The Oculus: Does it Fit?
Most of my photo essays deal with causes and issues, and a point of view I hope to get across to readers. This photo essay adds another dimension- architectural beauty. I hope these two can coexist in a coherent way.
I began my photo essay journey in 2014. One of my first projects was “Ground Zero Contradiction” which explored the contradiction of beautiful memorials to remember horrible events. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum were open and One World Trade Center (aka Freedom Tower) was nearing completion. There were many other construction projects underway which continue today. One was the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, the new terminal for the PATH rail service to New Jersey. This structure was clearly something very different and artist renderings looked strange indeed. I wondered with some concern if this building, which reminded me of a spiny dinosaur, Stegosaurus to be exact, would fit the site.
Two years later I visited the newly opened World Trade Center Transportation Hub, known most strikingly as the Oculus, to find out whether this structure fits the site or stands out as a contradiction. Rather than keep readers in suspense to the end, for me the Oculus does not fit the site… but I still love it!!
Sunset reflection in the 9/11 Museum window of the Oculus under construction on 7/19/2014.
The same view on 11/13/2016.
The 2014 photo essay “Ground Zero Contradiction” (available on this website) began with these words:
“The site of the 9/11 attack is an amazing place that should be visited by everyone, American or not. It combines disaster, loss, bravery, and recovery. It tells us we are vulnerable but that we can recover from whatever comes our way.” (I hope these words apply in 2016!!)
“Most memorials to horrible events have a built in contradiction: a beautiful place to remember something awful. This can make it very difficult for visitors to get in the right frame of mind, if there is a right frame of mind for such a place. The World Trade Center complex takes this contradiction to an extreme. There is the Memorial: beautiful pools that represent the base of each of the Twin Towers; the Museum: underground display of the searing reality of both the 1993 bombing and the 2001 attack; the Freedom Tower that represents the resiliency of New York City and of the whole country; the World Trade Center Transportation Hub which is an unusual (maybe beautiful, maybe strange) structure under construction- it remains to be seen how this will fit the site, but at first glance it seems to be a contradiction to what occurred here.”
Much has been written about the Oculus (designed by internationally acclaimed architect Santiago Calatrava) including its high cost and construction delays, and its design and purpose. It’s the last two points that I will address.
The Oculus is the Manhattan terminal for the PATH train to New Jersey. It’s for commuters much the same as is Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station. Another purpose is a luxury shopping mall. It’s a place to buy an iPad, a Rolex, and a wide range of high end fashions. So the question must be asked if such commerce is appropriate and if the Oculus and its vendors are profiting from the worst ever attack on American soil. And will visitors to the site be more attracted to the excitement of this showcase building rather than to the memorial? A significant part of the attraction is that the Oculus is an extraordinary work of art, the beauty of which is in the eye of the beholder.
This photo essay has three parts: A Walking Tour of the Oculus, The Beauty of the Oculus, Final Thoughts.
A Walking Tour of the Oculus
The Oculus is located on the East side of the World Trade Center site. The question of fit has more than one meaning. The main question of fit is about purpose. But there is also physical fit. As the diagram shows, the Oculus is very much shoehorned into its space. The wings on the Southwest section almost touch 3 World Trade Center (see arrow). Notice also its shape: narrow at the ends, wide in the middle.
Fast facts about the Oculus.
Early morning in Oculus Plaza at Church Street- Freedom Tower stands just behind. This is definitely not your grandfather’s shopping mall. From the end it looks deceptively small. Not only is it much bigger above ground than it appears in this view, it more than doubles in size below ground. The close proximity to 3 World Trade Center is evident on the left.
What’s in a name? An oculus is a circular opening (eye) in the center of a dome or in a wall. A most famous example is the oculus in the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. The World Trade Center Oculus has a long squinty eye covering its roof from one end to the other.
Moving to the right, the scale becomes more evident. While it’s supposed to resemble a dove, this angle reveals its reptilian ancestry and close family resemblance to Stegosaurus.
"That doesn't look like any of MY relatives- it doesn't even have legs!"
But the other end reveals that as in nature, this dinosaur has evolved into a bird- a beautiful dove.
Entering the Oculus from either end presents a staircase down to a perch where the majesty of the interior is revealed and where photographers spend a lot of time. This is reminiscent of Grand Central Terminal with its perches on either end (one of which is now an Apple store).
However these perches are more like the bows of two great ships that have penetrated the Oculus’ hull. One passenger seems poised to take the plunge.
While Grand Central Terminal has the zodiac for its ceiling, the Oculus has a sky like no other.
Guarded by Freedom Tower.
Loitering is not permitted on the perch, except for photographers of course.
Looking down from the perch reveals the ant farm below.
Staircases from the perches lead to the middle level of high end shops.
The Apple store.
View to the main hall.
The ground floor is also surrounded by high end shops.
The grand open space is a perfect photography studio.
The PATH concourse at the West end of the Oculus has an eery Orwellian feel to it. Imagine Rod Serling: “We mortals will never know what lies below, because escalators only go down... in The Twilight Zone!"
Not so- every few minutes during rush hour the floor erupts with a lava flow of humanity.
Each person is programmed to their final destination.
The Beauty of the Oculus
Regardless of any point of view about its purpose or fit, the Oculus is extraordinary to behold and I spent considerable effort twisting and turning my camera, and working the images to find the beauty.
Late afternoon light.
Sunset reflection in the 9/11 Museum window.
Drama- the beauty explodes at night.
Embracing the supermoon.
The beautiful bird bids goodnight.
The Oculus: Does It Fit? For me the answer comes directly from my own behavior. I spent eight hours over two days photographing the Oculus, examining every line and angle for the perfect shot. During that time I was so mesmerized that I had no thoughts about the attack and spent not even a moment reflecting at the memorial. The attack might as well have been on another planet.
Imagine this: You’re climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You gaze into the eyes of a leader whose wisdom is sorely needed at this moment in time. As you enter the great hall you see an Apple store on one side and a Starbucks on the other, its menu draped over the Gettysburg Address. That’s a horrifying image, but imagine the crowds of people it would draw, many of whom would forget about the importance of that place just as I did at the World Trade Center.
No, in my opinion the Oculus does not fit at the World Trade Center… but I still love it!! When I visit in the future I’ll have to remind myself that the Oculus with all its beauty is just an afterthought to the lives lost on 9/11/2001.
Published November 23, 2016
Published November 23, 2016