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But more often than not, what you feel is the immense strain Mr. Calatrava and his clients are under to try to justify the hall’s existence. Retail space has been added along the base of the great hall and along a second-floor balcony, which should draw a few visitors but risks transforming the entire space into one of the world’s most excessive shopping malls.
And in a particularly perverse decision PATH riders won’t be able to get from the train platforms directly to the street. Instead they will have to walk halfway along the hall’s upper balcony and past dozens of shops before exiting into one of the flanking towers — a suffocating experience no matter how beautiful the spaces turn out to be.
These problems are amplified by Mr. Calatrava’s seeming refusal to disturb the sculptural purity of his creation. Some have already pointed out that only two small entries, at each end of the dome, connect the main plaza to the hall, as if the architect were afraid of exposing his inner world to the chaos outside. I noticed something else on my visit to the show: a ring of marble benches now surrounds the base of the glass dome, so that standing in the plaza you will be able to see only a small segment of the great hall below. Instead the eye is drawn up to the grandeur of Mr. Calatrava’s structure. Life is secondary.
All of this would be discouraging enough given the number of other worthy transportation projects in New York City. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had to redesign its new Fulton Street station to keep within its tight budget, even though it will serve thousands more passengers a day. Despite years of planning, Pennsylvania Station’s cramped dehumanizing spaces remain one of the most shameful chapters in the city’s architectural history, partly because authorities can’t find a way to pay for a renovation.
Mr. Calatrava’s design also embodies a deeper, more troubling history: the toxic climate of those first years after the Sept. 11 attacks. While the city grieved, politicians were vowing to rebuild as fast as possible, as if that would somehow accelerate the healing process. Practical considerations were set aside. Jingoism ruled. Egotism dominated over softer, gentler voices.
Under such conditions it should surprise no one that what once promised to be one of ground zero’s most triumphant architectural achievements is hollow at its core.