Is This Forever?
I love churches, though I fear the feeling isn’t reciprocated. When you’re not a Christian, entering a church to admire it purely for its looks can feel disrespectful or sacrilegious. It also means taking on the risk of being approached by a kindly priest who mistakes you for one of the faithful or, worse, realizes you’re not and tries to tell you about Jesus. But, nonetheless, I love churches, and I can’t resist creeping into every pretty one I find, while keeping a weather eye out for the priest. I can’t say exactly what it is I love about them: certainly the airy design, especially of Catholic churches and cathedrals; and the use of figurative art, which my own religion (Judaism) lacks. There’s a sort of all-encompassing wholeness to a well-designed church, a unity of form and function and spirit, draped in the heavy mantle of eternity. When I visited Notre Dame in Paris I arrived accidentally in time for Saturday evening mass, and the combination of artistic elements—the vaulted ceiling, the painted stars, the incense, the singing—gave me something close to an aesthetic conversion experience. I cried. I thought of the cathedral’s history, the fact that it had been designed by people who mostly didn’t live to see its completion. Cathedrals are a prayer for the future, a belief that there will be a future and people to live in it, despite the certainty of war, upheaval, fire, disaster. Notre Dame has been through all of that and still survives: it was built for everyone, forever.
Santiago Calatrava, who recently designed the new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church near the former site of the World Trade Center, once had a similar aesthetic conversion experience in Notre Dame: in fact, in a 2022 profile he told Architectural Digest that entering the cathedral as a young man marked his “conversion into architecture.” The art student turned starchitect has since designed structures throughout Spain (a bridge in Bilbao, a winery in Álava, a huge arts complex in his native Valencia), as well as the Oculus transport hub in New York, kitty-corner to ground zero and the new church. Calatrava is known for his singular, dramatic style: big white swoops and arcs often formed by small straight elements bundled together to make a tensile whole (a sort of fasces, if you’re nasty). He’s also known for going outrageously over budget and, perhaps more damningly, for poor engineering and the rapid deterioration of his buildings. That bridge in Bilbao is slick and dangerous in the rain—in 2013 the New York Times nicknamed it “the bridge of broken legs.” The winery sued Calatrava because the roof leaks. The city of Valencia has been outraged over leaky windows and roofs throughout the arts complex, a total lack of attention to disability access, and the way that the mosaic exterior of the opera house has wrinkled away from the steel underneath. In New York, the much-maligned Oculus (the New York Post wrote that it resembles “some giant gray-white space insect”) has also suffered from a leaky ceiling, and the floor is noticeably chipped and cracking a mere seven years after opening. Calatrava might have been initially inspired by the beauty and eternity of cathedrals, but the latter quality has been noticeably absent from much of his work.
St. Nicholas, then, presented him with a real challenge: The church had to be of a much smaller scale than his usual sweeping designs, and it needed to last much longer—if not the centuries of Notre Dame, then at least more than seven years. Beyond the practical architectural challenges, there were also the demands of function and symbolism: The building needed to operate as a busy house of worship in order to replace the old St. Nicholas, which was destroyed by the falling south tower on 9/11, and because of that history and its proximity to ground zero, the church also needed to be dedicated as a national shrine to memorialize the event. To fulfill the latter requirement, it had to be a nonexclusive, nondenominational memorial, not just for Greek Orthodox practicants or even Christians more generally, but for the diverse range of New Yorkers and tourists who come from every imaginable nation and tradition. St. Nicholas had to be for everyone.
Photos of the church tend to show it at night, in isolation, as a glowing “jewel box” or “bauble” of light shining through the translucent Pentelic marble (the same kind of marble used in the Parthenon, as every press release about the church attests). In daylight, St. Nicholas is less remarkable: the marble of the dome takes on a sallow cast, especially on a cloudy day. Crowded in by towering skyscrapers, the church can look stubby and lost, like a toddler wandering through a mall. Many of the skyscrapers are still under construction: fancy condos for the most part, going for dangerously unspecified prices. Across the plaza, One World Trade Center gleams above the rest, as cold and professional as a steel hypodermic. On the cold February day when I visited, I found quiet construction or repairs going on toward the back of the church, and the crew wasn’t sure if it was open.
It was. The interior of the church is beautiful. It’s also tiny, its footprint composed of a small round chapel and two brief antechambers. Calatrava’s preference for unrelieved whiteness is overridden by a series of extraordinary murals painted in a fourteenth century Byzantine style, supposedly the handiwork of Father Loukas, a priest-monk from the monastery of Xenophontos in Greece. If they’re really the work of a single monk (rather than a studio, which they almost certainly are), then they’re nothing short of miraculous: covering the ceiling and much of the walls, the murals faithfully depict Christ and Mary and St. Nicholas in their traditional forms. The attack on the World Trade Center appears in a few discreet places—in one mural, a cop and a firefighter stand awkwardly among a group of saints in robes and sandals. Juxtapositions like these are a little off-putting but will likely be smoothed over by time. Hundreds of years from now—if the church lasts hundreds of years—differences in historical fashions will probably seem less stark: Byzantine saints and twenty-first-century firefighters alike will be figures of the past. Time has a way of telescoping like that. For us, right now, the design of St. Nicholas is cheating, just a bit: That Pentelic marble and those Byzantine paintings already take the expected forms of eternity. The church may have been built literally yesterday, but these materials trick us into thinking it has the gravity of something that has already endured. Still, the choice of traditional marble and already holy imagery means there’s blessedly little room for Calatrava’s leaky exuberance, and—that mysterious construction going on at the back notwithstanding—it seems that this church could succeed at being a church. As in, it could be a place that is meant to last.
The questions of whom St. Nicholas and the 9/11 memorial are really for and whom they exclude, are related to the questions of whom New York is for and whom it excludes. It’s certainly for luxury condos and the millionaires who can afford them, or at least afford to park their money in the shell companies that own them.
The harder question is whether the church succeeds at its other task: being a memorial, a place for everyone to grieve. The original wave of press about St. Nicholas claimed that it contained a “nondenominational bereavement center” where anyone could contemplate the losses of 9/11. If such a place exists, there is no signage for it, meaning that for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t. The quotes carved on the exterior wall nod at the nondenominational, maybe, but they also encourage a specific agenda. The first quote is John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, to sacrifice your life for your friends.” The second comes from the funeral oration for Pericles: “For they gave their lives for the common weal, and in so doing won for themselves the praise which grows not old the most distinguished of all sepulchers—not that in which they lie buried, but that in which their glory survives in everlasting remembrance.” These are strange and very particular choices. Did the victims of 9/11 sacrifice themselves for friendship or the nation, for glory and everlasting remembrance? There were individual acts of heroism on that day—civilians and first responders made sure that others made it to safety and sometimes died in the process—but the victims weren’t soldiers fighting in a war or people who set out to be heroes in any respect. They were mostly ordinary people who went to work on an ordinary day and died senselessly. That’s why it’s sad.
Between the church and One World Trade Center lie the 9/11 Museum and memorial pools. The museum is an appropriately sober block, and the Reflecting Absence pools, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, are squared-off waterfalls in the footprint of the absent towers, each surrounded by a smooth parapet of bronze carved with the names of the victims. In each pool, the water streams away into a deeper basin, the full depth of which can’t be seen from any angle. They are bottomless wells of grief, and that’s it. They are not about heroism, nor honor, nor sacrifice, nor any specific religion. The names offer no commentary about how and why these people died, leaving visitors no choice but to encounter them as representations of human beings who once lived. The whole park carries a feeling of a kind of secular eternity: memorializing not saints but, simply, people.
St. Nicholas hopes to cater to those who have visited the memorial and museum and afterward need a place, according to its website, to “pray, reflect, and seek solace.” The text continues: “Over 3,000 souls of all faiths perished in the attacks on September 11. The National Shrine, with its Justinian Cross, will tower over what is now essentially a gravesite for those martyrs that lost their lives on that horrendous day.” As it overlooks their grave, though, St. Nicholas can’t help but call them martyrs. They were souls of all faiths, to be sure, but here they are made into people who died for a cause. Whose cause? Certainly not their own.
It’s clear, though, that St. Nicholas has ascribed them both a cause and an enemy. On its website, the church claims that it is a “modern interpretation of Hagia Sophia.” (Calatrava divided the ceiling into forty ribbed panels, to invoke the forty windows in the dome of Hagia Sophia.) “As we all know,” the St. Nicholas site declares, “the Turkish Government defied world opinion and its own history when it converted Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. The National Shrine is the daughter of Hagia Sophia and will stand as witness not only to the vitality of Holy Orthodoxy, but for America’s commitment to religious freedom. The Shrine will be a defiant symbol of opposition to the forces of intolerance around the globe.” Without daring to unpack the long and complicated history of Greek-Turkish relations, the argument seems to be that St. Nicholas—and its invisible or unavailable nondenominational bereavement center—is committed to religious freedom, while the mosque of Hagia Sophia is not, simply because it is a mosque. By naming the victims of 9/11 martyrs, describing them on its doors as sacrifices in the name of the nation, St. Nicholas claims to defy intolerance, but ultimately these gestures support rather than condemn the terrorists’ perception of 9/11 as a battle in a holy war.
A few blocks from St. Nicholas and the 9/11 memorial, you may come upon Park Place, an unremarkable side street with some new construction. This would have been the site of the vaunted “ground zero mosque” which was never actually planned to be a mosque, but rather an Islamic cultural center. The model for this cultural center would have been something like the JCC (Jewish Community Center): not necessarily or exclusively a place of worship, but, as journalist Rowaida Abdelaziz described it for HuffPost, “a place that catered to not just one religious community, but to all New Yorkers―a gateway to interfaith programming and a beacon of religious pluralism and tolerance.” You may remember what happened: the project was announced in 2010 to enormous xenophobic backlash. The presence of a “mosque” (or any sort of Islamic cultural center) was considered by many conservatives and even liberals to be an insult to the memories of the victims. The organizers faced death threats: Daisy Khan, one of the founders of the project, was home alone in New Jersey when someone threw a brick through her window. She later told herself, per Abdelaziz: “Suck it up. This is your life now. If you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die a martyr.” If Khan had been killed for her religion, then in this case the terminology would have been accurate. In the end, she lived, and the project is in limbo, if not totally dead. Any construction currently happening on Park Place is for luxury condos. Abdelaziz reports that, for Khan, who hasn’t visited the area since the condos started going up, “just the thought of passing by overwhelms her with sadness.”
The questions of whom St. Nicholas and the 9/11 memorial are really for and whom they exclude, are related to the questions of whom New York is for and whom it excludes. It’s certainly for luxury condos and the millionaires who can afford them, or at least afford to park their money in the shell companies that own them. Calatrava’s Oculus has been ridiculed not just because it’s falling apart (though it is) and because it looks like a mutant escapee from one of the dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History (though it does), but because the station doubles as a faceless luxury mall. St. Nicholas is supposed to provide a place for tourists visiting the 9/11 memorial to rest and grieve, but in the Oculus, as Alan G. Brake writes for Dezeen, “Calatrava’s task is to draw as many of those people down to the shopping concourses below as possible, converting tourists into consumers.” That’s the real American religion and national purpose: shopping. But the stores are too expensive, the brands too generic, and the echoing white vistas too lonely and alien. There’s none of the intimate, painstaking beauty of St. Nicholas.
The last time I was in the Oculus, a huge piece of construction equipment was cordoned off in the center of the entrance hall, and people stepped carefully around it, in case it was another honored relic of 9/11. But there was no plaque, and the machine was surrounded by what appeared to be replacement floor tiles. When the lights go out in the Oculus shops, workers labor to fix the tiles that Calatrava too carelessly designed—he insisted, according to New York magazine, on using an Italian marble that was too fragile for the purpose and poorly fitted, given the radiant heating system underneath. These repairs come at further great expense to the city, while luxury condos go up and up and tourists file in and out, gawking at the luxury handbags on their way to and from the memorial, and unhoused people beg for a meal in the streets.
If St. Nicholas does nothing more than provide a warm place where someone can sit for a few minutes without having to pay for anything, then maybe it does enough. If, unlike much of Calatrava’s other work, it lasts a tidy few years, then it may be more than enough. If it can’t be truly nondenominational, or even stop itself from affirming the existence and necessity of a Christian-Muslim holy war—well, maybe it’s too much to ask that a church be anything more than beautiful. Those murals really are exquisite: They were obviously painted with great care and an eye toward longevity. Against the frailty and inequality and stupidity of human life, they offer the immortality of art and religion, the assurance that some things may endure to be seen and remembered.
Lyta Gold lives in Queens. You can often find her puttering around Astoria’s Most Precious Blood church.