Santiago Calatrava’s church design in NY impels communal introspection and hope

The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the World Trade Center campus, destroyed during 9/11, has been rebuilt by the Spanish architect, embodying resilience and hope.

by Almas SadiquePublished on : Jan 25, 2023

Spaces that have endured the onslaught of attacks, witnessed agitations, or undergone the loss of lives and ruination of structures, when left blank, derelict and unoccupied, tend to stand like dead limbs in the city. Hidden away in the shadows, they disappear from the minds of people, and with them, the stories connected with these spaces. For histories to be remembered, it is imperative that interactions pertaining to significant incidents from the past are sustained. The most engaging way for this to be done is perhaps through tangible and emphatic interventions and inventions—in the form of art expositions, architectural memorials or landscape design, cultural plays or workshops—that are accessible to all.

A remarkable example of urban and architectural interventions that have preserved the remembrance of a tragic incident, that shook one of the largest metropolises in the world 21 years ago, are structures rebuilt at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, New York, in the past two decades. The rebuilt skyscrapers, performing arts centre, museum transport hub, and memorial that now sit at the site are examples that can serve as an inspiration for nations that are constantly under attack and regions that are destroyed and rebuilt as a way of life. They enunciate the learning that for tragedies to register in the minds of people, emphatic declarations must be made, engaging experiences must be designed, and physical voids must be adeptly constructed to facilitate learning and introspection. A recent addition to the World Trade Centre site is the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, destroyed during 9/11, and now rebuilt by Spanish architect, structural engineer, sculptor and painter, Santiago Calatrava.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine glowing in light reflected from One World Trade Center | St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine  | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine glowing in light reflected from One World Trade Center Image: © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

“I am truly honoured to have been involved in bringing the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine to life. To see it finally open is emblematic of Lower Manhattan’s storied future and defining past. I hope to see this structure serve its purpose as a sanctuary for worship but also serve as a place to reflect on what New York City has endured and how it is moving forward,” Calatrava shares. The church was the only religious structure destroyed during the 9/11 attacks. Calatrava’s vision for the space, completed with the help of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the officials of the Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, has helped give the site the status of a National Shrine, a space emblematic of the sustained perseverance practiced by those affected.

St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine and public plaza overlooking reflecting pools| St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine  | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine and public plaza overlooking reflecting pools Image: © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

The religious structure—Calatrava's second completed structure in the campus after the World Trade Center Transportation Hub—was entirely redesigned by the architect to accommodate the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, while also acknowledging its association with the World Trade Center Memorial site at large. Sitting 25 feet above the street level, the top of the church lies slightly above the canopy of the oak trees shrouding the World Trade Center Memorial. The raised plinth of the structure is in congruence with its status as a holy edifice amongst the secular buildings dotting the site. The church, an inkling of spirituality in the rebuilt space, serves to catalyse the initiation and reinitiation of hope and solidarity in the city. “This Shrine will be a place for everyone who comes to the Sacred Ground at the World Trade Center, a place for them to imagine and envision a world where mercy is inevitable, reconciliation is desirable, and forgiveness is possible,” shares His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America.

St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine during the day | St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine  | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine during the day Image: © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

Writ in white pentelic marble, concrete, steel, and glass laminated panels that can be illuminated from within, the organically shaped short statured structure stands out at the site against the glass and concrete skyscrapers surrounding it. Calatrava collaborated with US-based DLR Group to illuminate the church such that it appears to glow in the light of thousands of candles at night. A large open plaza on the structure’s western side further offers clear views of the structure and ushers visitors into the building through a low arch spanned between the circular stair towers situated on the corners framing the western facade. In facilitating the church’s larger relationship with the memorial site, the structure accommodates non-liturgical spaces within its premises. Community rooms and two small offices on the second and third floors and an additional meeting room not only welcome visitors to hold meetings and communal activities, but also offer views to the Memorial and the Liberty Park lying adjacent.

St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine Pentellic marble illuminated at dusk  | St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine  | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine Pentellic marble illuminated at dusk Image: © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

Delineating the significance of an architectural vision, the Spanish architect shares, “Architecture can have an intrinsic symbolic value, which is not written or expressed in a specific way but in an abstract and synthetic manner, sending a message and thus leaving a lasting legacy.” Guided by a syncretic vision, the church is designed to welcome all. Its emblematic strength is further enhanced by the liturgical symbols and influence of Byzantine architecture apparent in the structure’s design. While the dome of the church bears a strong resemblance to that of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the facade of St. Nicholas is an abstraction of Virgin Mary's representation as the 'Throne of Wisdom' in a mosaic at the historical site in Turkey.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine marble and iconography details | St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine  | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine marble and iconography details Image: © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

Ascribing to liturgical specifications, the dome is ribbed into 40 parts with 40 corresponding windows fitted onto them, 40 being the number of ribs the Christian bishop Saint Nicholas is believed to have. The inner face of the dome also features the images of 20 prophets on alternate vaults of the ribbed dome. While the scale of the structure allows the narthex to expand into a large undivided continuous space, the archway shelters the projecting porticus up to a depth of eight feet beyond the entry doors that lead to the exonarthex. The planning of the church adequately shelters the liturgical spaces associated with the Greek Orthodox Church, such as the narthex, the nave, the iconostasis, a pair of doors depicting the Annunciation, and the sanctuary and the altar within it. Inspired by the Church of the Rotunda in Salonica and the Hagia Sophia in Turkey, the altar of the church lies under the central dome. At its centre, the image of Christ is affixed.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine Angle from the Narthax into the Nave | St.Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine  | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine Angle from the Narthax into the Nave Image: © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

While the northern and southern recesses of the church are enhanced by arched glass windows divided by mullions, and icons and offertory tables fitted onto the niches, the eastern corner features rich iconography sans arched windows, and a stretched iconostasis that highlights the icons and symbols of the church. The iconographies etched in the church were painted by priest-monk Father Loukas from the Monastery of Xenonphontos on Mt. Athos, the monastic republic in Greece, and fixed by Bishop Joachim of Amissos, a world renowned scholar on liturgical arts, manuscript illumination, religious iconography of Byzantine lead seals, and Christian iconography.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, hence, serves as a modernist interpretation of the medieval architecture translations of liturgical iconography. In tandem with the rebuilt World Trade Center buildings, they evoke a unified and harmonious atmosphere.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine fully opened to the public on December 6, 2022, at the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

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