Concourse World Trade Centre

Back in New York for a visit after four years away, I was taken to see the Oculus, Ground Zero’s most distinctive new building. The World Trade Center transportation hub designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

This colossal building is a colossal waste of a colossal sum of money; four billion dollars. I cannot describe it better than by quoting Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books:

“What was originally likened by its creator to a fluttering Paloma de la Paz (Dove of Peace) because of its white, winglike, upwardly flaring roofline seems more like a steroidal stegosaurus that wandered on to the set of a sci-fi flick, and died there.”

It’s possible these jutting white ribs would be effective if you came upon them in the middle of a huge empty space, a desert or a prairie. Sandwiched between skyscrapers they are simply bizarre and absurd, even more so because there was not sufficient room for the full sweep of the roof, so at the back entrance where one side of the roof is suddenly truncated, the bird, even if you can imagine one, is broken winged and made me think of an injured gull about to leave its usual calling card.

I wondered, too, if this strange design was in part planned or chosen because of the stories once circulating that a mosque might be built at Ground Zero and therefore, something as unlike a dome as possible was wanted. That at least it is, and the vast interior is arched, not domed. It is an impressive space but just that; big interior spaces are impressive by definition. However, its blank whiteness soon dulls the imagination and even sooner when you take in the fact that this is another cathedral to shopping, another big-name mall.

My architect brother-in-law pointed out that the snowy marble floors are already developing stains and cracks and worse, lead without warning to a staircase with no rails. The rails at the far side, put in later when the danger became obvious, are clearly not sufficient. Nor is there outside the building any indication, or inside any celebration, that this is a transport hub, a glorified subway station. Tourism and shopping is all.

What a relief, after that, to revisit Grand Central, whose beautiful functional interior still somehow holds the excitement of travel, the sense of a great Continent beyond, and still, after all these years, takes my breath away.

Frances Oliver, Book Editor

Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 pp 27-28

34 thoughts on “Still A No-Fly Zone

  1. This beautiful article shouldn’t stop here; it needs to be read by a larger public, not just by 12,000 paltry readers a month that you have here. All New Yorkers, all Americans and people overseas should be able to read what Frances Oliver wrote, as everyone was touched by 9/11 in one way or another. Our lives have changed radically since that day. It is shameful what they have done to Ground Zero – even a mosque would have been better than a shopping center, at least as a place to remember what happened there.

    I suggest we all circulate this article, in all the social media, to our friends, to our colleagues and most of all to our governments. Whoever can re-publish this (obviously asking for permission) please do so, so this very striking piece can be widely read.

    1. Alan,
      I totally agree with you and am sending the article to my contacts now. However, I don’t think a mosque was appropriate either.
      Kind regards,

    2. Alan and anyone else who reads New Art Examiner are all invited to the first of a series of placard events in front of the Oculus asking that an anti-war museum of art replace the stores. Mark your calendars for Saturday, May 26 at noon. Be sure to bring your own placard.

      1. Hi Paul,
        Is any particular group organizing this? What’s the wording for the banners we bring?

      2. From the rules on demonstration activities in New York published by the New York Civil Liberties Union it looks like we’re ok to protest in front of the Oculus, just as long as we don’t use amplified sound:

        “New Yorkers have the right to engage in peaceful, protest activity on public sidewalks, in public parks and on public streets in New York City. This includes the right to distribute handbills or leaflets; the right to hold press conferences, demonstrations and rallies; and the right to march on public sidewalks and in public streets…..If you want to distribute handbills on a public sidewalk or in a public park; have a demonstration, rally or press conference on a public sidewalk; or march on a public sidewalk and you do not intend to use amplified sound, you do not need any permit.”

  2. A cathedral to shopping; as we are faithless today, that is all we are able to do – shop and then shop.

  3. Perhaps with all that money, $4 billion, they could have built a colossal anti-war museum of art.

    1. Sasha, I like your idea.
      What if the stores were removed and the place done over as an anti-war museum of art? Art instead of stores!
      I can’t understand why the people of New York didn’t protest this lack of respect for those who lost their lives there and afterwards of cancer from the dust. Their city was bombed, their monumental buildings were destroyed; thousands of people were killed, and what do they put in its place? A shopping center! It doesn’t make sense.

      1. Hi Park,
        People like to forget, and shopping is one of the ways Americans overcome or numb their problems. Art would come after shopping.

    2. Hi Sasha,
      I like your idea of an anti-war museum instead of a shopping center at Ground Zero. Can we start a petition? With all the thousands of readers here, maybe we create the momentum leading to something big in the social media. We need to ask for a re-use of the building space with an attached business plan for the museum and its management.

  4. I may live on another planet, but thanks to this article I learned what happened to Ground Zero. I find it a sacrilege. How could they even think of opening a mall there? I can’t understand the reasoning behind it, except for financial concerns, but even so something is wrong with a society that accepts this.

  5. Oculus is a stunning building, but misplaced at Ground Zero. It deserved a far better space, a large open space with parks surrounding it. Instead it has been cruelly debased to live its life as a shopping center and transportation link.

  6. Who can forget what they were doing when 9/11 happened? Some things are unforgettable, and this is one of them. The memory of those buildings melting down and the people trapped inside is indelible in my mind and in millions of other people’s too. Perhaps who made the decision to allow stores to open believes it is better that we forget that day, that we forget the past. It’s the lifestyle of materialism today that cares little for history, or culture in general.
    I wonder how a magazine like New Art Examiner can have so many readers who care about art. I see on the map readers from Kenya, Japan, Lebanon, Greece, Russia, Iran, Israel, Palestine, France, the UK, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Canada, Peru, Norway, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Poland, the US, Mexico, and other countries, but so many the world over. It makes me realize that in art we are united and that cultural and political differences are of little importance, at least in this sphere.

  7. Hi Frances,
    There is something truly awesome about Grand Central Terminal, one of the world’s most beautiful train stations. The philosophy behind its construction was: “people who come to New York should enter a palace on the end of their ride, and not a shed.” (Real Estate Record and Guide, June 5, 1869) What was the philosophy behind the building of the Oculus? Thinking of the Grand Central’s lasting beauty has made me wonder how the Oculus will look in one hundred years. Will its “beauty” survive?

    1. Hi Steve,
      Here’s the philosophy of the Oculus, according to its architect, Santiago Caltrava.
      “The combination of natural light and sculptural form give dignity and beauty to the building’s lower levels and pedestrian walkways, and provide New York City with a kind of public space it has not previously enjoyed.” It does have lots of natural light and has some sort of sculptural form (all sculptures have a form), though I’m not so sure where the dignity and beauty come in, and definitely disagree and find presumptuous that it provides “New York City with a kind of public space it has not previously enjoyed.”

    2. I was a 7 year old child the first time that I went to the Grand Central Station, and it left a profound impression on me for its grandeur. Will the Oculus leave such an impression on a child or adult today who visits it? Life is made up of meaningful places; is the Oculus one of them?

  8. Why is everyone so negative here about such a beautiful building? I find it inspiring and lofty, a true work of art.

    1. Courageous Audrey, you are the only one here who so far has had the nerve to speak out and defend this monstrosity, except for Park Jin’s comment on the architect. However, I do admire you for doing so, well done! Could you however tell us why you find it so “inspiring and lofty, a true work of art.”

  9. In happening on the webpage of Psychology Today, the top of the page says, “Find a Therapist”, as though this were the normal solution to all our problems (not an artist registry, but a therapist registry). Click in your city or zip code and you will receive the names of therapists closest to where you live. Once it would have been important to know where the closest church, synagogue or other places of worship were because people believed in God and counted on his support. People knew how to pray; there was an abundance of places for prayer, but now in a godless society of agnostics and atheists many of these places have closed. We can only count on our psychiatrist in times of need, feeding our ever-growing depression or poor mental health. Poor faithless people, however now they have their Oculus, their temple to paganism and unhappiness. It is a sad society that allows a shopping center to cover the ashes of so many lives lost on 9/11; we must numb our memories to pain, to our emotions and to sadness. Shopping and therapy seem to be the only recognized solutions to our mental anguish, both costly and wasteful of our time and money. Oculus should have been an invitation to prayer, reflection and also to art as an elevation of the spirit.

    1. Thomas,
      I found your comment disturbing, giving me something to think about.
      There has always been a connection between art and religion all over the world; it’s only today that this connection seems to have been broken. Is this our downfall?
      Life has become so materialistic, so about possession of things and buying more things; even art has become another thing to buy and to show. I agree with you and some of the other comments that it would have been important to give Oculus to the artworld, for the “elevation of the spirit”, as you put it.

      1. Most organised religion has a bad press these days, as it’s been approprianted by the powers that be.

        I think people are looking for meaning in the arts that they used to seek in religion, but many of us also seek spiritual community and guidance (not instructions) on how to live according to our values.

        I have found my community and companions among Quakers, and I’m surprised more people don’t – but then Quakers tend not to evangelise or to tell people what to do. Some Quakers historically were not sympathetic to the arts, but that was at a time when art was largely for the aristocracy and some churches. Most Quakers these days recognise more fully the value of the arts for spiritual purposes and some of us can’t distinguish between our artist self and our Quaker self at all. It’s all one.

  10. This building sounds like a good fit for the purpose – a rather soulless cathedral to worship at the alter of World Trade!

    But it’s also a missed opportunity to create something more meaningful. Perhaps in due course the space could be used for other purposes, and its up to artists and people of spirit to make that happen.

  11. What a powerful message, “a soulless cathedral to worship at the alter of World Trade!” It’s very fitting that the soul of our lives has become mindless shopping; we get what we deserve: unhappiness, unrest and severe depression. However, our lives are filled with mindfulness training to take our minds off what might matter most, our souls.

    1. Hi Don and Linda,
      This is why we need to support the arts, to beautify our world and our lives. Never before has it been so difficult for an artist to emerge in the world as it is today. Art galleries have their closed circle of artists, obviously by contract and also for fear of trying anything new not approved by the established art world. Even worse are the art dealers who market their artwork as goods in a fruit and vegetable market. So often artists are disdained and scorned for just being artists, while being an artist should be looked on as a position of prestige; a creative mind is invaluable to society. Some artists inspire, but most of all they have their own vision of the world, of society, nature, politics, philosophy, war and so on that without which our world would be a poorer place. It’s already a pretty poor place! I agree with those who have written here that the Oculus should be used as an art space, but not a commercial art space, but a public one, open to all artists, and not just the selected few.

  12. The callousness of US capitalism knows no bounds, Money dominates and the Art World suffers. It is instructive that the NAE, which is a volunteer organization (though it dreams of support and access to professionalism), is able to evoke such an important conversation. 9/11 was not only a tragedy for New York; it was a tragedy of the 21st century, not to be celebrated by a shopping mall. The 29 comments posted give heart as they evidence a resistance to the downgrading of art and to the Renaissance of Banality that the US is affecting,

  13. Nothing could be less suitable than a shopping center in a building that represents a dove, designed as a symbol of peace. At least the architect has tried to give some sort of remembrance for the people who lost their lives there and for those who witnessed 9/11 in person or live on television. This inappropriate use of such a memorial is a consequence of a society whose values of materialism dominate every aspect of their lives, leaving little space for remembering what took place there that day and afterwards in other parts of the world in the months and years to come, while leaving much space for forgetting it all. Shopping as therapy or medication contributes to a generalized sense of apathy that is currently taking place in the States.
    An anti-war museum of art in place of a shopping center would have given the possibility to use art as a vehicle to visually stimulate emotions and recall memories or even to inspire a more beautiful form of therapy. However, it would have been asking too much from a society where widespread provincialism and ignorance prevails about what is really going on in other countries. Does this justify the attempted hegemony by the American government over the rest of the world?

    1. Hi Campbell, I think you are giving too much importance to the use of this building. Look at it’s amazing architecture. That alone should be enough to inspire feelings of peace, leading it to be recognized as a memorial of what happened on 9/11, irrelevant if shopping or other takes place inside this palace. Let peace prevail.

  14. Santiago Calatrava, thank you for the beautiful building you designed to commemorate the victims who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. I think that Oculus is a stunning memorial and can’t understand all the criticism here, just because a shopping center was added to the building. What really matters is that this magnificent structure that you have designed leaves in awe everyone who visits your building for the first time. It is lofty, and like a dove seems almost ready to take off, to fly.

  15. “Still a No-Fly Zone”; should it be a fly zone? Does the title imply that we should have eradicated the risks of terrorism that have assailed us since the turn of the century? The title is also very fitting with the building design of a dove, not flying in all senses.

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