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Oculus: the white wings of the World Trade Center. Architectural gem, humble purpose.

What is skeleton-like building doing in the middle of the World Trade Center complex? And what does the boy with a dove has to do with it? Let me tell you the whole story:

Socialist view:

When you think about your favorite places from childhood, what are the places that come to your mind? Out of many that come to my mind, one is the strongest - the bus station in my hometown. I was born and raised in Former Yugoslavia, Serbia to be precise. I love my home country but socialism had a great influence on the architecture of everything back home. No matter if it is a hospital, bus station, or kiosk, it all needed to remember you of the strict socialist rules that you were expected to follow. There was not too much creativity aspect or beauty placed in the surrounding. It all had only one purpose - functionality. Materials used were always the same, shapes were used already dozens of times, and forms were usually cubic and cold. Modern materials started to emerge in the late 90’ or even early 2000. In some parts of the country, in small amounts due to poverty that struck after the war. So, as a child, I was always wondering, how did all of these places looked like when they were new? And how will they look when I get older?

Only when I started traveling it came as a shock to me to see that architecture can have its beautiful side as well. It can have stunning shapes and free forms that are there to amuse you.  Now, think about my surprise when I found out that the Oculus is the entrance into the subway station... Not only that the architect created the miracle, but he implemented such great functionality that entering this great place will leave you speechless…

Let me show you The Oculus:

What is Oculus and where is it?

Oculus is a Transportation Hub built-in lower Manhattan as a part of the World Trade Center building complex. It serves the purpose of the main transiting subway station enriched with the market area reserved for some of the leading brands. The location itself is considered to be one of the most important in the Financial districts for more than a century. The Oculus continued the tradition of grandiose stations, since in this place in 1909. was Hudson Terminal, itself a construction miracle of the time, and later on, in the ’70s there was a station of great importance for the commuters.

Structures inspired by living organisms

The Oculus was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Calatrava is an architect, structural engineer, sculptor, and painter, particularly known for his bridges supported by single leaning pylons, and his railway stations, stadiums, and museums. Calatrava’s sculptural forms often resemble living organisms.

The eternal message of peace and grace

Historically the symbol of peace was always a dove. Doves appear in the symbolism of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Paganism, and of both military and pacifist groups. Since the construction of Oculus was triggered by the 9/11 destruction of the previous station that was there, the architect wanted to send the message of peace. Calatrava wanted to embody the abstract form and he did it! The form of the Oculus building represents a bird released from the child's hand. How cool is that? Originally, there was an idea of the external feather-like arches to move and get the effect a flying bird. The plan was changed due to the expenses of the project.

The emotional boost of the surrounding

When I was facing the Oculus for the first time, it was during the winter season. I was in the neighborhood visiting the Charging bull of Wall Street and I always wanted to see this miraculous, architectural state of the art. I was approaching the building on a cold but sunny day and the first thing that took my breath away was the arches that were rising high above the ground, cutting the cold winter air and wind. The whole area surrounding Oculus is very monumental and gives a feeling of respect and sorrow due to the overwhelming 9/11 memorial that is right next to the Oculus. You see all of the surrounding buildings reflecting the glass surface of the Oculus which leaves you the feeling of the future and how buildings in the times to come could look like.

As I was approaching the station, the white surface of the skeleton-looking building was reflecting sunlight and weirdly felt so inviting and welcoming. The outside of the structure stuns you by it’s, on first look, fragile construction. You almost feel that this building won't survive a stronger wind… That gives a special excitement to the observer. The physics of the building is the real wonder here! This really shaken my socialist brain when I saw it for the first time. It was like: wait, no cubes? No red color? :)

Magical entrance:

While approaching the doors to enter the building, you almost feel sorry for leaving the view of the Oculus outside. But, only when you enter the building, the real roller coaster starts. From the outside, Oculus doesn’t seem like a big space. This makes the entering surprise even bigger. When you step inside the building the illusion of the small space is burst. Oculus is actually huge inside! The main space is underground and that is where you understand that the external construction is just a small cap of the big space. At 800,000 square feet, this space features a mezzanine, retail space, and access to the station’s four underground platforms.  Mezzanine on which you are standing once you enter gives you a wide picture of the space filled with bright natural light. Tons of bright light! Even the architect himself recommends that you see Oculus when the sky is completely clear. After hours of enjoying the wonderful space, it was time for the subway ride, so we left the great hall and entered the subway platforms.

Controversy and scandals during the construction:

So, the beauty of the building and all of the architectural wonders kind of fell behind the shade of many scandals that were happening during the construction. What happened was: exceeding both the budget and the deadline for the construction. The original budget for the building was around two billion dollars, it ended up nearly double the amount. Yes! 4 billion dollars… Which made this project so overpriced that the media, along with the New Yorkers, were furious to find out the figures in the end. All of that would be maybe forgiven if there wasn’t one more thing: The deadline for the opening was delayed eight years. It took over ten years for Oculus to be finished. By the time when it was done and the date of the opening released, almost none of the press wanted to report on the opening… Very sad but there's nothing left but to agree with the public. For the New York public, it ended up being just the overpriced subway station.

However, I would be very happy if we can all stay focused on the beauty and the elegance that this architectural marble is reflecting. Maybe it is just a hint of the future architecture that in the future will be done with more strategic planning.

In the end, it is just a “child releasing a dove”.

#oculus #newyorkcity #architecture

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