Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jewel-Box May Save the World Trade Center
Santiago Calatrava's design for St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at the World Trade Center

I like it.

I really do.

Now, I still don't like the idea of an Islamic worship center near New York City's World Trade Center site.

I still don't like the idea of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey dictating what any religious institution can do with land it rightfully owned, even if that land was right next door to the target of Muslim extremists on September 11, 2001.

I still don't like the overall re-design of the World Trade Center site in general, or the design of the new One World Trade Center, that project's signature building.  Frankly, I don't like any of the buildings that replace the Trade Center I knew from my days working in the Financial District.  Of course, the old Trade Center was no architectural masterpiece, although two of its buildings were tall and iconic, so maybe it's par for the course that no architectural masterpiece is replacing it.

Yet, behold the plans to replace a tiny structure pulverized under the crushing fall of the Twin Towers.  In all that has been lost, and bungled, and wasted, and argued over, and vilified, and already rebuilt to lukewarm affirmation, there is still hope!  And it appears to be coming in the form of a brilliant solution to at least one of the many problems vexing the reclamation of the Trade Center site. 

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church used to occupy an old, narrow, four-story building that sat forlornly surrounded by parking lots next-door to Two World Trade Center, making for a bizarre juxtaposition between not only a sacred worship facility and a correspondingly profane commercial establishment, but also the church's humble white-stucco box and Two World Trade's mighty superstructure.

Despite their glaring differences, both buildings met the same fate that awful September morning, then afterwards, the differences between their rebirth diverged yet again.  While the World Trade Center has been the subject of intense speculation, political power plays, public contentiousness, and billions of dollars in recovery spending, the sparse congregation of St. Nicholas has been forced to wage a lopsided battle on its own to remind officials who've commandeered their property that, although their worship space no longer exists, that didn't mean they themselves were now irrelevant.

Part of the problem involved the vast new infrastructure requirements the reality of terrorism posed for a rebuilt World Trade Center.  The pre-9-11 complex had a massive underground network of parking garages and commercial delivery bays that needed to be completely re-imagined for a new age of security, inspections, and other protective measures.  As politically-potent design components emerged for the new trade center, it became clear all of the new underground delivery and parking logistics were being shifted southward, outside of the original trade center's footprint, to land that used to be occupied by those parking lots and St. Nicholas.

But officials making all of the changes seemed to keep forgetting that St. Nicholas owned their property, and they didn't simply want to be bought-out like the other property owners.  The congregation has existed at that site since 1916, when it served Lower Manhattan's teeming immigrant population, as well as the stevedores and longshoremen who worked the city's famous docks, then situated at the end of the block.  St. Nick's building dated back to the 1830's, and while it was old, it wasn't particularly historic.  But that didn't mean that the congregation itself didn't deserve to continue its presence in the neighborhood, did it?

Well, if the designs beginning to emerge depicting a new worship center for St. Nicholas mean anything, the church will soon have a renewed presence in Lower Manhattan after all.  The firm of celebrated international architect Santiago Calatrava has created what looks to be a crisp, fresh, yet timelessly engaging interpretation of faith for the physical home of Greek Orthodoxy at the World Trade Center.

I can't speak for them, but St. Nick's congregation must be marveling that it might have been worth the wait after all.

Some in the community around Ground Zero have already complained that it looks like a mosque, and indeed, it does.  But that's not Calatrava's fault.  The proposed St. Nick's incorporates the ancient domed splendor of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, but on an even more intimate scale, like a jewel box.  And therein lies Calatrava's remarkable idea.
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia is a Byzantine masterpiece built by the emperor Justinian I in 537 as the Church of Divine Wisdom.  In other words, it was one of the first great churches in Christianity.  However, it became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.  It features a stunning, expansive, shallow dome supported by pendentives, a marvel of structural ingenuity, that support 40 ribs that, in turn, hold up the dome.  Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum, and features towering minarets on all four corners that were added by Muslim worshippers.

What's clever about Calatrava's design is that he chose to incorporate the look of a prominent building from both historic Christendom and Islam.  It's a deft diplomatic nod to Muslims who have been hoping to construct an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site in the wake of widespread anti-Muslim sentiment triggered by the 9-11 attacks.  Remember that fracas from a couple of years ago?  Currently, remnants of that non-profit group are running a low-profile community center they call Park51 out of their same old, nondescript building.  And yes, they're still hoping to someday replace it with a more prominent structure.  But their leadership is foundering, their fundraising has stalled, and there's no reason to believe public sentiment has moved any more in their favor.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the New York Times today came out with a story that tried to pit St. Nicholas against Park51, but it must be said that the two have little in common.  Most importantly, St. Nicholas was an established congregation at their old site long before the World Trade Center was ever built, let alone destroyed.  In addition, St. Nick's has always been forthright about hosting regular events that were intentionally Greek Orthodox.  There was nothing ambiguous about their organization.  They didn't start out under the subtle guise of being an innocuous community center.  Religion was their focus from the start.

If the organizers of Park51, who, remember, started out under the religiously provocative name Cordoba House, had originally publicized their religious intentions, perhaps the public outcry over their plans would have been less histrionic, since their goals would have been front-and-center.

"Okay, we want to build a mosque as a sign not of conquest, but of reconciliation," they could have said bluntly.  As it was, their ambiguity fed a sense of deception that backfired on them.

Meanwhile, it was the leadership at St. Nicholas who commissioned Calatrava to incorporate a conciliatory tone in their new church facility, which will include an ecumenical chapel-type space for contemplation by people of all faiths visiting what is now one of the most famous historic sites on the planet.  And although the venerable Trinity Episcopal Church has two facilities practically across the street from the World Trade Center site - their sanctuary, and St. Paul's Chapel, it will be St. Nick's church that will be within full view of the memorial and just about all of the trade center's new office towers.  It will anchor the eastern corner of a linear park that is being built atop a long, underground service drive for trucks delivering the supplies that all of the offices, stores, restaurants, and mass transit agencies in the complex will be needing.

St. Nick's construction budget is approximately $20 million, a piffling amount compared with the billions being spent elsewhere in the trade center project.  And this time, St. Nick's won't own the land underneath their church, but they'll be leasing it from the Port Authority, so the governmental agency can now maintain control of it.  How long do you think it will take before some separation-of-church-and-state group will file a lawsuit opposing that arrangement?

Overall, however, the positives of this design appear to far outweigh the negatives.  The church finally gets a building that looks like a church.  And, ingeniously, a mosque.  If the colors in the building when all of the construction is complete are as white and radiant as they appear in the mock-ups from Calatrava's office, then St. Nick's will provide a dazzling counterpoint to the shiny, dark, monotonous glass sheathing the adjacent office towers.  People definitely won't be looking at a stubby white stucco building in a sea of parking lots and asking, "what's that ugly thing by the Twin Towers?"

Perhaps most importantly, even though I'm not Greek Orthodox, I appreciate the idea of having a Christian worship facility juxtaposed so prominently and creatively against a site so fraught with emotional conflict.  I'm glad the Greeks stuck to their guns and pressed their case with the Port Authority, and didn't give up.  Granted, none of St. Nick's has been built yet, and since this is all unfolding in unpredictable New York City, anything can still go wrong.  But at least things are looking good at this point in the process.

Too bad it's taken this long to get a new home for St. Nicholas, but then again, too bad they lost their first one in such a tragic way to begin with.

Maybe now, the World Trade Center will actually be a better place.

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