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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Tacky Shops Redeem the Barren Oculus

Cities New York City

The Port Authority spent nearly $4 billion on its marble and steel “Oculus” train station downtown, because it wanted the post-9/11 rebuilding project to be an architectural triumph. It . . . wasn’t. Now, the PA has let its retail partner clutter the space up with plasterboard storefronts and plastic snowpeople. That is a triumph, though.

After 9/11, the PA commissioned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to make something big downtown. He sure did. In 2004, the Port Authority said the transit hub’s vast “grand pavilion” with its painted steel ribs would “evoke a cathedral.”

All early renderings showed a vision of people overwhelmed and awed by the sheer reflective expanse of white and bright light in the empty hall, appreciating a new “dignity and beauty,” in Calatrava’s phrase.

New York would have “a kind of public space it has not previously enjoyed.” We may as well enjoy something, because the money didn’t increase train capacity anywhere.

The train hub finally opened last year — and it turned out that a huge, empty white train hall was boring and depressing, especially since it’s usually not even crowded.

Last year, Westfield, the company that runs the upscale shopping that rings the hall and also has the right to decorate the hall itself, took some criticism for not putting up Christmas decorations, with one store manager telling The Post that it was “super sterile.”

This year, Westfield gleefully put up all the decorations. It’s got classic garlands up along the balconies, which might be tasteful — if they didn’t overlook a ribby fake Christmas tree in the main hall that’s a silly little riff on the Oculus’s itself. The plastic tree is flanked by plastic snow characters and paper cut-outs of traditional New York scenes, like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, for picture-taking against fake backdrops.

It’s all part of a “village” of pre-fab disposable pop-up stores in the middle of the main hall, where you can (at certain times) make Christmas ornaments and watch carolers sing. The village isn’t self-supporting; it’s governed by the heavy hand of Chase, which wants you to use their mobile app to pay for stuff.

This is all insultingly contrary to Calatrava’s original vision, and it’s hard to call it dignified or beautiful. It also seems to be partly creative desperation on Westfield’s part, as few people go into the actual, permanent mall stores.

But somehow, it works.

Downtown residents and workers, whether they were there for 9/11 or not, have spent more than 16 years walking by memorials, police barriers and construction sites. They’ve heard how the worlds of government and architecture were going to build something sufficiently solemn and grandiose to mark the ever-present loss and grief.

Despite a lot of effort and money, though, government planners and architects recreated many of the same problems people complained about at the old World Trade Center: non-intuitive pathways and layouts, and towers still cut off from the surrounding neighborhood.

The Oculus’s official retail space is roomy, like a suburban mall. The temporary “village” set-up is an admission that people prefer to cluster in denser urban space. The world of commerce giving all this seriousness and self-importance a gentle poke in the eye brings some badly needed flexibility, self-deprecation and sense of humor to the World Trade Center “master plan” where there has never been much.

It’s not all that fun to figure out how, exactly, walking through the Oculus, you’re supposed to feel about all these top-down efforts to make you feel a certain way. It’s amusing, by contrast, to walk by a plastic tree that makes a little fun of all of that.

It’s also a reminder that the city is adaptable: If a blank “cathedral” isn’t quite working for us, we’ll add some snowy characters and crass advertisement and see what does.

Calatrava once said he hoped his transit space would be a “lamp of hope” for downtown. After years of delays and changes to his design, he later said he’d been “treated like a dog.”

But he may have not been so wrong the first time, just not in the way he intended. With the money already spent and the time already wasted, people may as well smile a bit as they walk to their trains.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post