Calatrava’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.
On 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.
While 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?