Santiago Calatrava— the Spanish architect whose designs graced the Athenian skyline during the glory days of the Athens 2004 Olympics— has been selected to design St. Nicholas Church in New York City— the only house of worship destroyed in the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The New York Times called the designs, released recently to the public, “A gleaming, monumental and unmistakable symbol of Orthodox Christianity.”
The original St. Nicholas Church— a tiny building catering to a historic community of four generations of Greek immigrants and their descendants who once occupied Lower Manhattan— was crushed when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
Plans to rebuild the church have faltered, due to government red tape, in-fighting between agencies and governments, as well as the complexity of the issues that surround the site including construction, jurisdiction, security and more.
Images published by Calatrava featured a building that draws inspiration from the great Orthodox Christian churches of the East: Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, both in Istanbul.
The shallow dome of the new St. Nicholas Church will have 40 ribs, as does the dome of Hagia Sophia. Alternating bands of stone on the corners will echo the walls of the Chora church. Though both date to the early centuries of Christianity, they both were later used as mosques before becoming museums— a connection that has some observers and commentators on various blogs angered at the possible connection.
The New York Times suggested that a new debate would arise about the structure, and whether of not it was appropriate for the site.
“While that ecumenical provenance may accurately reflect the stated desire of the Greek Orthodox Church to create a space in which all visitors will feel welcome, it will almost certainly ignite a new round of debate over the role of religion at or around the World Trade Center. In 2010, national attention focused on a bitter fight over an Islamic community center and mosque that was proposed nearby.”
The newspaper continued: “That a Spanish architect should design a modern Byzantine church in Lower Manhattan for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, based on buildings in Turkey that were used for Islamic worship, goes to the heart of the message the archdiocese says it hopes to send with the $20 million project. The new St. Nicholas is to open by early 2016.
“If I may quote Jesus, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,’ ” said the Rev. Mark Arey, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “It will be open to everyone: the believer, the unbeliever, the Orthodox Christian, the atheist. Whoever you are, this is a space that you can come into and find some meditative solace.”
Comments on the website of the TriBeCa Citizen show that some viewers already say St. Nicholas resembles a mosque. Father Arey told The New York Times that he would welcome the dialogue ahead.
“The dome, invented by the Mycenaean Greeks, was a Christian form of architecture that was borrowed by the Islamic world,” he said. “There are going to be some wonderful teachable moments down the road.”