The Oculus at World Trade Center in New York is a genuine, honest-to-god tourist attraction, at the same level as the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and to be honest, a couple of steps above the Brooklyn Bridge and Grant’s Tomb. Visitors from around the world gather in its main concourse amid a chatter of hundreds of different languages, and look up in awe.
“Alguna vez has visto algo así?”
“Das ist wie ein riesiges Raumschiff!”
The Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s vast design is certainly visually arresting; it was meant to be, to replace the fallen towers of the World Trade Center with a spiritual expression of – of something – in concrete and space. And at a $4 billion price tag it sort of had to be. So after eight years of construction, New Yorkers finally got another great landmark building on a site of profound public memory.
And it looked like… what, exactly? Before the cost overruns, the delays, and the inevitable changes of course, Calatrava said that he was inspired by the image of a bird released from a child’s hand. That kind of poetic metaphor resonated with the planners at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and, seen from the perspective of the 9/11 Memorial Park, it actually sort of, kind of works.
But from any other perspective, the exterior of the building is an utter disaster. From some angles, it looks like the hulking figure of a Toho movie monster – a gargantuan porcupine, perhaps – about to pounce on Lower Manhattan. Others have opined that it looks like the skeleton of an enormous sea creature bleaching in the sun.
Whether a monster or fishbones, the structure is squeezed so uncomfortably into the New York cityscape that it almost looks as if its southern wing (spines?) had to be trimmed to make room for 3 World Trade Center.
Yet it is from the interior that the Oculus is simultaneously most impressive and most disturbing. It is almost as if this dialectic of sublimity was built into the concept even before the developers, the Port Authority, and the City of New York enlisted Calatrava to give it wings. This is, after all, meant to be both a place of spiritual power and crass consumerism: a Sanctum Sanctorum beneath the vault of heaven, but also the stalls of the money-changers. It is simultaneously a transport hub and a tourist attraction: a space both of transience and permanence.
At rush hour, when the suburban PATH Trains from New Jersey converge with nine subway lines of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, commuters purposefully swarm through the central concourse. The transportation hub deposits 250,000 passengers from New Jersey into the MTA and onto the streets of Manhattan every day. In those moments when the lines align in perfect synchronization, bystanders can feel as if they are trapped in one of the epic migrations of the savanna.
At those times, tourists gaze heavenward to marvel at the soaring structure only to risk being trampled by vast bovine migratory herds as they thunder by.
At its core, the Oculus is a space of commerce, or maybe a space of personal actualization through commerce. Indeed, the shopping options on offer promise to satisfy desires as elevated as Barney’s and Bloomingdale’s. The Westfield World Trade Center Mall – is it even appropriate to describe it in such plebeian language? – is an emporium de luxe. Breitling, Mont Blanc, Longine, Dior are the anima cradled in the Calatrava’s embrace.
Relegated to the mezzanine level, the Apple Store, normally a destination unto itself, feels strangely commonplace in such patrician company. Yet, in another way it embodies the Oculus’ spirit more completely than any other mere shop front. For it is here that the faithful congregate thirteen hours per day to commune with the Creator Spiritus and seek technological salvation from the ghost of Steve Jobs, with a wide range of financing options.
For all of the promises of what Jackson Lears, in Fables of Abundance, calls a “magical transfiguration of the self” in the consumer market, the market at the heart of the Oculus is a cold, empty place; polished sterility under operating theatre klieg lights. It is an expansive landscape of alienation defined by the spaces between atomized consumers. Visitors are isolated in their own private spaces of consumption, demarcated by the space itself; couples and groups seem forced apart by invisible centrifugal forces.
It is striking how the space – open, empty, and illuminated in the stark light of a movie set – determines the gravity of visitors’ social connections. Passageways and entry-points narrow to build tension like water pressure in a garden hose, only to release in consumer ecstasy in the main shopping concourse. This is Frank Lloyd Wright’s principle of “compression and release” expressed in its purest form. It is a dramatic narrative etched into the built environment.
The space is carefully managed – “curated,” to borrow a catchphrase from contemporary retail practice – to produce the desired response in visitors. The effects of the spatial environment on consumer behavior have been well-understood since Stanley Milgram noted in his seminal 1970 article “The Experience of Living in Cities” that human overcrowding creates a “system overload” of unprocessed stimuli. The answer, according to consumer psychology research in the generation since, is to manage the consumer’s emotional state and retail expectation through spatial cues; curating, in effect, what Karen Machleit, Sevgin Eroglu, and Susan Powell call the “crowding–satisfaction relationship.”
Yet the sheer emptiness of Calatrava’s Oculus stops visitors dead in their tracks. One woman, anxiously pacing back and forth in the space between the luxury retailers in the main concourse, comes to a sudden halt and stands, staring into the vacant near-distance for several minutes before turning on her heel and decisively entering a jewelry shop.
Other shoppers, climbing and descending stairs, darting in and out of the emporia lining Calatrava’s wings like feathers, collapse in exhaustion. There are no benches, chairs, or rest areas. Separated by a sea of emptiness from human interactions, they sit on floor as commerce and intentionalities flow by; they are suspended within and from the spatial reality… But only temporarily as they soon rise to resume the process.
And this is the sublime triumph of Calatrava’s Oculus: the eye of commerce and the eye of the consumer. It is the consumer market, that space of marvels and transfiguration. It is a skeleton, an empty body whose sterile void evacuates the social and psychological selves of its visitors to produce desire.
The Christmas tree in the main concourse, erected to celebrate the season of family and giving – but moreso a season of anxious consumption – is its symbol. Matching the bleached beams arching overhead, it is devoid of ornament, pine needles, color, or life.
Contact Matt Friedman Photography to purchase digital and silver-gelatin prints of any of these photographs.