The Real Deal New York

Church near WTC a Calatrava classic: Architecture review

Design for Saint Nicholas an inspired piece of work
By James Gardner | November 08, 2014 05:00PM

Ground was recently broken on what will probably prove to be one of the more unusual structures in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, relatively little attention was paid to the destruction of a small house of worship, Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, housed in a four story structure just off the WTC site.

Now the church it is being rebuilt, far grander than before, on land once occupied by the Deutsche Bank building, immediately to the south of the 9/11 Memorial. The project’s architect its one of the most inspired of the current generation, Santiago Calatrava, whose highly promising transit hub is approaching completion only a few hundred feet away.

Calatrava is a true poet among architects. The four buildings that are completed or in progress on the site (including 7 World Trade Center) feature dominant aesthetic, with relentless straight lines and refusal to accommodate a single curve. The designs give the building a somber, grown up feel.

Calatrava, on the other hand, has always taken a cue from nature. His transit hub is supposed to suggest a bird in flight, though it’s probably more apt to say it suggests the spine of a dragon.

The new Saint Nicholas Church, for its part, resembles a pumpkin sitting in a box, not entirely unlike Nicholas Grimshaw’s nearby Fulton Street station. But Calatrava’s transit hub is not all about originality. The gourd-like shape of the church reproduces the language of traditional Orthodox architecture for the past ten centuries, an architecture that is itself based in ancient Roman traditions.

The dome will be formed from 40 ribs, repeating the number to be found at Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s great church in Constantinople. Each corner will be fortified by an imposing masonry pylon.

The renderings that have been released to the public are of somewhat abstract and not a precise depiction of the building. Will the egg-shell pallor and fragility of the renderings be carried over to the actual building? If it is truly illuminated from within and without, as those renderings suggest, it will be yet one more testament to Calatrava’s pre-eminence among living architects.