Architect Michael Garz (BA '72) has managed design for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, guided by lessons learned at UB

By Nalina Moses

Alumnus Michael Garz (BA ’72) shared his journey in managing design of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub for the past 12 years as our featured lecture during the Hayes Hall Grand Reopening. 

What could possibly prepare an architect to lead a project like The World Trade Center Transportation Hub? This new station is one of the biggest, most complicated, and politically- charged building projects in New York City’s history. Built on the site of the former Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, its program joins 11 city subway lines, commuter PATH trains to and from New Jersey, a web of pedestrian passages, a high-end shopping mall, an underground parking garage, and an expansive public plaza. Its centerpiece is a bracingly contemporary main hall, designed by famed architect and structural engineer Santiago Calatrava, that’s composed of curving white steel ribs nearly two hundred feet high.

Design management for one of the biggest, most complicated, and politically-charged building projects in New York City’s history has required nimble — and fearless — planning and decision making from Garz and his team. Photo by John Emerson 

Yet as architect-of-record for the Hub, Michael Garz, senior vice president at STV and regional director of its buildings and facilities division, says that his training at UB prepared him well to face the project’s one-of-a-kind technical and administrative challenges. 

Garz is a native New Yorker. He was born in Brooklyn, just a few miles from the site, and grew up just outside the city in Long Island. He came to Buffalo in 1968 to study aerospace engineering but switched to the School of Architecture and Environmental Design his junior year, graduating with its first class in 1972. The curriculum had a distinctly pragmatic bent, teaching architecture as a tool to grapple with real-world problems rather than a language for sophisticated form-making. Garz says, “The key was learning how to think about problems and not, as my engineering background had taught me, about solutions. That became a real key to the way I approached my entire career.” He summarizes the methodology like this: “Define the problem, set objectives, determine the criteria, and develop alternative solutions at each decision-making point.”

The new department had an energetic, informal spirit. Garz attended some classes in a former bar on Bailey Avenue, with stools set out on risers and students sprawled on the floor. With fondness, he describes the core faculty, which included Michael Brill, Terry Collison, George Borowsky, Richard Chalmers, and Ibrahim Jammal, as “a funky collection of individuals.” And he smiles when recalling the nights Jammal and his wife opened their beautifully appointed home to students for food, drink and mind-expanding debates. 

The $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub and its signature Oculus under construction. Photo courtesy of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey 

Garz went on to earn his MArch at the University of Pennsylvania and work at a number of well-known design firms in Philadelphia. But he never settled into the traditional architect’s role. From the start, he says, “I knew I had more impact on the outcome of a project not by being a designer, but by being a manager.” He developed talents for bridging architectural and engineering concerns, and for executing large-scale planning projects with multiple programs, structures and stakeholders. He led teams that completed downtown revitalization projects in Norfolk and Richmond, Va., and Atlantic City’s Convention Center/Rail Terminal.

Those projects were just a warm-up for the Transportation Hub. Carrying this enormous, highly publicized project to completion required nimble, fearless planning and decision- making. Parts of the Hub’s below-ground concourses and passageways sit directly below the Memorial Garden and the 9/11 Museum, which were being constructed at the same time, with overlapping supports. Pieces of the Hub’s design were unraveled when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg demanded that the Memorial Garden be prioritized to open in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, and then again when foundations for the Museum were located. Later, tracks for the #1 subway line, with trains running over them, had to be pinned in place from below while an underground concourse was excavated around them.

Even more daunting than the technical challenges were the political ones. “There was a real army of organizations involved,” says Garz. Key players included Calatrava, the building’s owner (the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey), the site’s master planner Daniel Libeskind, the general contractor, a construction management firm, and a major retail tenant. Community, city, state and federal authorities, including Homeland Security and the New York City Police and Fire Departments, each imposed unique safety requirements. Garz remembers one particular meeting attended by Calatrava, the Police Commissioner, and Homeland Security officials, at which Mayor Bloomberg plied the design team with technical questions about the properties of glass and steel.

The most demanding stakeholders might have been New Yorkers, who remember the attacks vividly, consider the site hallowed ground, and remain stubbornly nostalgic for the quiet, platonic forms of the Twin Towers. Initial reactions to Calatrava’s dramatic, biomorphic building were positive. Yet, as the project drew on and costs mounted, the Hub was later denounced as folly, a misuse of funds and an insult to those who died on 9/11.