This Is Not An Architectural Critique Of The New PATH Station, Part 1

by Don Friedman on March 7, 2016

Really, it’s not.

I stopped by the still-under-construction WTC PATH station this weekend, since I had heard that the “Oculus” was open to the public. The Oculus is the main above-grade public space, below the main, visible portion of the station…the part that in the old days of railroading would be called the head-house. Depending on your opinion of Calatrava’s vision and work, the head-house/Oculus is the part of the building that looks like a bird in flight or maybe a stegosaurus.

The Oculus is open in a very limited sense. It’s currently a huge dead end, closed off at its future east and west entrances, accessible at grade only by going through the temporary station entrance from Vesey Street and though the concourse above the train platforms. I think it may also be currently accessible by elevator, but I didn’t try – I paid through the PATH turnstiles just to get in and see it. The reason this post is “Part 1” is that I’ll revisit the station when it’s in a state closer to completion.

The big sculptural presence of the building is, ultimately, a roof. It serves all the functions of a roof: keeping the weather out and providing enclosure while spanning some distance. That description is not meant to denigrate it, as the same could be said of the vaults of a medieval cathedral. The first thing that struck me is that the structure is really two semi-independent parts corresponding to the bird’s “wings.”

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That’s pure skylight in the center opening (the oculus that gives the Oculus its name) with only skylight framing running across. I had assumed there would be some reasonably-sized structure crossing it – some struts, perhaps – but there isn’t.

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Looking down a bit, it’s more clear that the roof is a series of ribs of two basic shapes – bent back at the base and bent back some ten feet higher – tied by some kind of ring slightly above each of the two bend points. Since each rib corresponds to one of the exterior ribs that create the “wings” (and to some people look like the plates on a stegosaurus’s back), it is clear that the ribs are each working independently from the upper ring to the top. This looks like a huge space frame, but it’s really grouped cantilevers.

The obvious question is whether this structural categorization matters. It matters to me, because I’m trying to understand how the roof works. It doesn’t necessarily matter to people looking at the design as an artifact or an architectural expression.

In a way, I was more interested by the west end of the station, west of the Oculus and the above-grade head-house.

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That’s the roof over the platform-access concourse, and to my eye the most zoomorphic portion of the building. It looked familiar until I realized it reminded me of the inside of Monstro the whale in Pinocchio. However, I don’t think the “spine” is serving the spine’s structural function. In other words, the big thing that looks like a main support is most likely not, as it doesn’t seem to span anywhere in particular. To be re-examined…

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