Santiago Calatrava Explains the Transformation of Lower Manhattan 20 Years After 9/11

By Nick Mafi for Architectural Digest

An aerial view looking south over lower Manhattan. Photo: Getty Images/Harald Nachtmann

In an exclusive conversation with AD, the world-renowned architect discusses his inspiration for designing the Oculus and the soon-to-be completed Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church

On September 11, 2001, architect Santiago Calatrava was in Athens designing the 2004 Olympic Stadium. At that time, Calatrava had already created some of the world’s most renowned structures. But on that day, the multi-hyphenated architect was like the rest of us, horrified at what he saw developing on the television screen. “From my hotel [in Athens] I could see the Parthenon,” Calatrava notes. “That too was destroyed but built back in a spectacular way. I knew the same could happen in New York.

Smoke rises from the site of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. Photo: Getty Images

As it turned out, Calatrava would play a vital role in rebuilding lower Manhattan. In early 2004, while presenting his proposal for a new transportation hub for the World Trade Center (later dubbed the Oculus), Calatrava drew a child releasing a bird from its hands. This was meant to convey his radical design, in which a pair of glass-and-steel canopies arch over the sidewalks of lower Manhattan, much like a phoenix rising from the ashes. (Later, in 2005, at the official ground-breaking of the Oculus, Calatrava’s daughter Sofia, released a pair of doves over the site).

Looking at the Oculus from the side, it’s easy to see how it resembles a bird in flight. Calatrava wanted represent the rebirth of lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Photo: Getty Images/Massimo Borchi

Completed in 2016, the World Trade Center’s Oculus (a transit hub connecting 12 subway lines) is one of many new structures built in the wake of the September 11 attacks. But for the 70-year old architect, all of the structures in the sacred space pay homage to one design that he played no part in creating. “For me, everything starts with the two reflection pools, which are one of my favorite designs. It’s such a brilliant use of water, of meditation, of a physical touch for the victims’ names to be etched in the memorial.” Calatrava was referring to architect Michael Arad’s design of Reflecting Absence, two 1-acre pools comprising the original footprints of the Twin Towers. The design not only symbolizes the loss of life and the physical void left by the attacks, but the waterfalls are also intended to mute the intruding sounds of the city. “So while the reflection pools use the natural element of water, with the Oculus, I wanted to use the light as an immaterial to enhance the material. If the reflection pools are a remembrance of the past, it was my intention for the Oculus to lean into the future, to have an optimism for the future.

On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Santiago Calatrava stands before the World Trade Center Transportation hub (also known as the Oculus). Photo: Lizzie Soufleris

In the years since Calatrava’s Oculus was conceived, and then built, the skyline around it was also changed. To the south of the World Trade Center site, Rafael Viñoly’s 125 Greenwich Street has sprung up some 912 feet. To the east, David Adjaye’s 130 William casts an 800-foot shadow over those buildings beneath it. For Calatrava, this was all part of his plan. “The American skyline is a reflection of the American imagination. The skyscrapers around the Oculus will continue to go up and, as time goes on, will likely become even taller. But with the transit hub, I wanted to humanize it. I wanted to have a dialogue with those skyscrapers around it, but in a way that’s much more accessible for the public,” the architect says.

Standing outside the Oculus, Calatrava (right) explains how he designed the spaces on such a solemn site. Photo: Lizzie Soufleris

Among the final plans yet to be realized in the World Trade Center site is Calatrava’s Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Located on the southeastern tip of the plot, the church (which goes by the formal name of Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine) will likely be completed in 2022. It was designed to replace the existing Greek Orthodox Church, which was located in the shadow of the original Twin Towers and completely destroyed on 9/11.

In designing the church on the southeastern tip of the World Trade Center site, Calatrava (left) was inspired by frescos he’d seen in the Hagia Sophia. Photo: Lizzie Soufleris

The structure will be for the current and future generation of New Yorkers to use as a type of sanctuary, but its inspiration came from a previous epoch. “The design came from a fresco I saw in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul,” Calatrava explains. “You know, it’s similar to this. After Picasso visited the Lascaux caves in France, he turned to his guide and said, ‘They’ve invented everything,’” Calatrava says, hinting at how the famous Spanish artist once argued that while a canvas may be blank, it is never void.

Fresco that initially inspired Calatrava for his design and a series of watercolors by the architect portraying a metamorphosis of the figure of Mary as Throne of Wisdom (Sedes Sapientiae) into his design for the church

I saw the image and altered it many times in a series of sketches and arrived to what you see now.” What we see now is the skeleton of a church, but the structure already shows a promise of something special. The exterior is clad in thin sheets of marble. “I used these materials to create a sense of permanence. Of strength.” For Calatrava, architecture—much like painting and writing—is an on-going conversation with previous generations. “[Architecture] is a form of language, an ongoing discussion with the past and a glimpse of what the future will be.

Construction still continues outside of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in lower Manhattan. Photo: Lizzie Soufleris

So, how does the church’s dialogue connect with the other spaces on the World Trade Center plot? Calatrava has that conversation planned out. “Inside of the church, there will be spaces for reflection where candles can be lit. So where the reflection pools use water, and the Oculus uses light, a third primal element will be in this space. Here we will have fire.

Go back