A Long Chat With Santiago Calatrava on What Train Stations Mean to Cities

“I love Grand Central, but I think our station is even more urban,” says the architect behind New York’s new $4 billion transit hub.

Image REUTERS/Mike Segar
Men work on a portion of the retractable roof of the Oculus structure of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in Manhattan, March 1, 2016. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub opened Thursday in Lower Manhattan. It’s basically a light rail station that connects riders to ferries, subway lines, and office towers through a shopping center (which will open later this year), anchored by a public area with a stunning glass and steel roof called the “Oculus.” All for the cost of $4 billion.

The price is still the most notable fact about the hub—something that clearly bothers the architect, who has been giving interviews and tours of his first U.S. transportation project in recent weeks in hopes of assuring everyone that what he has made for New York is indeed worth it.

It’s hard to justify the $4 billion spent. Custom-imported steel and marble floors aside, the high price does not rest much on the architect. A New York Times report in 2014 noted that administrative costs alone had exceeded $655 million. Besides the engineering complications of the project, Calatrava tells CityLab that he “proposed solutions but there were administrative issues and cost estimates that were the responsibility of others.”

Compared to the new skyscrapers around it that can feel cold to strangers, Calatrava’s hub begs you to come inside, where its curved steel and manipulation of sunlight make for a rewarding architectural experience. From the outside, its steel ribs poke out to announce itself from blocks away in multiple directions—a helpful gesture for disoriented pedestrians.

The Spanish-born architect has had the rare luck of designing seven of train stations in his career. Looking through his portfolio, you can’t help but wish his work had more aesthetic range, or that it all had the edge of his earliest efforts. What he’s built for Manhattan doesn’t veer too far from recent projects in Milwaukee or Valencia. At the same time, it’s an earnest attempt to honor those who perished on 9/11 while showing his admiration for Grand Central and the works of Eero Saarinen.

CityLab caught up with Calatrava at his office last month, and again inside the Oculus during a media tour earlier this week, to discuss some of his first transit stations, how they influenced his current thinking, and the experience of building New York’s most recent and expensive public space.

Talk about your first ever station: Stadelhofen, in Zurich.

Stadelhofen is important to me because it’s my first commission. Also, I spent over eight years on the project, so it was a full immersion in the world of railways with all the possible difficulties. It was a building in the city with trains passing through and with houses so close to the train that we had to work around them.

The Stadelhofen station in Zurich. (Flickr/Santiago Hernández)

There are several aspects to Stadelhofen, but one of the most important aspects is the terrain. The terrain is very different from the lake to the station than from the station up to the hill, and the frontier is marked by Stadelhofen. The city is very different on both sides of the train station. Down below, you have the dense city that is slowly becoming a very important area of Zurich: there’s Bellevue, the opera, there’s the whole area of Seefeld. There’s also the area around the hill that has been developed. There are a lot of schools there and the university.

There were a lot of technical challenges coming from the fact that there was housing there. We had to keep all the services running and let the train go around the site. Not being an enormous station, it took us eight years to finish. It has also activated commerce around it and it’s on its way to becoming the second most frequented station in all of Switzerland after once being fourth or fifth. Now, it’s really another point out of the central station and in a crucial area where a lot of people are working, where the university and the schools are, and it’s so close to the lake. It’s an area that is very alive because it’s almost the center of the life of Zurich.

I think we won the competition because our response was very precise to the place. It’s now a little over 20 years old and it’s already been awarded the status of [Swiss Inventory of Cultural Property of] National Significance. It means the people like it and it works well. It’s not a pretentious station. It was done with a very modest budget, something like 48 million Swiss Francs, which at the time would be $50 million. It was a precise answer for a very precise part of Zurich.

You were working on another Swiss rail station in Lucerne around the same time.

Yes. It was a collaboration with two other architects. I thought it was important to create a kind of portico towards the city. Behind it, there is a hotel which runs parallel. The pieces are interesting in relation to each other and the people. The portico brings the real scale of the station to the top of the building, creating an intermediary element which, being closer to the people, represents the real station.

The Lucerne Railway Station. (Port(u*o)s)

It has a minimalist character like the rest of the building. My colleagues solved the problems of the trains, but my thought was to just introduce a piece that links the trains with the city. To be something that everyone can tell that this is a station. To make it open, clean, and a place for gathering. All the questions of transparency, accessibility, and gathering were [addressed] there. Very different from Stadelhofen, which very much related to the place. It cannot be repeated.

Moving away from your urban projects, what’s different about your Lyon-St. Exupery Airport station?

The French were developing their high-speed system. They wanted a route like Paris-Marseilles, which is something like 800 kilometers, as fast as possible to compete with airplanes. So they decided to do stations from airport to airport, because then they can go the entire route at full speed and even traverse the station in high speed.

The first time they did this was for the Lyon-St. Exupery. I won the competition around the time I was finishing Stadelhofen. It was a pure HSR station built from scratch, and then we later added a secondary station for the regional train. The ambition of the HSR at the time in Europe was to get from Rome to London in around six hours. Right now they’re finishing the tunnel which goes through the Alps and arrives in Lyon at our station. This will reduce the time to Milan, when everything is done, to 1.5 hours.

The Lyon-St.Exupery Station. (Flickr/KG69France)

For Lyon, it was the Roman capital of Gaul, so they’ve grown with a sense that they’re still kind of a capital city. They decided to do a really beautiful station and the regional government was eager to have something symbolic … . I wanted to do a shallow building integrated into the landscape. The train is also passing it entrenched in a cut in the ground, so you almost don’t see the trains as you’re approaching the station. So I did very shallow vaults and I did a roof with two symmetrical wings and a high ceiling.

It’s not in the city, so it [works as] the centerpiece of development around the airport. The station is a feature devoted to the train, a symbol like a gate to the region and a landmark of the airport.

You took on a multi-modal project in Lisbon in the ‘90s in a massive urban redevelopment zone. How did that project come together?

My idea was not a station on top of the hill but over a bridge on the axis of the bus station and the subway station. It was, at the time, the largest multi-modal platform in Europe. There was a street called Avenida de Berlim that was not in the axis of the bus station so we we proposed a new [Via Reciproca] running [along side of] Avenida de Berlim towards the bridge.

The Oriente Station. (Flickr/Chris Bentley)

By moving the street, we could then create a plaza in front of the multi-modal platform and link it with the new development of the Expo by two bridges. So we created a new order: the busses are on the ground floor, the trains are the upper floor over the bridge, and the subway is underground. It’s very logical. It’s very easy to orient, which is the key in those very complex situations where you have to offer a very logical and tranquil way to go from [transit mode to transit mode]. You go up from the subway and you arrive to the bus. Then up above are the trains.

Before Expo, the area was a former oil refinery. When you walked around there was grass up to [your chest]. In a decade, it became a really beautiful part of the city right along the river. There’s also a shopping mall, sports facilities, complimentary things around it. Workdays and weekends, it’s full. Oriente Station shows how important multi-modality is for cities. It’s maybe one of the most radical city-related interventions we have ever done from scratch.

What have you learned from these projects in Europe, and how have they been implemented into your design for Lower Manhattan?

Stations are mottos of the city, but we have to reinvent them. I’m doing my seventh train station now [in Mons], which is my second in Belgium. There, we’re having a sculpture exhibition in the station of some 60 or 70 works of Salvador Dali. Even the museum has a display for art inside the station.

In Europe, you don’t always go to a station to catch a train. Maybe you make an appointment to meet with someone at a restaurant inside. Inside our station here, where we have the towers [feeding into] all the retail. It will be an enormous anchor for the current neighbors and the future development of Lower Manhattan. I love Grand Central, but I think our station is even more urban.

The interior of the Oculus structure of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub is pictured during a media tour of the site in the Manhattan borough of New York City, March 1, 2016. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

It flows in a much more subtle way. It travels through the Fulton corridor until the subway station on Broadway. It travels under Towers 3 and 4, with Liberty Plaza on the way to Wall Street. It is present for the visitors to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It’s really much more than a station. It’s a piece of city that we’ve tried since day one to make so that when you walk in you don’t feel like you’re walking underground, but in the city. You’re in a New York network of movement with daily life, and you see the city from the roof. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a fantastic urban feature. Our central hall should have a similar character, where people can sit, walk through or shop.

I came into this having already designed five stations with a range of needs from something as simple as an entrance to new high-speed rail, or fitting into an urban setting. So I thought that this station can become so much more that just a station. So the first thing I proposed was this attached station from the building and let the station become an autonomous building. We’ll never compete with the cultural center or the towers or St. Paul’s. So I said, attach it and put it in the center of a block of Manhattan. And in the middle of them I will put my station and have a plaza around it … . So let’s do a single element standing by itself. St. Paul has character with a central bell tower and garden behind it. Other buildings have character around it, too, so let’s give a sense of symbolism to [the station].

What do you want users to really notice or experience most?

One of the big satisfactions you have doing a station is that it’s genuinely a public place. Everyone can go there. You don’t pay to go in and enjoy it. For an anonymous person who lives modestly and takes the train every day for work, they will have five or 10 minutes inside our project that tells them, “this building is here for you.”

If I’ve learned that from any one place, it’s Grand Central. It’s a civic monument and I wanted to emulate that with this project. It is a gift for New York and New Jersey, tourists, workers, and neighbors. If you look at European railway stations, they have very beautiful spaces, like St. Pancras or Milano Centrale or all the stations in Paris. You have these enormous ceilings, originally because of the steam of the train engines like in the Monet painting, “La Gare St-Lazare,” with the blues and grays and whites coming from the engines. If you look at Grand Central or old Penn Station, they also have enormous ceilings. They’re American civic monuments.

With Grand Central, they have created this very generous space, and today, 100 years later, the same space is serving almost 500,000 compared to 38,000 when it first opened. When I go there I am moved, really, and I’m grateful to the architects.

We will not be able to see it, but 100 years from now we’ll have precipitated the development of Lower Manhattan. It’s necessary to have a lot of faith in these things because people move according to a city’s transportation system. When they opened Grand Central none of the skyscrapers there now had been built yet—Chrysler, Seagrams, Empire State Building. If you look for the center of gravity around these towers, it’s Grand Central. It precipitated the development of this area. I believe my station is going to be like that for Lower Manhattan.

You mentioned your affinity for Grand Central, but if the inside of your World Center Hub resembles any New York transit building, it’s Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center.

I was fascinated by his work as a student. The TWA terminal is a masterpiece and a symbol of the ‘60s. With Dulles Airport, his building still works after multiple expansions. There, you have the frontal typology—a long structure that is the wall that leads to the airplane. Here, with my building, I have the wall that leads to the city.

He produced buildings that have a poetic side to them while also giving a new vision of how structures be expressive. People have not had to replace Saarinen’s buildings with something different. They’re still contemporary. I never try to copy him but I want to honor his name and his memory because he was a great, great architect.

Santiago Calatrava answers questions during a media tour of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub on March 1, 2016. (Mark Byrnes / CityLab)

You mention how Stadelhofen turned out to be such an affordable project despite site complications. Why did the World Trade Center project end up being so expensive?

Well, the World Trade Center project is so much bigger than Stadelhofen, and much more difficult. Also, Stadelhofen is just a pure train station, and in the case of World Trade, we have provided the underground connections for all the towers. Also, we did a new 1 [train] subway line passing through the site. We are very far from being a station that’s only about trains. The base for the towers connects to the station, which connects the workers to the shops. People who aren’t just catching a train are circulating around and it’s revitalizing. There’s no comparison.

I am responsible for the project, including a big part of the engineering—I do the engineering work for all of my stations. Here, I’ve done a lot of work with the steel and with the underpinning of the 1 [train]. I proposed solutions but there were administrative issues and cost estimates that were the responsibility of others. That’s the reality. But it’s important to underline that it’s an enormous project and also has already delivered support to the buildings that are in place including the memorial and the memorial garden.

Safe to say this has been your most challenging project?

Yes. It’s the most challenging project I have ever done.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction: Due to a transcription error, a previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Calatrava’s second Belgian station is in Liege. It is in Mons.

About the Author