PHOTO: Santiago Calatrava’s St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which replaces a building destroyed in the attacks of 9/11, is true to the form but not the spirit of a Byzantine-domed church.
By Michael J. Lewis – source – WSJ.com
If you align yourself properly, you can stand on West Broadway and see two buildings by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava simultaneously, one overlapping the other. Across from the 9/11 Memorial is his Oculus, the $4 billion transportation hub whose cost overruns almost ended his American career. Just to the south is his St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which opened last month. A compact domed church made of alternating bands of white and gray marble, it is that rarest of objects, a Calatrava building that does not look like a Calatrava building.
St. Nicholas replaces a modest 19th-century church destroyed in the attacks of 9/11. Flamboyantly expressive engineering, Mr. Calatrava’s trademark, would have been out of place here. He was instructed that his building should “respect the traditions and liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, but at the same time must reflect the fact that we are living in the 21st century.”
One unavoidable fact of 21st-century life is bureaucracy. It took years of haggling to find a site for St. Nicholas, its original street having been eliminated. A site was finally made out of thin air; the church would rest on the roof of the World Trade Center Vehicle Security Center (in effect, an underground parking garage), lifting it some 25 feet off the ground, onto an elevated plaza, and depriving it of a connection to the street. Adding to the indignities, the new church needed to incorporate a ventilation shaft for the garage below.
If it falters in the end, St. Nicholas is at least superb in its plan and massing. It follows that most ancient of Byzantine models, a dome in a square, whose four corners are enclosed for liturgical or other purposes, such as a vestry and sacristy. On the exterior, these corner rooms are expressed as four squat towers that clasp the dome, as if holding back the pressure of its faceted ribs. The brawny mass, corrugated and windowless, reads as an abstract sculpture, as if pried out of a single block of marble. At least it does so by day; at night it is a different matter.
Then we discover that the marble facing of the dome and drum has been cut so thin as to be translucent. When the sun sets, they are illuminated from within, turning the church into a glowing lantern. The opaque corner towers, no longer resisting weight and pressure, now seem to clasp nothing but light. Mr. Calatrava evidently does not need audacious feats of engineering to startle us.
A two-story wing in front of the church leads the visitor through that ancient sequence of porticus, exonarthex and narthex to the circular nave. This lofty space is entirely open except for the iconostasis, a marble screen decorated with painted icons. Placed at the far end, this demarcates the sanctuary, which is reserved for the priests who serve the altar. All is according to Orthodox tradition, as are the lavish frescoes, painted in egg tempera by Father Loukas, a Greek monk from Mount Athos. We see scenes from the life of Christ around the periphery, 20 saints on the ribs of the dome, and at its apex the customary image of Christ Pantocrator, austere and remote.
St. Nicholas fulfills its obligations as a liturgical object splendidly; it is as an architectural object that it stumbles. In any successful work of architecture, there is a harmony between ends and means. Here Mr. Calatrava gives us a plausible facsimile of a Byzantine domed church but in the process has thrown away the qualities that make those churches so moving and profound in the first place—the mystic poetry of light and shadow, the timeless dignity of stone, the dome as a symbol of the infinite universe.
Frescoes by Father Loukas
His dome is pure scenery, lifted above its supporting drum by four columns. One need not be a purist about this. One can make an attractive dome without using masonry vaulting—but then one should take advantage of what makes a domed space so attractive, above all the exquisite continuity of surface from curved dome to faceted wall. But Mr. Calatrava interrupts this continuity repeatedly on the interior in order to create recesses for arrays of concealed lights. These are far too bright, overpowering Father Loukas’s frescoes, which like their medieval models are meant to be seen in moody interiors.
It is odd that a trained engineer like Mr. Calatrava, who bases his spectacular bridges on the physical properties of materials, should have so little feeling for stone construction. He seems to treat it as plastic. The marble panels of the exterior are a thin veneer, separated by big joints closed with unattractive sealant, a treatment that would be at home in the kitchen but not a building meant for the ages. Just as bad is the free-form hood hovering over the entrance, a shape that is jarringly out of step with the otherwise stately masses of the composition.
In the end, these niceties will be lost on most visitors, but there will be some who know. And an architect as good as Mr. Calatrava, and as expensive, should be building for those who know.
—Mr. Lewis teaches architectural history at Williams and reviews architecture for the Jou