FAST TRACK: A Temporary Commuter Rail Station Brings Everyday Life Back to the World Trade Center Site in Lower Manhattan

By Abby Bussel – Architecture Magazine – Feb 2004

When the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey moved into its offices in Minoru Yamasaki’s then brand-new World Trade Center in 1973, Robert Davidson walked through the door a junior designer. On September 14, 2001, as the authority’s chief architect, Davidson and his team began to discuss rebuilding the regional commuter station beneath the Twin Towers that had been destroyed in the terrorist attacks. Late last year, the first trains arrived at a temporary station on the trade center site.

Against a backdrop of hand-to-hand political combat that has characterized the master-planning process for the 16-acre site, Davidson has not only rapidly restored PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) service between Lower Manhattan and New Jersey, but in doing so he has reconciled fiscal restraint with civic aspirations, industrial-strength materials with monumental spaces. Signaled by a remarkably lithe street-level steel canopy, the open-air station pulls commuters through a procession of below-grade, concrete and steel spaces before depositing them onto train platforms.  From city street to platform, it is a transformations spatial experience long absent from decades of dull public works.

“We looked at what was there before the attacks-we kept platform configurations, track geometries, and the column grid – but otherwise went to a clean slate,” explains Davidson.  (His team also had to rebuild flooded Hudson River tunnels, including new tracks and electrical infrastructure.)  The organization of new spaces around these predetermined conditions was another challenge altogether, but one met with a simple solution.  By building a long concourse a level below the street, the Port Authority team retained the original location of the station’s escalators (and their adjacency to the platforms), connected the PATH to several subway lines, and allowed the entrance stairs to be oriented on a diagonal to Church Street, which defines the east edge of the site, ensuring flexibility in the imminent staging and phasing of Santiago Calatrava’s permanent transit hub, which will sit just south of the temporary station.

The Port Authority team also saw in its charge an opportunity to learn from what hadn’t worked well in the original subterranean retail concourse and mass transit portal, where”cross-flow” of commuters and office workers obscured street exits, subway and path entrances. Low ceilings and haphazard retail and directional signage made the old concourse claustrophobic and confusing. With the groundplane empty, says the chief architect, “we had room to make higher, (more) monumental spaces.”  A single newsstand aside, there are no retail tenants and site, just clearly marked circulation routes. And with only one stairway and one elevator to the street, crossflow is no longer an issue.

With its location and configuration determined, the experiential quality of the station began to take shape, united by continuous series of mural size photographs of the city and supergraphics quotes about the metropolis.  The designers took their formal cues from a viewing wall they had installed along the eastern edge of the trade center site two summers ago. “We carried this notion underground,” says Davidson, alluding to the walls galvanize steel grillage, a refined riff on the ubiquitous chain-link fence.  “With no environmental controls in a temporary station to worry about,” he adds, “we could keep wall enclosures to a minimum.”  Vast stretches of white vinyl scrim are all that separate commuters from the empty trade center site and the surrounding cityscape.  This veil provides passive ventilation, brings in natural light, and keeps out construction dust. What this scrim will not do is mitigate the sounds of lower Manhattan, which will grow louder as the rebuilding process proceeds. In New York City, however, this signals nothing as much as life’s normal rhythm.

client – The Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey

architect – The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Engineering Department, Engineering/Architecture Design Division, Architecture Unit, New York City – Robert I. Davidson (chief Architect); Robert Eisenstadt (principal Architect); Russell Kriegel (project architect); Marek Zamdmer (design architect); Lev Braslavsky, Michael Chin, Rhonda Kearse, Melissa Miranda, Michael Newman, Izyaslav Palskovsky, Arvind Somvanshi, Joesph Warner (project team)

associate architect – The Ives Group, Fair Lawn, New Jersey; Joel Ives (principal)

area – 250,000 square feet

cost -$260 million

This article originally published in the Architecture Magazine issue of February 2004, republished here by

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The Ives Architecture Studio (TIAS), based in Fair Lawn, NJ, has over 30 years experience in the disciplines of architecture, interior design & planning.

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