• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Bird Man

Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture into Architecture

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,October 18, 2005–March 5, 2006

Santiago Calatrava: Clay and Paint, Ceramics and Watercolors

an exhibition at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute, New York,October 19–November 26, 2005


Great architects are often blamed for the sins of their copyists. The twentieth century’s most influential master builder, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, saw his daring reduction of the tall building into glass skin and steel bones debased by postwar developers who quickly grasped how profitable that formula could be if stripped of his fine materials and exquisite details. In the 1960s, the pervasiveness of inferior versions of Mies’s designs incited Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to advocate, in such books as Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas as well as in their own buildings, a richer vocabulary of historical and vernacular allusions; but opportunistic postmodernists perverted their ideas into mere styling tips.

Frank Gehry is the latest to suffer that galling form of flattery. The global ballyhoo that surrounded the debut of his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of 1991–1997 presaged an outbreak of hideous imitations. Yet Gehry’s idiosyncratic expressionism cannot be mimicked with as much facility as Mies’s minimalism or Venturi and Scott Brown’s mannerism. Indeed, the onus of plagiarism lies most heavily on Gehry himself, as each new client expects the next Bilbao. Gehry’s influence has been less specific in its effects on architectural style but no less significant: the example of Bilbao has encouraged establishment patrons to award commissions to a younger generation of experimental architects whom they never would have considered before. And none of them has benefited more from Gehry’s impact than Santiago Calatrava, architecture’s newest superstar.

Born in Spain in 1951, Calatrava for the past three decades has been based in Zurich, where he earned a doctorate in technical science at the Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule and established his own office. His career got off to a fast start when, at thirty, he began executing the striking series of bridges with which he made his name. Before long he was being compared to the great Swiss-French engineer Robert Maillart, whose pared-down bridges, viaducts, and other infrastructure of the 1930s became the International Style’s ideal of the elegant solution in civil engineering.

Santiago Calatrava: The Bridges, one of three new books by the architect’s principal chronicler, Alexander Tzonis, shows why the allure of those designs is hard to resist, particularly the gleaming, graphic, all-white structures set amid verdant landscapes. A perfect example is Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge of 1996–2004, which spans the Sacramento River in Redding, California. On one bank of the stream, a lone, towering pylon tilts landward at an acute angle, like a catapult ready to be sprung. The bridge’s seven-hundred-foot deck is supported by a harp-like series of cables strung out from the mast and inscribing an enormous triangle. Although the engineering format is identical to that of Calatrava’s Alamillo Bridge of 1987–1992 in Seville, the Sundial Bridge seems more lyrical, no doubt owing to its setting in an ecological preserve, as well as the north–south position that allows the pylon’s shadow to indicate the time of day, hence the project’s name. No wonder the Sundial Bridge has quickly become a tourist attraction, as its sponsors had hoped when they hired today’s most celebrated designer of infrastructure.

Calatrava often uses exaggerated or distorted parabolic arches to increase the sculptural effect of his bridges. The complex curves of the Campo Volantin Footbridge of 1990–1997 in Bilbao thus give the relatively small structure a stronger presence of large volume than a more straightforward scheme might convey, useful in this case because of the bridge’s close proximity to Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, nearby on the banks of the Nervión River. Yet the Campo Volantin Footbridge and some other Calatrava spans are insistently romantic in a way that Robert Maillart’s ethereal yet controlled designs never are. As Cheryl Kent writes in her new book on the architect’s Quadracci Pavilion of 1994–2001 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, “The consistent theme in Calatrava’s work is to dramatize and mystify the physics of structure.”

Some of Calatrava’s coprofessionals have cast a skeptical eye on what they see as his tendency to overelaborate his designs and obfuscate the underlying structure. This is hardly typical in engineering, a discipline whose practitioners consider it more a science than an art, much less a form of magic. Any engineer or architect will attest that it is hard to keep a design simple. On the other hand, the duplication of design in order to enhance visual effects, detectable in some of Calatrava’s bridges, is also not easy to produce. Not all of his eye-catching gestures are useful functionally; they must be augmented by less apparent components that actually do the heavy lifting. As Marc Treib, an architect who teaches at Berkeley, remarked to me: “With Calatrava there is the bridge, and then there is the real bridge.”

The architect Renzo Piano once told his longtime technical collaborator, the engineer Peter Rice, of his interest in the young Calatrava’s work. Piano recalled to me Rice’s cautionary response: “Something is not right there. When you design a bridge, you go from here to here,” which the engineer illustrated with a quick horizontal swipe of his finger. Then, Rice added, “You do not go from here to here,” arching his right hand over his head and touching his left ear.1

Several buildings Calatrava has completed since Rice’s death in 1992 make the engineer’s gesture seem prophetic. A good example is the Tenerife Concert Hall of 1991–2003 in the Canary Islands. This was a product of the frenzied moment when several other Spanish cities—especially Bilbao and Valencia—felt compelled to commission attention-getting architecture to compete with Seville, site of the 1992 World’s Fair, and Barcelona, the host city of the 1992 Olympics. Not to be outdone by any of them, the government of Spain’s Atlantic island outpost asked Calatrava to design an instant landmark that would give Tenerife what Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House of 1957–1973 has given Australia’s largest city: an architectural logotype as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal.

The white-painted concrete shells enclosing the oceanfront Tenerife auditorium are overarched by a cantilevered, sickle-shaped roof, 190 feet high and intended to suggest a tsunami-size wave. As Tzonis writes in his new monograph, Santiago Calatrava: The Complete Works, “This is perhaps the most extreme analogy implying movement ever generated by Calatrava.” The 1990s Spanish mania for spectacular architecture has since become an international vogue, one reason why Calatrava’s theatrical aesthetic is being so warmly received in many parts of the world.

Beyond his power to bemuse, Calatrava has won many admirers because his body of work is exceptionally consistent by current-day standards, especially those of the present architectural avant-garde. His polar opposite is Rem Koolhaas, whose clients never know what they might get from that mercurial master, and whose schemes, though unfailingly fascinating and often brilliant, follow no predictable stylistic pattern. Yet Calatrava’s streamlined all-white architecture—instantly identifiable as his alone, and distinctively different from that of any of his contemporaries—is not quite so original as some believe.

Calatrava is the first to admit this, as he often cites his debt to Antoni Gaudí, although he clearly has no affinity for the eccentric, handmade quality of the Catalan master’s buildings, with their bizarre admixtures of materials, textures, and colors. Instead, Calatrava is drawn to the way in which Gaudí modeled structural elements that resembled stylized animal skeletons. The bonelike columns that can be seen in Gaudí’s drawings and models for his Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, on which he began to work in 1884, reappear in Calatrava’s unexecuted scheme of 1991 for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. And the long enfilade of parabolic arches at Gaudí’s Colegio de Santa Teresa de Jésus of 1889–1894 in Barcelona is so similar to passages in the work of Calatrava that he must know that building well.

It is easy to pay homage to a genius like Gaudí (especially if you are also Spanish), but the ghosts of other, less memorable, architects haunt Calatrava’s oeuvre, including some little-remembered mid-twentieth-century modernists. The lacy, attenuated neo-Gothic canopies that the Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki made the centerpiece of his Federal Science Pavilion at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair have rematerialized, in modified form, in several Calatrava projects. The radial concrete ribs and parabolic arches associated with the Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi are commonplace in Calatrava’s buildings. Less easy to pinpoint but palpable nonetheless is a naiveté similar to that of Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland of 1955 at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, which synthesized motifs by some of the same once-fashionable architects Calatrava continues to channel.

The future never stands still, of course, and Tomorrowland—the first version of which imagined what the world of 1986 might look like—has been remodeled twice, in 1967 and 1998, so as not to be out-of-date. If Calatrava seems to have moved backward through that time warp in his nostalgia for the Space Age, he has taken many fans along for the ride. To them, the ambition of Calatrava’s architecture is exhilarating, and reassuring in its recollection of a time, not so long ago, when technology held out the promise of unlimited human progress. Calatrava’s confident and awe-inspiring public works tap into a deep-seated desire for a future quite different from the one we are facing, a yearning that does much to explain his extraordinary success.


This has been an annus mirabilis for Calatrava. Earlier this year he was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, its highest honor, joining Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, and Gehry, among others. In October, Calatrava’s Reina Sofía Palace of the Arts, a $143-million opera house in his birthplace of Valencia, was inaugurated, the last major structure in his City of Arts and Sciences, an eighty-five-acre development that also includes his Science Museum and Planetarium. Later that month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave him the accolade of its first exhibition on a living architect since its Marcel Breuer show opened in 1972.

Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture into Architecture was eagerly anticipated not just because one-man architecture shows have become so rare in New York (particularly at the Museum of Modern Art, once a mainstay of the genre). This survey also offers the first evidence of what may be expected from Gary Tinterow, the new curator in charge of the Metropolitan’s recently reconfigured Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art (who organized the exhibition with his assistant curator, Jane Adlin).

The Metropolitan exhibition’s subtitle, Sculpture into Architecture, reflects its subject’s deep desire to be taken seriously as an artist; it must have seemed a dream fulfilled when he saw the banners over the museum’s entrance this autumn: Calatrava, Van Gogh, Fra Angelico. At the turn of the twenty-first century, as Calatrava approached his fiftieth birthday, prospering but restive, he apparently devised a game plan to elevate his status by rebranding himself as an artist–architect and establishing himself in the United States, where he was not yet a big name. He hired a New York public relations firm specializing in high-end cultural accounts, which in 2000 arranged a Calatrava press junket to Valencia, Zurich, and Florence, in the last of which a survey of his work much bigger than the current New York show was grandly mounted at the Palazzo Strozzi.

  1. 1

    Conversation with Renzo Piano, New York, September 22, 2005.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print