Late in these late winter afternoons, something remarkable — and quite beautiful — occurs 62 feet below street level on the mezzanine of the new World Trade Center PATH station. The open-air room floods with daylight, clear and sharp, after the sun swings around a ravaged tower at 90 West Street and penetrates ground zero.
Pouring through the translucent scrims that serve as walls around the station, the sun fractures into countless points of light as it rakes the tiles in the new mosaic mural "Iridescent Lightning," a 118-foot-long, 12-foot-high fever line designed by Giulio Candussio of the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli in Spilimbergo, Italy. The piece zooms and dips between the north and south turnstile rows, enlivening the stark mezzanine with luscious slivers of cranberry, pomegranate, orchid, goldenrod, periwinkle and iris blue.
The PATH station is not intended to be permanent. And it certainly was not intended to be gorgeous. But like much of the temporary cityscape of Lower Manhattan, full of ephemeral landmarks that will disappear by the end of the decade, the station can sometimes feel sublime.
The station was designed by Robert I. Davidson, chief architect of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, working with the Pentagram studio. But it was shaped by exigencies of time, place and method. The PATH station had to go up quickly, like the Vesey Street and Rector Street pedestrian bridges over West Street-Route 9A, the viewing wall around ground zero and the Fulton Street viewing platform (already gone). These were built largely with off-the-shelf industrial elements and squeezed into constricted, sensitive sites. In each case, though, imagination was added to the mix, making the precinct around ground zero a showcase of smart architecture.
Why go to the trouble and expense? "While these architectural and design features will be temporary, they will be used for the next four or five years," said Charles A. Gargano, vice chairman of the Port Authority and chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, of which the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is a subsidiary.
"These features are a major step forward in the revitalization of Lower Manhattan," Mr. Gargano said, "and will be used in the coming years by the very people responsible for ensuring that New York remains one of the world's finest cities."
The aesthetic seems destined to endure, most notably in the Freedom Tower designed by David M. Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, working with Studio Daniel Libeskind. The upper reaches of the Freedom Tower will be an open-air framework, marked by the unmasked and unapologetically strong diagonals of trusses and suspension cables.
There is something poignant about these naked structures. They can be seen as expressing tentativeness about the future of ground zero, as if the city were not fully resolved to build things too permanently because it is impossible to say with comfortable confidence that the place will not be attacked again.
Yet these structures also exude a confidence of their own. Not only are they the groundwork of the future, they also rely very little on the conventions of the past, though the Vesey Street bridge does appealingly suggest the great train-shed stations of Europe.
The first phase of that 220-foot-long bridge was finished in November by the New York State Department of Transportation. It carries pedestrians from the base of the Verizon Building at 140 West Street to the base of 3 World Financial Center in Battery Park City. An extension, now under way, will help separate pedestrians from truck traffic at the nearby 7 World Trade Center construction site.
The Vesey Street bridge was designed by a team that included Stefan Dallendorfer and Johan Bjorkman of Earth Tech, a unit of Tyco International, evidently taking some cues from the Rector Street bridge, another temporary span to Battery Park City, by SHoP/Sharples Holden Pasquarelli, which opened in March 2002.
From the outside the Vesey Street bridge appears to be clad in a suit of armor that is gradually opening, a kind of metaphor for the evolution of ground zero, immediately to the south. Overlapping corrugated panels of perforated stainless steel and fiberglass-reinforced plastic appear solid from one angle, semitransparent from another. When illuminated at night, the bridge glimmers like an X-ray of itself, with the diagonal trusswork visible through the cladding.
Inside the bridge deck is surprisingly luminous, with a center strip of skylights made of milky-white translucent panels of Kalwall. Separating the trusses from pedestrians is a grillwork fence similar to that around ground zero.
The 13-foot-high fence around ground zero also serves as a viewing wall, an outdoor history exhibition and an impromptu memorial and depository for mementos. It was designed by Mr. Davidson, working with Pentagram, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the Skyscraper Museum, the New-York Historical Society and a planning group called New York New Visions.
Its basic element is a heavy galvanized steel grill. For continuity's sake, this system is used in the PATH station, too.
Display panels along the viewing wall are deliberately dark and monochromatic, except for red headlines, said Michael Gericke, a partner in Pentagram. But inside the station, he said, "We made a very deliberate decision to use color and celebrate Lower Manhattan." Red, blue and white vinyl panels were produced by inkjet printers.
Along the train platforms are photographs of the twin towers. On the monumental mezzanine upstairs, under the ranks of brilliant pendant fixtures are 22-foot-high bird's-eye photographs of Lower Manhattan by Robinson Aerial Surveys interspersed with maps by Pentagram showing corresponding blocks and building lots. Up at the concourse, street-level photographs by John Bartelstone enhance the sense of the neighborhood into which travelers are arriving.
Around the perimeter of the station are white scrims made of polyester knit mesh with a fire-retardant finish. These function as billboards for memorable quotations about New York, rendered in Bodoni letters 17.3 inches high. Or, to use a typographic measure, 1,824 points.
They run from the flippant ("If you're bored in New York, it's your own fault" — Myrna Loy) to the boastful ("New York is where the future comes to audition" — Edward I. Koch) to the lyrical ("New York is perhaps the world's greatest thoroughfare" — Walt Whitman).
"The quotes help make it an authentic New York place," Mr. Gericke said. "When you're there and you read them, you have a sense of the city and this emotional connection that people have always had to it."
But one vast, blank canvas remained: the 118-foot-long wall at the center of the station mezzanine, behind which are crew rooms, utility rooms and a police emergency room.
Here need coincided with history; history going back 26 years to an earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy. Within days of that catastrophe in May 1976, special relief funds had been set up around New York to aid victims and survivors.
In March 2002 Nemo Gonano, the president of the Scuola Mosaicisti, wrote to New York officials offering the gift of a mural from the people of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, "recalling how New York came to our aid in difficult times."
Port Authority officials realized that this offer, combined with a blank wall, made for "one of those great coincidences," Mr. Davidson said. "It's a perfect counterpoint to the overall look."
Once the artists were told the size of the wall, they made the mural to fit, said Mark J. Pagliettini, program manager for priority capital programs at the Port Authority. More than 30 artisans worked on the piece for four months. It was shipped to New York in 56 segments and assembled last month — in the bitter cold — by Romeo Burelli, Luca de Amicis and Igor Marziali, working with T. Moriarty & Son, a Brooklyn contractor.
According to the artists, "Iridescent Lightning" expresses creation, abstractly depicting as a lightning bolt the moment when the fingers of Adam and God touch, said Michael P. DePallo, the director and general manager of the PATH system. But viewers have seen other things in it: a stock market graph, naturally; a Richter scale, understandably; and an electrocardiogram. Nonetheless, Mr. DePallo said, "Everybody we've talked to is generally very positive."
The Port Authority plans to find a new spot for the mural in the permanent PATH station being designed by Santiago Calatrava, DMJM + Harris and STV, said Carla Bonacci, senior program manager for priority capital programs.
Mr. Calatrava has described the permanent station as a "lamp of hope in the middle of Lower Manhattan, creating an unbroken line of natural light from the platforms to the sky." To its credit, Mr. Davidson's temporary station has already set that tone.
Earlier this month, shortly after 4 one afternoon, sunshine streamed into the concourse through an open-air clerestory above the scrims. Skyscrapers rose in the distance. In the foreground, bundled-up commuters crossed concrete floors etched with shadows.
The sun highlighted the red letters on one of the scrims, forming this quotation from Truman Capote: "New York is a diamond iceberg floating in river water."
Cold. Brilliant. Inextinguishable. At that moment, in that place, it was..