Does consistency matter?

IMG_0965Calatrava’s new PATH station in downtown Manhattan is amazing. A beautiful, anthropomorphic, expressionistic, modern gothic cathedral of light, it sits uncomfortably adjacent to its neighbors, boxes of commercial space optimized for FAR maximization. Its ribs arch gracefully, never embracing one another; rather, the composition is bifurcated on the exterior. Divided into two distinct parts by an operable glass skylight, the exquisite ribs extend gracefully into space but never quite fully engage the sky due to the proximity, height and bulk of the station’s well-mannered yet crowded neighbors.

IMG_0962On the interior, while the ribs are all the same size, they resolve themselves in two different conditions: some wrapping the mezzanine, and others extending to below the mezzanine. Sculpted to look like the remains of some incredible animal, the shapes are elegant and consistent.

IMG_0960While one initially marvels at the expression of structural integrity, one might notice a small detail which tells an entirely different story. As shown in the photo, there is an approximately one-inch gap in what appears to be the structural load path, revealing that large portions of the member are non-structural. While the imagination believes that these members are shaped by the gravitational forces that they defy, the reality is different. This is sculpture, shaped deliberately for effect, willfully and, dare I say, in some cases arbitrarily.

The project is not complete, and one might imagine a filler which will make this detail appear to be monolithic. On the other hand, perhaps the gap will remain or a different material will be inserted, emphasizing the discontinuity of the structure. Regardless of the solution, it points out that even when one’s budget is $3 billion, one must make some compromises regarding honesty in architecture. All architects make choices, for different reasons, to express ideas regarding our built and natural environment, our society, and our values.

Can an object be consistent? Can any object be entirely consistent? Should we strive for consistency? Are buildings any less or more inspiring when consistent? What do we even mean when we say consistent, anyway? Does this impugn Calatrava’s virtuosity? Do these observations and questions make the place any less authentic?

Does any of that matter?

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One thought on “Does consistency matter?

  1. Alejandro Iriarte

    I absolutely agree that consistency matters.
    As with anything else in this Universe, there is never an entirely black nor completely white option, and compromise should always be expected. HOWEVER, I believe that striving for not just consistency but verity should be on any good designer’s top of the list of priorities and goals.
    The minute something is intended to ‘look like something’ or to mimic the properties of something else, it is a departure from efficiency and a step towards pastiche or decoration, and ultimately it’s just a ruse; a gimmick.

    Doric columns made of cardboard, Styrofoam crown moldings, E.I.F.S. ‘broken-pediment’ fa├žades and Home-Depot “faux”-ANYTHINGs should be exclusively found in movie sets. Unfortunately there is a whole cable channel dedicated to all of it (HGTV), while clarity, simplicity and authenticity seem to have taken a sabbatical.

    I have forever been an admirer of Calatrava’s work, and I choose to believe that there is a good reason -beyond the control of the design team- for which the detail in your photographs ended up happening. I don’t believe it significantly diminishes the ‘virtuosity’ of the design, but it does shed light on an unfortunate smudge for those who now know.

    On the other hand, it could have looked like a pyramid (complete with hieroglyphs), or an ancient temple, or a miniature town, or any other of the theme-du-jour preferred by the nostalgia fueled masses. From that perspective, I would say it deserves a little leniency in its slightly less than pristine integrity – for now. But as with other “Starchitects”, I hope that this is not the tell-tale signs of the oft-used gimmick that made them famous repeated over and over again. The design at the service of a brand, instead of the experimental forces of creativity that got them to fame in the first place.

    I can’t wait to see the finished design.
    Thank you for your post!

    A.I.

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