A church stands in the shadow of 9/11

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The void left by the destruction of the Ground Zero buildings has been filled by a different kind of void: the vast, $4 billion Oculus lobby, which houses an efficient (if still convoluted) convergence of lines subway and train connections to downtown New York and a spacious but ghostly shopping center set among blindingly white steel bones.

It’s the work of Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava, the once-celebrated maestro of off-budget projects. He began his career with resorts such as the spectacular winged glass roof of Lyon Saint-Exupéry and the super refined Stadelhofen in Zurich. So perhaps more surprising than its whitewashed behemoth on the World Trade Center site is a much smaller, more delicate and seemingly almost unnoticed building in a corner of Liberty Park.

When Tower 2 collapsed on September 11, it took with it a small building built as a tavern but operating as a Greek Orthodox church since 1916; it was, in 2001, surrounded by a rather dilapidated parking lot. The city promised to rebuild it, and Calatrava was commissioned in 2014. The church, dedicated to St. Nicholas, opened late last year but attracted little international attention despite its architect starry and its dominant position. Yet it is worth examining because it is a rare example of a new church located on an important site with a very public function not only of worship but also of memory. It was named a national shrine, a cenotaph dedicated to the 3,000 victims of 9/11, open free to the public all day.

A priest stands before a white altar among Byzantine icons

The church was consecrated in 2022 © Alamy

In Calatrava terms, this is a small building. If anything, it’s a bit reminiscent of a 1930s radio (a nice touch, if you like, since this area was once known as Radio Row, thanks to all the workshops and repair shops). Clad in gleaming white marble, it has the slightly unsettling pallor of a new headstone but, with its faceted facade, shallow dome and bulbous corners, it seems friendly and approachable, a sort of art deco throwback to these posts radio, and more delicate.

At dusk, its central section and dome glow while the finely sliced ​​marble emits a warm light. It’s a delicate effect that is largely overwhelmed by the lights of the empty offices and the background lighting of the city, but it’s also a welcome variation in scale and finesse, a highly articulated form standing out against the towers of silent glass that surrounds it.

Just like with the Architect’s Oculus, the problems start at the entrance. Firstly, the marble is very white, almost clinical. Second, although the dome can glow, every rib and join elsewhere is backlit by bright white LEDs. The effect is garish, more Vegas than Athos.

Observe three large figures painted on the vaulted ceiling

There are Byzantine-inspired paintings everywhere © AP

Then there is the ornament. Calatrava normally creates theatrical effects without additional ornament; here, I suppose, the client wanted a more traditional iconography. And boy, did they understand. There are carved foliage, crucifix-shaped door handles, relief vines and marble doors pierced with dozens of crosses. It looks a bit like a high-end mausoleum, with no money issues.

Using traditional Greek Orthodox imagery, the interior is decorated with brightly painted iconography. Although I really enjoyed the Virgin spreading her arms on a stylized Manhattan, there is an unavoidable cheesiness to the interior. These icons, which appear so powerful against the dark background of a Byzantine church, appear garish here.

The building shines like a light bulb at night

The building is clad in finely carved marble © Getty Images

It’s a shame because it’s Calatrava’s most modest and humane building in decades (even though it cost $85 million, making it perhaps one of the most expensive buildings per square foot of human history), an interesting exploration of the boundaries between the popular and the ultra-modern, between the sacred and the profane. It spans everything from Art Deco to Constantinople, and in many ways I find it quite admirable.

It’s also virtually empty, except for the two omnipresent security guards. And that makes it a strangely pleasant place, despite its contradictions. Calatrava may be much ridiculed today, but he is also a rare and intriguing figure, still potentially capable of producing truly popular, if expensive, architecture.


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