Santiago Calatrava is best known for bridges that leap and budgets that soar, for vast and bony white-steel structures that evoke high-tech ruins of the future and cause fiscal ruin in the present. The Oculus, the $4 billion transit station–shopping mall he designed for the World Trade Center, has become a symbol of architectural excess. Now, just a couple of blocks away, a refined pocket project gives his reputation a shot of sobriety. The dense white nugget of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church presides over the memorial plaza from a raised platform at the southern end, and it suggests that maybe Calatrava was always a religious architect disguised as a transportation engineer.
This two-story affair with a 4,200-square-foot sanctuary surrounded by a few vestibules, an upstairs office, and a small gathering place for wakes serves as an opulent replacement for the chapel that was crushed on 9/11. After two decades of argument, persistence, litigation, and fundraising, the $85 million building has become such a vast source of pride that the Orthodox Church designated it a national shrine and the Greek government kicked in a fortune’s worth of Pentelic marble (the kind used on the Acropolis).
St. Nicholas is the Oculus’s infant cousin, close in DNA and similar in aspiration but radically different in character. The Oculus consists of an immense steel-ribbed, glass-sided cupola vaulting above an expanse of white marble. The church has a small steel-ribbed cupola faceted in translucent sheets of marble. The Oculus’s snowy interiors are brightened by illuminated retail signage and pulsating screens. The church’s walls are enlivened with murals painted by a monk, Father Loukas of Xenophontos. The Oculus is a work of big gestures; the church is a triumph of fine detail. The Oculus is a train station with ambitions to be a cathedral; St Nicholas is content to be a little local church.
Even so, that church is a precious object, whether you calculate the cost in years elapsed, lawyers’ bills, construction dollars, work hours, acres of marble, or units of devotion per square foot. Calatrava gravitates to — or generates — these slow-moving, high-priced projects, and though you can’t blame him for the Archdiocese of America’s desire to replace the destroyed chapel with a long-lived monument, or for its difficulties in raising the money, the design challenged virtually every step of the builders’ habits. Sinuously curving baseboards in an upstairs room, a seamless passage from wall to ceiling in the complicated stairwell, the hinges for the heavy stone doors of the iconostasis — if there was a standard way to execute each of these items, the architects specified another. All these bespoke details add up to a space that feels purposeful and unique rather than fussy and self-indulgent.
It’s easy to understand why religious leaders would have thrilled to a Calatrava design that springs from ancient practices and deep-rooted convention. The architect claims to have derived the elevation from the underlying geometries of a 10th-century mosaic in the Hagia Sophia: The Virgin sits enthroned with a lanky child on her lap and an emperor approaches from either side (Justinian I to her right, Constantine I to the left) bearing architectural models of Constantinople. In a series of sketches, Calatrava shows the mosaic morphing into his church’s form: The throne’s wings elongate into towers, the robed figure generates a round-shouldered mass, and Mary’s haloed head shrinks to an ornamental Greek cross on the roof. That progression yields a form that’s been common in the Eastern church for more than 1,000 years: the dome-topped cylinder inscribed in a square plan, protected by four sturdy towers. Calatrava invokes the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church (both now mosques) in Istanbul. He skips over the early Christian Santa Costanza in Rome and Frank Lloyd Wright’s round-plan Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, which seems like it might have suggested the portal’s shallow arch.
Calatrava adapted nimbly to the cramped site. The processional from the narthex down the nave to the altar has been compressed into a passage of just a few steps. The sanctuary seats only 125, and in the context of the World Trade Center, it’s a speck surrounded by giants. And yet, alone on its plinth, it looks deceptively bulky. The banded corner towers even seem to challenge the great glass skyscrapers all around. Who needs height when you have personality?
Calatrava fuses historical styles with idiosyncratic (from the Greek sunkratikos, meaning “mixed together”) flair. He gives us modernism without severity, postmodernism without irony, neoclassicism without nostalgia. The upshot, from a few dozen feet away in the daylight, is oddly lumpy, a white blancmange quivering on a tray. Get closer, though, and the mass dissolves into texture and detail. Horizontal bands of white-and-gray marble fold like paper airplanes and swell into smooth convexities. Over the arcing canopy, a folding screen of fritted-glass panels gives the façade a sawtooth surface. And above it all comes the white hump of the dome, 40 white steel ribs and 40 panels of white stone membrane sandwiched between panes of glass — an echo of the Hagia Sophia’s 40-windowed cupola. At dusk, when the lights inside glow through the marble skin, the structure loses its chunkiness, turning into a weightless bubble. (It’s not the only translucent stone building at the World Trade Center: At the other end of the plaza is the marble light box of REX’s Perelman Performing Arts Center, still under construction.)
Step inside during the day, and sunshine seeping through stone gives the interior a cool, chalky luminescence. The effect would be almost clinical if not for Father Loukas’s bejeweled Byzantine murals and some lavishly carved ornamentation. A pattern of intertwining grapevines crawls up the columns, holes in the shape of Greek crosses turn marble doors into screens, and cruciform brass doorknobs make a sacrament out of routine. Against each wall, a double-height, marble-clad steel arch, standing free and lit from behind, resembles a hovering halo. The arches bend as they rise to meet the curve of the room, like dancers pulling back their shoulders. An efficiency fetishist might complain that they perform no structural labor and just act as dressed-up frames for the painting and the opening below. Yet all these channels, recesses, and perforations hint at vaster spaces tucked inside the walls, a physical mystery to emulate the spiritual one. A church is a microcosm, a small-scale reconstruction of the universe, with other miniatures nested inside. The source mosaic in Istanbul shows a handheld model of the Hagia Sophia; the murals here include a mini-Manhattan. Above the altar, Mary spreads her arms over that stylized panorama, where St. Nicholas Church rears up at the foot of One World Trade, dwarfing the Oculus next door. The perspective is distorted but the statement is clear: Here, at a spot named for commerce, blighted by violence, rebuilt in memory, and ringed by fresh monsters of capitalism, this small, flickering candle of a building has an outsize moral role.