NEW YORK – There is a touch of the poetic to the story of how the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava came to be the design architect for the new Church of St. Nicholas at Ground Zero, whose function is contribute to the renaissance of both the Downtown community and the parish, to help visitors transcend the painful memories of 9/11, and to express the little church’s Byzantine heritage.
He was with his daughter, Sofia, in Greece, sailing in the Dodecanese, visiting the island of Symi, the birthplace of the three Graces, when he received a phone call with the news that he was invited to participate in the competition to design St. Nicholas.
The conjunction of the call and the place he received it are not a coincidence. His profound love and appreciation for the creations of Hellenism and Orthodoxy must have counted for more than his impressive resume, giving the decision makers no doubt that the man whose dramatic arches framed the “golden games” of the 2004 Olympics would pour his heart and soul into the design of the sanctuary that will succeed the beloved little church that was crushed on that cruel day.
He told TNY “as a young student I took trips to see the Acropolis and Hagia Sophia. I felt I had discovered the most beautiful sequence of spaces in the world. To me, Hagia Sophia is the Parthenon of the Orthodoxy.”
“I had many early experiences visiting Byzantine architecture,” he continued. “The first of which were Hagia Sophia, Agia Irene and the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora in Constantinople; the Church of the Rotunda in Thessaloniki, the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, the Basilica of San Marco in Venice and others in Italy.”
An artist’s experiences are powerful combination of the messages of body, heart and mind, and Calatrava told TNH, “I felt I had discovered the most beautiful spaces, sites, frescos, and mosaics I had ever seen. It was an architecture dominated by a sense of order and a kind of mathematical perception of the beauty of the cosmos.”
The architect would have felt very much at home in Constantinople, where Plato and Aristotle had as passionate devotees as the parties in the theological disputes that often roiled the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Calatrava also thought deeply about the relationships of Justinian’s Great Church to the city of Constantinople, and of the new St. Nicholas to New York.
“Hagia Sophia dominates the profile of the city and gives identity to the Bosphorus. In the case of St. Nicholas, quite the opposite is true. New York City is dominated by a skyline of commercial towers. Understanding that, I tried to create a single object, composed of the dome set within corner towers, that could create a visual link between the human scale of the individual New Yorker and the gigantic scale of the surrounding towers. The building tries, in its abstract shape, to emulate human proportions.”
Asked if there were also elements of the Pantheon of Rome, which may have influenced the Emperor Justinian’s architects, he said, “As an architect you cannot avoid the Hagia Sophia and the Pantheon. In comparing both monuments, personally, I feel that the Pantheon represents a pure creation of the human spirit. It is a synthesis of form, proportion, and beauty, realized as a perfect sculpture. Hagia Sophia, in my opinion, is all about space. It is one of the most beautiful spaces in the history of architecture. Its interior sublimates matter into pure space through the sheer force of the natural light.”
But Justinian’s church was not just “geometry realized in stone,” as some ancient commentators noted.
“In Hagia Sophia, upon entering through the exonarthex, through the narthex and into the nave through the royal doors, you feel the architecture build to a crescendo. You feel you are floating in a universe of form and beauty. You get a sense of place; of arrival. You feel the permanence of the space – that the whole universe is static. Hagia Sophia has that great a force,” he said.
In St. Nicholas, which will be considerably smaller, those experiences can only be hinted, but Calatrava, who is also a sculptor, can create a palpable feeling though the voids and masses.
“Being that architecture is the most abstract of the arts, the architecture of both buildings transcend and remain in our mind as a sublime sense of beauty,” he said, but “the Pantheon and the Hagia Sophia can both be considered as sculpture,”
The model of the new church has the feel of being molded by hands, so it was not surprising to hear that he is planning to go Sifnos, which he has visited several times. He will work in pottery, for which the island is famous.
His experience of the Greek islands was a formative creative experience for Calatrava.
“I studied classical architecture during my early training. As a 20 year old student, I traveled to Greece. In Athens I studied the Acropolis, and then I traveled to the Greek islands to learn from the beautiful Greek vernacular architecture.”
If anyone doubts the power of Greece to continue to inspire the world’s artists and thinkers, they need only listen to the man whose buildings have transformed landscapes around the world.
“Some of my favorite places in Greece include the Acropolis and the old Archeological Museum in Athens, where I once heard the most beautiful lecture on sculpture from the antiquities to the present day. On the Greek Islands, the harmony between the visual settlement and the natural landscape inspires me greatly.”
Ground Zero, however, with its overpowering memories of a horrific day, is the ultimate challenge to an architect seeking to effect physical and emotional harmony.
He calls St. Nicholas “a witness of our time,” and the design must respond “to functional needs, but, in this particular place, thinking about 9/11,” the building must transcend them, “as a statement of endurance and faith in the future.”
Despite the aesthetic and size constraints the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has placed on the church, Calatrava wants to give the building “an unmistakable presence in the site,” which will be effected by both the building’s form and materials.
“We are using local and modern techniques like concrete and steel for the structure,” but the exterior will be clad in stone,” he said.
The renderings suggest translucent surfaces that will shine in the daytime and glow at night.
To design the interior – which has aesthetic priority in the Orthodox Church – Calatrava said “I have been learning about the liturgical and iconographical aspects of the building from his Eminence, Archbishop Demetrios. He is leading, with his knowledge and experience, the iconographic program which I consider a very important aspect of the building.”
Asked if a minimalist iconographic program is an option, he said “Personally, I am very attracted to the idea of the purity of a white space where the light reflects.”
TNH has been informed that construction will begin this year and that Calatrava will continue to be involved in the project. It is hoped that it will be completed in time for the parish’s 100th anniversary in 2016, and the Archdiocese is looking to celebrate Pascha 2017 there. Calatrava will continue to be involved during construction.
To the Greek Orthodox Christians in America, Calatrava said, “I would like them to understand about the Church of St. Nicholas, as Archbishop Demetrios explained it to me in our first conversation, that it is anchored in the tradition of Orthodoxy but looks forward to the 21st century.”
In his closing meditation on a place that will be visited by many thousands and observed by millions each year, Calatrava said, “I would like the church to be a place in which it is possible to experience a link between Man and God; a place of gathering, of reconciliation, of bereavement, of peace, and of prayer for every visitor.”