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Church to be Rebuilt at World Trade Center Site

Exterior rendering of the Calatrava-designed Greek Orthodox Church
The central drum and dome of the church will be fitted with laminated panels made from thin plates of glass and stone, allowing diffused light in during the day and giving the building an ethereal glow at night. Santiago Calatrava

The Calatrava-designed Greek Orthodox church replaces one destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

December 17, 2013—The Freedom Tower, newly minted as the tallest building in the United States, rises as the most visible symbol of the rebirth of New York’s World Trade Center. But at the opposite end of the expansive site, plans are moving forward for a much smaller structure that may nevertheless prove just as powerful.

Designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava, the proposed new $20-million home of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church represents the only religious space at Ground Zero, replacing the church’s former location nearby.

The original structure was a 19th-century rowhouse that was converted into a tavern and later a community hall before becoming the home, in 1916, of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Even when the twin towers came along in the late 1960s (and opened in the early 1970s), the church stood just beyond the 16-acre site and was therefore spared demolition by eminent domain. “It was a very old and steadfast community,” says Father Mark Arey of St. Nicholas. “We’ve always been down there in that section of town.”

The church was obliterated when the South Tower collapsed. Arey says there were reports from people he knew who claimed they heard the church bell ringing and fled for their lives, even though the church was empty and no one could have manned the bells.

Stories like that only add to the sense that, among the glistening new skyscrapers and memorial spaces opening around the site, the new church is just as special. “There’s never been a discussion at any level of government that the church would not be rebuilt,” says Arey. “We have a real sense of responsibility in rebuilding this church. It’s not just a little parish that was there since 1916.”

Between 2001 and 2006, many plans were floated, including building the church under the cantilever of a new high-rise. But the construction of an underground vehicle security center (VSC) on the site resulted in the church being relocated to Liberty Street, about 50 yards from its original address on Cedar Street. The new church would abut a roughly 22 ft high podium that will also be the site of Liberty Park. The main entrance to the church would be located atop the podium space; a secondary, universally accessible entrance would front Liberty Street at grade level. While the new space would be bigger than the old church, the site is still only about 60 by 90 ft.

Eventually, though, the church and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the site owner, came to loggerheads over the site because of the VSC, which will serve as the control point for all vehicles coming to service the new Ground Zero towers. Vehicles will have to make an appointment to even enter, and the building is being designed with the possibility of another terrorist attack in mind.

The Port Authority claimed building the church atop the VSC would result in monumental cost increases. The church disagreed. An independent engineering firm was brought in to help arbitrate the matter, and ultimately sided with the church that the WTC site could accommodate a new church. “The thing we had in our favor was continuity, the fact that we had been there for 10 years,” says Nicholas Koutsomitis, AIA, the principal of Koutsomitis Architects, of New York City, which has served as a master plan consultant to the church for years. “So we knew what was going on. We had progressed fairly far by 2009 in terms of figuring these things out.”

Thornton Tomasetti is handling the structural engineering of the church, including the analysis of the performance of the structure under blast loading. “There were definite discussions from the very beginning into how the presence of the vehicle security center below us would affect the design of the church,” says Christopher Pinto, P.E., M.ASCE, a vice president of Thornton Tomasetti. “We had to have an understanding of what might happen to the church for a number of different threat events where we [the church] were not the primary target.”

In the case of St. Nicholas, he continues, “there were certainly more considerations for progressive collapse prevention. If there was an event, our objective was to limit the collapse of the structure to get people out of the building. It’s not a very big building, so just to do this for a building of this size is pretty unusual.” For example, he says, the General Services Administration usually doesn’t require measures to prevent progressive collapse on buildings, like the church, that are three stories high or less.

By 2011 the church and the Port Authority resolved their legal issues, and the church invited a select group of firms to submit design proposals for the new building. St. Nicholas wanted a structure that looked like a Greek Orthodox church but was also consistent with the emerging environment at Ground Zero. “You can’t just take some Byzantine style church, miniaturize it down and place it within this environment,” Arey says.

Calatrava’s proposal best met the church’s needs. “It does come from the tradition of the domed Greek Orthodox church,” says Arey. “There isn’t much volume to the church. But it has mass. It is substantive. It has a certain weight, which it needs to have emotionally at Ground Zero.”

The challenge, of course, was to create a space that served both the parish and the larger city. “As the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11, whether it was a synagogue or a church, even if it was a mosque, the American thing to do is to rebuild it,” Arey says. “Rebuilding that church has much larger valence for our community than just rebuilding the parish.”

Frank Lorino, the chief architect of Festina Lente, LLC, which is the name of Calatrava’s New York office, says Calatrava initially began by considering the exterior of the church and looking at the grandest of all Byzantine structures, the fabulous Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul. While Hagia Sophia was enormous in comparison to St. Nicholas, the architects took away ideas about the formal characteristics of the great church, such as “how the dome is created with ribs, the idea of clerestory glazing, and how many windows there are, how the progression of spaces lead from the entry to the crescendo under the dome,” Lorino says.

Another rendering of the small St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church

The small St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, the only religious
space at Ground Zero, is meant to feel like a ring inside a case
when viewed from the nearby towers. Santiago Calatrava

He also also considered the smaller Church of the Rotunda in Thessaloniki, Greece, as well as the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, outside Istanbul, with what Lorina describes as “exquisite interior mosaic work,” as well as exterior striped banding, a hallmark of the Byzantine style.

The challenge was to bring these design cues back to the WTC site without allowing them to become pastiche. “It is never really applied; it’s somewhat of an ideal that undergoes a certain infusion through the development of the form that you have, which evolves to become its own thing,” Lorino says.

The form of the new church is a circular drum set inside a square plan—the drum is capped by a dome. The square corners of the building are meant to convey a sense of solidness. “Stone was a natural choice for the material,” Lorino says. “It carries the tradition and the dignity of the institution itself.” 

But the drum and dome, as it went through much iteration, offered a contrasting opportunity. Originally it was meant to be a fine lattice that would allow people to see through into the interior, Lorino says. The idea then developed into a translucent exterior skin made up of stone and glass laminated panels, giving the church a glow at night and bringing diffused light into the church during the day. Lorino describes this indirect light as a little hidden and mysterious.

The effect will be achieved by taking a thin plate of glass and laminating it to a thin plate of stone—together, these stone-and-glass panels, approximately 32 by 18 in. wide, would measure only about 5/8 in. thick. “The glass basically gives the stone a substrate on which to reside,” Lorino says. “The stone gives the glass a special translucent character, it gives it depth.” The effect will be not unlike the translucent Beinecke Library at Yale, only the church panels will be much thinner and the stone will be white, he says.

The panels will be set on a unitized frame that will form the dome. At night the drum and dome of the church will be illuminated, and the light will then fall softly, he says, onto the solid stone at the corners of the new structure.

Meanwhile, the interior of the church will be clad with simple stone floors and white walls. “It’s a very humble material palette,” says Lorino, “but it is formally a very rich space filled with light and form.”

Although Calatrava is also designing the large World Trade Center Transportation Hub nearby, he made no effort to link the designs. “The [church] building is at a scale that is so different from everything else on the site and surrounding it that we really looked at it like a ring inside a case that you would look at from above,” says Lorino. “Many of the viewers on a daily basis will be looking at it from their work spaces surrounding this building.”

“It really is a very small building,” Koutsomitis adds, “but I think it will have quite a presence there. That’s one of the reasons Calatrava’s scheme came through. The subtlety of it, the fact it will glow in the dark. It will have more of a spiritual presence on the site.”



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