An Eye on The Oculus, the Calatrava Extravaganza at the World Trade Center Site

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The new World Trade Center transit hub. Photos by Jason Eldredge

When Spanish architect/engineer Santiago Calatrava first presented his vision for a transportation hub at the highly charged Ground Zero site, he described it as “the image of a bird being released from a child’s hand.”

Reactions from visitors can be more earthy – Jason Eldredge, former KCRW DJ and design enthusiast now based in New York, visited the site and overheard one young female tourist say simply, “it looks like a vagina.”

Whatever choice phrase comes to mind, “The Oculus” has finally opened after large cost and construction overruns, and Jason shares his first impression.

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“The Oculus” is at the center of a new transportation hub connected to the World Trade Center. Located immediately to the east of the original Twin Towers, the structure replaces the PATH train station that was destroyed on 9/11. This unique building recently opened its doors to the public and for those who can currently figure out how to get in, it has become prime Instagram real estate.

A web of underground walkways links The Oculus to multiple buildings in the neighborhood, most notably: One World Trade, the retail mecca Brookfield Place, Towers 2, 3, & 4, and the Fulton street transit center. Inside the hub, signage boasts: “it is the largest network of underground pedestrian connections in New York City.” High above the main hall are 110 white steel ribs, each weighing around 56 tons. The 365 feet of flooring below the “rib cage” is longer than the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal, making the WTC Transportation Hub the third largest transportation center in New York City.

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Because of the ongoing construction still interrupting the area, there is a temporary fence completely surrounding the structure, so I had to ask two security guards how to get in. Right now the easiest way for pedestrians to enter The Oculus is through 4 World Trade.

Once safely inside the hub, the observer is treated to a blinding visual feast. The entire room glows. Pristine minimal spires dwarf visitors like a giant gothic cathedral wherein the stained glass “eye of God” is replaced by a glimpse of the shimmering tower of One World Trade, hovering over from above.

Although there is an otherworldly and spiritual aspect to the design, “a bird being released from a child’s hand” does not come immediately to mind because the overall effect is not so innocent. The pointed spires on the outside of the structure have an intimidating presence. It feels dangerous and prehistoric, like a Venus Fly Trap waiting to snap. The building’s ominous skeleton gives way to a sleek and welcoming interior wherein aggressive angles surrender themselves to delicate curves. The exterior feels a bit like armor, seemingly telling its visitors: “only those who have a reason to enter this building should attempt to come inside.”

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New Yorkers usually love anything new, but this structure is an interesting addition to a freshly vibrant— albeit controversial— neighborhood. Locals have already complained that other recent additions to the neighborhood feel “too new.” Places like the new Brookfield Place shopping center in Battery Park (which, incidentally provides beautiful views of both The Oculus and One World Trade from across the West Side Highway) have been seen as overtly gentrified. Those who aren’t in favor of this change claim the redesigned neighborhood doesn’t feel like “the real New York City.”

With a $3.9 billion price tag, the WTC transit center has been called “the world’s most expensive transportation hub.” There have also been major construction delays. In an already conflicted environment, the unique circumstances surrounding this building and the interesting design of The Oculus has no doubt raised a few additional eyebrows. There is also the question of what it means for a transportation hub to be one of the new defining markers for Ground Zero. One can’t help but be supremely aware of the tragic history ensnaring its location. Maybe there is something poetic about having a place that is an intersection of humanity mark the former site of terrorism and division. However, the recent attacks at the Maelbeek subway station and airport in Brussels have undoubtedly placed an already large spotlight on transit hubs as being emblematic of the kinds of targets sought out by terrorists. With all of these factors surrounding this dramatic and peculiar structure, one thing is for sure: indicative of its name, The Oculus is eye opening.

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All photographs by Jason Eldredge.