade Center and 3 World Trade Center. There will also be public concourses under the World Trade Center complex, and connections connecting the PATH train system to the New York City Subway system. A passageway will also connect to the various modes of transportation in Lower Manhattan, from the Fulton Center to the Battery Park City Ferry Terminal. Finally, there will be a new, 365,000 square-foot shopping complex called the Westfield World Trade Center mall.

Curved, steel-ribbed walls rise 160 feet toward a “Wedge of Light” in the ceiling, so that sun rays around the autumnal equinox will hit the World Trade Center footprints each September. The Oculus was built to maximize the effect of the autumnal equinox rays. Inside, the white-ribbed-vaulted ceiling and its gleaming-white marble walls and floors reflect the natural sunlight filling the space.

Reviews of the aesthetics of the completed main hall have generally been laudatory, even gushing, and many are paying tribute to the Spanish architect who designed the structure, Santiago Calatrava.

The Oculus is certainly impressive. The structure is designed to convey the feeling of a bird released into the air, with steel wings poised for takeoff, and the open, white indoor space, at least without the expected crowds and the grime that will inevitably accompany them, is pristinely striking. (Others have described the structure as more evocative of a dinosaur or chicken skeleton.)

But while art and symbolism may be important, particularly to a city and site that experienced the human trauma of September 11, 2001, the amount of money that the complex is costing represents an economic trauma of its own.

Originally, in 2004, the reconstruction was to be funded by the Federal Transit Administration, which assigned approximately $1.9 billion to the project. The Port Authority puts the current cost at $3.9 billion. It blames overruns, delays, changes due to security concerns and the architect’s exacting demands.

Much of the cost was due to the complex engineering feats necessary to build the station while keeping the trains running. But $4 billion would have gone a long way toward system-wide infrastructure improvements. Beautiful imported Italian-marble train platforms seem like an extravagance when subways are growing more crowded every day, fares continue to rise, and new lines would do commuters more practical good than even a most aesthetically pleasing new train hub.

Some have, moreover, criticized the design as emphasizing form over function, citing elements that are expected to detract from the station’s practical purpose as a transit hub. Staircases, critics say, are too narrow to accommodate rush-hour crowds; and the marble floor will become slippery if water or snow are tracked in. If the project turns out to be “design divorced from purpose,” as one skeptic described it, the enormous cost, objectionable in itself, will turn out to be mere insult added to injury.

It is understandable that the plan for the site of the Twin Towers, even as an ultimately utilitarian structure, should do honor to the memory of those who perished there in 2001, and understandable, too, that no expense be spared to make it an aesthetically pleasing place for New Yorkers to go about their daily lives.

But, in the motto of another famous architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Less is more.”

The grand vision that has become embodied in the Trade Center transportation hub may or may not be an example of the converse of that motto. But when it comes to the question of the project’s immense cost, things are more straightforward and clear.