Municipal Art Society Thinks Calatrava Deserves a Second Chance

At $3.7 billion, Santiago Calatrava's World Trade Center PATH terminal will be the world's most expensive subway station when completed.

At $3.7 billion, Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center PATH terminal will be the world’s most expensive subway station when completed.

Santiago Calatrava does not have the best reputation when it comes to designing practical public works. The Valencian architect has achieved great success in winning design commissions across the globe—especially for public works projects like bridges, train stations and cultural centers—but has also attracted criticism for his budget-busting designs.

Mr. Calatrava is practically a persona non grata in Valencia (he is now based in Zurich), where the leftist Esquerra Unida political party has started a website called Calatrava te la clava—loosely translated as “Calatrava bleeds you dry”—on which it accuses the architect of making 100 million euros off the Valencian City of Arts and Sciences, a cultural complex that is widely seen as a symbol of excess, built during Spain’s boom years but now a drain on the government’s finances as it undergoes a period of fiscal austerity.

He has also come under scrutiny in Italy, where a prosecutor put Mr. Calatrava under investigation for design defects and cost overruns on his Ponte della Costituzione, a pedestrian bridge in Venice.

Mr. Calatrava’s most expensive project is found not in Europe, but in lower Manhattan. He was chosen during the heady post-9/11 days to design the World Trade Center PATH terminal—a project whose costs have since ballooned to $3.7 billion, making it by far the most expensive subway station in the world, even after its elaborate, movable roof was scaled back and made stationary.

“There’s no question that the World Trade Center”—half of whose costs are in the PATH terminal—”has been a drain on the Port Authority’s technological as well as financial resources,” said Denise Richardson, managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York, to the Wall Street Journal.

So it came as a surprise that the Municipal Art Society, perhaps the city’s foremost independent planning group, chose Santiago Calatrava as one of four architects—alongside Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SHoP Architects and modernist giants SOM—to present proposals for a new Penn Station, to be unveiled on May 29.

The Observer spoke with Vin Cipolla, president of MAS, about the choice yesterday. He defended the inclusion of Mr. Calatrava in what he called a “provocation” on Penn Station, saying, “I’m a huge fan of Calatrava’s work.”

Benjamin Kabak, who runs the New York City transit blog Second Avenue Sagas, was not such a huge fan. “Even involving Calatrava” in the Penn Station challenge, he told The Observer, “underscores the utter contempt for transit improvements that some of the city’s leading institutions have.” He suggested that money should be spent on increasing transit capacity, especially beneath the Hudson River, not aesthetics—and especially not on an extravagant Santiago Calatrava design.

Mr. Cipolla took issue with that characterization. “I don’t believe there’s a tradeoff,” he said. “I think a compelling design is an essential part of what is successful infrastructure.”