Calatrava and the World Trade Center Transportation Hub

For many of us, the coming of Thanksgiving marks the start of the winter holiday season. If you we were walking around inside a certain Calatrava-designed giant bird in Downtown Manhattan, however, you might think it was the start of monsoon season.

In fact, the World Trade Center Oculus, the centerpiece of a massive redevelopment of the WTC site, has been suffering from a persistent water leak, which has been only the latest in a string of problems facing the project. While Spanish/Swiss starchitect Santiago Calatrava is not known for delivering his fantastic concepts on time or on budget, the PATH station officially known as the World Trade Center Transportation Hub is a standout.

For one, the cost of the project is already at nearly $4 billion, approaching twice the estimate given when Calatrava originally unveiled his vision in 2004, and around six years behind schedule.


A dolphin diving nose-first into the ground or a train station?

Admittedly, the undertaking—the Oculus in particular—is devastatingly awesome. 

Mr. Calatrava, however, is notoriously unreliable, and the project has already been scaled down in scope. When first presented, for example, it was planned that the entire structure, like some master of the skies indeed, would hinge open at the roof. In recent times, though, this was scaled back to some operable skylights.

Still, its sinuous frame and captivating wings are as jaw-dropping as some of his other structures, which have earned him a host of awards.

Another Calatrava project, the Auditorio de Tenerife

Another Calatrava project, the Auditorio de Tenerife

He is not without his opponents, however. Take the building above. A lyrical icon of the Canary islands, yes. But like many of his other works, it suffers from budget issues, the alleged violation of safety codes, and structural problems.

Sound familiar?


Oh, Frank.

To be fair, the WTC Hub project has faced some obstacles which may (or may not) be out of Mr. Calatrava’s control—opposition from the Bloomberg administration, forced revision after a security assessment by the Police Department.

Regardless, the story of an enthralling building coming torturedly to fruition follows Calatrava. Let’s look at another example. Or a few.

Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciènces (The City of Arts and Sciences) in Valencia, Spain, for instance, wound up costing around 300% of its original budget, much of which has not been paid. Rhyming websites such as calatravatelaclava.com and calatravanonoscalla.com, which lash out at the architect, have sprung up as a result.

His detractors again and again point out unforeseen problems caused by an obsession with an impractical concept. Exaggerated loops of metal used in gardens as trellises are too hot for vines to grow, the beautiful tiles of the Zubizuri bridge shatter and are far too slippery (earning it the nickname “The Bridge of Broken Legs“), the opera house in Valencia contains nearly 150 seats with obstructed views; the list goes on.


El Palau de les Artes Reina Sofía

Some issues, however, seem to have come from downright negligence, and a few have even resulted in litigation.

Bilbao Airport (BIO), for example, lacks an arrivals hall. The original plans for Valencia’s science museum—somehow—didn’t have fire escapes or elevators. In another project, tiles fall off in wind.

In 2013, as a result of a similar shortcoming, Calatrava was ordered to pay €3.3 million to the city of Oveido, but miraculously, Calatrava has survived and even thrived through all these debacles. In fact, commissions may be at an all-time high for him, which begs the question: how?

Is it because his astonishing buildings compensate for the deficits with mind boggling aesthetics? Is it because issues in budget or schedule are coming to be more common in the work of starchitects? Anyway, it’s clear Calatrava isn’t going away, and neither is his giant bird.

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