The Oculus of New York: history and specifications of a new icon

A new icon, the symbol of the city’s rebirth: this is how Calatrava’s Oculus came about.

The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Center, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, Grand Central Terminal: New York is undoubtedly a city filled with attractions for architecture enthusiasts. And the architectural appeal of this city continues to grow and evolve with the construction of major new buildings, such as One Manhattan West and other new skyscrapers ready to reshape the New York skyline. One of the buildings that has most intrigued visitors and New Yorkers alike in recent year has indubitably been the Oculus, that is, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. Let’s consider the history and specifications of this highly original structure, designed by Santiago Calatrava.

The history of the Oculus of New York

This structure, with its decidedly extravagant shape, is a major transport hub of the city and is located underground between towers 2 and 3 of the World Trade Center. Together with other buildings in the district, the Oculus represents the city’s rebirth after the tragic attacks on September 11, 2001 and has a very long and interesting history.

On the site where the Oculus now stands, a station called the Hudson Terminal was built in 1909, which remained in operation until the sixties, when work began on the building complex of the World Trade Center and a new WTC Station took the place of the Hudson Terminal. After that was destroyed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the station operated from a temporary structure until the go-ahead was given for the construction of the Oculus: Santiago Calatrava presented the design for the winged structure in 2004 and construction got underway officially in 2008. It was first partially opened to the public and commuters in 2016.

Calatrava’s Oculus

Reportedly one of the most costly railway stations in the whole world, the Oculus is certainly stunning. Most of the building is underground and laid out in an elliptical plan. The exterior of this Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) station has two large arches extending proudly and boldly upwards, recalling the two wings of a phoenix. This proud vision, due in part to its white colour, came to effectively symbolise New York’s rebirth after the tragic events at the start of the millennium. The two arches soar around 164 feet above the ground.

If the exterior is striking, the interior is even more appealing. The interior area of nearly 800,000 square feet is majestically illuminated by zenithal light, a peculiar feature of this building that gives meaning to the entire design. Indeed, the model for the construction of the Oculus is said to have been the Pantheon in Rome and, specifically, its oculus, which gave the station its name. But while the oculus in the building commissioned by Hadrian is round, in Calatrava’s Hub there is a long, narrow, glazed keystone, placed in the middle of the two wings like a spine.

From the outset, the design attracted extremely positive feedback, including approval of the symbolic meaning that the Spanish architect and the whole of New York city attributed to the new World Trade Center station. Major architecture critics like Herbert Muschamp and Michael Kimmelman, for example, emphasised the spiritual dimension of the emerging structure.

It must be said, however, that the Pantheon in Rome was not Calatrava’s only model. Another important reference is said to have been the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II of Milan, which inspired the architect to conceive and design the urban space in a different way: the architect’s intention was to make those who use the Hub feel protected but, at the same time, an active part of New York’s civil fabric.

The Oculus of New York and the Italian firm Cimolai

Calatrava’s architectural references were not the only evidence of Italian influence. On the contrary: most of the structure of the Oculus of New York was Italian-made, in Pordenone to be precise.

The metal structure of the Oculus was made by the structural steel producer Cimolai, founded in 1949 by Armando Cimolai and currently headed by Luigi Cimolai. Each individual piece of the imposing structure was made in Italy and then transported to New York by ship. Cimolai is by no means new to this kind of international undertaking: the major projects carried out by the Pordenone company include, for example, the stadiums of Athens and Cardiff, the Mo.S.E. flood barrier in Venice, The Vessel and many other innovative structures.

Negative criticism of Calatrava’s Oculus

New York’s Oculus has certainly not escaped negative criticism. For example, there was controversy over the cost of constructing the new World Trade Center station, double the original estimates and touching 4 billion dollars. Many began to talk about an excessive waste of public funds for a work that had already undergone long delays. The extravagance of the exterior  attracted direct criticism of the building’s appearance, too heavy for some and far from the ideal of lightness that the two wings were intended to convey.

Some highly technical errors were then reported, such as, for example, the narrow width of the stairs, which would be inadequate to accommodate the flow of commuters during the rush hour. It was then claimed that the white marble used for the floors could be slippery in bad weather and so would be unsafe for the station’s users.

Indeed, it is hard to find works by Santiago Calatrava that are entirely free of negative criticisms or doubts: his buildings have often been controversial. One example is Venice’s Ponte della Constituzione which, exposed to the typical humidity of the lagoon, soon became extremely slippery. Another is the criticism levelled at the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (The City of Arts and Sciences) built in Valencia, his native city.

Despite the inevitable criticism, the Oculus is certainly a fascinating building that is certainly worth a visit during a tour of New York. In any event, many are obliged to pass through it since it is the fundamental hub of urban mobility between Lower Manhattan and all the city’s other districts.