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

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.” 

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