St. Nicholas Church at Ground Zero

Photo: Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava is best known for his leaping bridges and soaring budgets, for his vast, bony white steel structures that evoke the high-tech ruins of the future and wreak fiscal ruin in the present. The Oculus, the $4 billion transit station and mall he designed for the World Trade Center, has become a symbol of architectural excess. Now, a few blocks away, a polished pocket project gives its reputation a dose of sobriety. The dense white nugget of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church presides over the Memorial Square from a raised platform at the southern end, and it suggests that Calatrava may have always been 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 flattened on 9/11. After two decades of argument, perseverance, litigation and fundraising, the $85 million building has become such a source of pride that the Orthodox Church has designated it a national shrine and the Greek government launched a fortune of Pentelic marble (the kind used on the Acropolis).

Saint Nicholas is the infant cousin of the Oculus, close in DNA and similar in aspiration but radically different in character. The Oculus consists of a huge steel-ribbed, glass-walled cupola vaulted above an expanse of white marble. The church has a small cupola with faceted steel ribs in translucent sheets of marble. The snowy interiors of the Oculus are brightened up with neon signs and pulsing screens. The walls of the church are enlivened with murals painted by a monk, Father Loukas of Xenophontos. The Oculus is a work of grand gestures; the church is a triumph of fine detail. The Oculus is a train station with ambitions of being a cathedral; Saint-Nicolas is content to be a small local church.

Even so, this church is a valuable object, whether you calculate the cost in elapsed years, attorney bills, construction dollars, labor hours, acres of marble, or devotional units per square foot. Calatrava gravitates toward – or generates – these slow and expensive projects, and while you can’t blame him for the Archdiocese of America’s desire to replace the destroyed chapel with a long-lived monument, or for his difficulties in raising money, the design challenged virtually every step of builders’ habits. Sinuously curved plinths in an upstairs room, a continuous passage from wall to ceiling in the complicated stairwell, the hinges of the heavy stone doors of the iconostasis – if there was a standard way to execute each of these elements, the architects specified another. All of these bespoke details add up to a space that feels purposeful and unique rather than fussy and indulgent.

Calatrava’s sketches, showing the formal development of plan and elevations.

Calatrava’s sketches, showing the formal development of plan and elevations.

Calatrava’s sketches, showing the formal development of plan and elevations.

Calatrava’s sketches, showing the formal development of plan and elevations.

Drawings: Santiago Calatrava

It’s easy to see why religious leaders would have been thrilled with a Calatrava design that stems from ancient practices and deep-rooted conventions. The architect claims to have derived the elevation from the underlying geometries of a 10th century Hagia Sophia mosaic: The Virgin is seated on a throne with a lanky child on her lap and an emperor approaches on either side (Justinian I to her right, Constantine I to the left) bearing architectural models from Constantinople. In a series of sketches, Calatrava shows the mosaic transforming into the shape of his church: the wings of the throne elongate into towers, the robed figure generates a round-shouldered mass, and the haloed head of Mary shrinks into a cross. ornamental Greek on the roof. This progression gives a form common in the Eastern church for more than 1000 years: the cylinder surmounted by a dome inscribed in a square plan, protected by four robust towers. Calatrava invokes the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church (both now the mosques) in Istanbul. He jumps on the Byzantine influence Saint Constance in Rome and the circular plan of Frank Lloyd Wright Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, which seems to have suggested the portal’s shallow arch.

Calatrava adapted with agility to the cramped site. The procession from the narthex to the nave to the altar was compressed into a passage of only a few steps. The sanctuary can only accommodate 125 people and, against the backdrop of the World Trade Center, it is a point surrounded by giants. And yet, alone on its base, it seems deceptively bulky. The banded corner towers even seem to challenge the tall glass skyscrapers all around. Who needs height when you have personality?

Calatrava merges historical styles with idiosyncratic (from the Greek sunkratikos, meaning “mixed together”) flair. He gives us a modernism without severity, a postmodernism without irony, a neoclassicism without nostalgia. The result, a few tens of meters in daylight, is strangely lumpy, a white blancmange quivering on a platter. Get closer, however, and the mass dissolves into texture and detail. Horizontal bands of white and gray marble fold like paper airplanes and bulge out into smooth convexities. Above the arched canopy, a screen made of fritted glass panels gives the facade a sawtooth surface. And above it all comes the white hump of the dome, 40 white steel ribs and 40 white stone membrane panels sandwiched between panes of glass – an echo of the 40-window cupola of Hagia Sophia. At dusk, when the lights inside shine through the marble skin, the structure loses its size and transforms into a weightless bubble. (It’s not the only translucent stone building in the World Trade Center: At the other end of the plaza is the marble lightbox of REX’s Perelman Performing Arts Center, still under construction.)

The interior, with murals by Fr. Loukas.
Photo: Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

Step inside during the day and the sun seeping through the stone gives the interior a cool, chalky luminescence. The effect would be almost clinical if it weren’t for the jeweled Byzantine murals of Father Loukas and a few ornately carved ornaments. A pattern of intertwining vines creeps over the columns, Greek cross-shaped holes turn marble doors into screens, and brass cruciform doorknobs make routine a sacrament. Against each wall, a double-height marble-clad steel arch, freestanding 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 do no structural work and simply act as dressed up frames for painting and opening below. Yet all these channels, recesses and perforations suggest larger spaces nestled within the walls, a physical mystery to mimic the spiritual. A church is a microcosm, a small-scale recreation of the universe, with other miniatures nestled within. The source mosaic in Istanbul shows a portable model of Hagia Sophia; the murals here include a mini-Manhattan. Above the altar, Mary stretches out her arms across this stylized panorama, where St. Nicholas Church stands at the foot of One World Trade, dwarfing the Oculus beside it. The perspective is distorted but the statement is clear: here, in a place named for commerce, marred by violence, reconstructed in memory and surrounded by new monsters of capitalism, this little flickering candle of a building has a moral role excessive.

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