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The Bird Man

The subtitle of the Metropolitan show implies an explanation of how Calatrava’s designs emerge in one medium and are more fully developed when transposed to another. But that process is never convincingly demonstrated. Photographs and models of buildings and the artworks which they putatively relate to are merely displayed near each other; some of the sculptures were made years after the structures they might seem to have influenced.

Whatever relevance Calatrava’s explorations in other mediums may have to his architecture, the artistic merit of his slickly finished stone, metal, and wood sculptures—especially the ones that seem to imitate Brancusi or come near to Noguchi—falls well beneath the standards of the world’s greatest encyclopedic museum. Startling in another way are the show’s two motorized kinetic sculptures: a wavelike undulating floor piece and, above the gallery entrance, Shadow Machine of 2005, a row of twelve white-painted metal hooks that flail up and down like the talons of some 1950s Japanese sci-fi monster. It is inconceivable that any of these works would ever have been exhibited at the Metropolitan were it not for the connection to Calatrava’s architecture.

The installation concludes with an astonishing juxtaposition. At the far end of the gallery, two tall, thin, tapered black granite sculptures flank the broad doorway opening onto a selection of the museum’s early-twentieth-century works. To the right stands Calatrava’s black granite Fruit of 1999, which closely resembles Brancusi’s Bird in Space. Centered in the room beyond is the real thing: the 1923 white marble version of Brancusi’s masterpiece, in all its inimitable perfection, a rebuke to Calatrava’s pretensions and the Metropolitan’s endorsement of them.

The objects on view in Santiago Calatrava: Clay and Paint, Ceramics and Watercolor, a concurrent show at the nearby Queen Sofía Spanish Institute, had much in common with the frieze-like drawings the architect created for his Metropolitan exhibition—Picassoid bulls in charcoal and Matissesque odalisques in red chalk. These ceramic vessels, made to Calatrava’s designs in the Valencian town of Manises, will inevitably be compared to the ceramics Picasso began producing in 1947 at the Madoura pottery works in the Provençal town of Vallauris. Picasso thoroughly transformed those blank earthenware jugs and pitchers through the wizardry of his draftsmanship, although his sly humor deceives those who underrate his ceramics as a mere footnote to his other work.

In going mano a mano against the most protean of all modern artists, Calatrava has entered a losing battle. The profiles of his pots retrace 1930s French and 1950s Scandinavian prototypes, but he decorates many of them in the contrasting red-and-black of ancient Attic vases. The surfaces of most of these pieces are incised with thin outlines of prim Arcadian nudes, less like the classical phases of Picasso and Matisse than Jean Cocteau’s slight approximations of them. Picasso’s creative urge was so uncontainable that he could not keep his hands off any material within reach; Calatrava’s repeated forays into mediums beyond engineering and architecture make it seem as though he’s intent on completing some imagined list of requirements.

3.

Mid-career retrospectives can do their subjects more harm than good, and although Calatrava’s Metropolitan show may well be a hit with museumgoers, it is unlikely to advance Calatrava’s quest for the kind of critical esteem that still eludes him. It’s a long way from Walt Disney to Frank Gehry, and Calatrava falls somewhere between the two. These days, the two architects are often mentioned in the same breath. They have competed for the same jobs (Gehry lost the Milwaukee Art Museum commission to Calatrava) and no doubt will continue to do so. Many see similarities in the swooping lines and swelling volumes of their architecture. But there are many more notable differences, beginning with the way in which Calatrava’s busy but basically obvious buildings can be comprehended at first glance (which many people find comforting), whereas Gehry’s complex and ambiguous compositions take more time to absorb.

When Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall of 1989–2003 in Los Angeles opened, it was greeted with praise only somewhat less rapturous than that for his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Yet little notice was given to Calatrava’s concert hall in Tenerife when it was dedicated, just a month before Disney. A remote location can affect journalistic interest in a new building, but Bilbao, never a cultural crossroads, quickly became a compulsory destination after Gehry’s triumph. Tenerife did not, though for another reason.

In a review of the two concert halls, the British critic Deyan Sudjic found in Calatrava’s work “the kitsch dark side to Gehry’s playful, free invention.”2 He drew a sharp rebuttal from the Spanish editor and critic Luis Fernández-Galiano, who decried Sudjic and others who admire Gehry but “write off the Valencian as a kitsch populist whose rhetorical humility is hardly in keeping with the megalomaniac scale of his works.”3

Kitsch is a word to be used with caution, devalued as it has become as an all-purpose pejorative for bad taste. In its classic definition, kitsch identified a specific phenomenon: the appropriation of a familiar thing that is then altered in scale, made in a different material, and assigned a wholly different and incongruous function, rendering the hybrid grotesque.4 Objects based on famous works of art and architecture are often cited as illustrations, such as a Venus de Milo figurine with a clock in its stomach or a Leaning Tower of Pisa pepper mill.

Architectural kitsch is most common in the commercial pop vernacular—typified by the Big Duck of 1931 in Flanders, New York, a Long Island roadside poultry stand resembling a duck, which Venturi and Scott Brown made a cult object through their writings. But similar imitations are not unknown in the higher reaches of the building art. All the indicators of kitsch converge in Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s PPG corporate headquarters of 1979–1984 in Pittsburgh, where the shape of Sir Charles Barry’s Victoria Tower of 1836–1860 for the Palace of Westminster in London was altered in size, function, and material, and transmogrified into a forty-story mirror-glass office building.

Just because a useful object or a work of architecture is representational does not make it kitsch. Frank Gehry’s Fish Lamp series of 1983–1986, Fishdance Restaurant of 1986– 1987 in Kobe, Japan, and fish sculpture of 1989–1992 at the Vila Olímpica in Barcelona are among many examples of a symbol he equates with the life force and has used to give his designs a greater feeling of animation. Those schemes have an antic pop sensibility much like that of the early work of Gehry’s friend Claes Oldenburg. The architect collaborated with Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen on the Chiat/Day Building of 1985–1991 in Venice, California, where the artists’ contribution was a sculpture of superscale binoculars upended to form a gatelike entry. The forthright humor and casual presentation of such an image in this kind of art and architecture is quite different from the contorted illogic of kitsch.

Several critics have described Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao as a giant fish, others see it as a mega-artichoke, and the billowing forms of his Disney Concert Hall make many think of a galleon. Gehry did not intend such specific references, but abstraction prompts people to define unfamiliar things by referring to things they know. When architects go too far in helping the public make such connections, the result is kitsch.

Calatrava’s formal inspirations most often come from nature, but the strangest of them thus far made a detour through the history of architecture. Since the 1920s, the visionary projects of the eighteenth-century French architects Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux have been seen as monumental modernism avant la lettre, although most of those schemes were never executed. Calatrava, for his Planetarium of 1991– 1996 at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, took designs by both architects and altered them in a way, it is safe to venture, that no other architect of his stature today would dare.

One of the Age of Enlightenment’s most hypnotic images is Ledoux’s rendering of his neoclassical theater of 1775–1784 in Besançon, surreally reflected in the colossal eye of an unidentified cosmic being. In 1784, Boullée dreamed up his Cenotaph for Newton—a massive globe with a hollow interior that would simulate the Sublime of celestial space. Calatrava conflated those two ideas in the Valencia Planetarium. Its auditorium is housed in a windowless ball centered under the continuous arc of the glass-and-concrete roof. Only the top half of the inner sphere is visible from ground level, but reflecting pools surrounding the structure complete the ocular illusion with a watery mirror image that turns it into a vast orb (resembling William Golden’s Eye logotype of 1951 for CBS).

Ledoux’s all-seeing eye never blinks, but Calatrava’s goes it one better. Motorized glass-and-metal canopies on opposite sides of the pavilion can be raised and lowered like eyelids, making the thin vertical members that move up and down with them seem like Brobdingnagian eyelashes. Calatrava often incorporates mechanized elements in his structures. When Cheryl Kent asked him why, he replied, like some architectural Sir Edmund Hilary, “Because it is possible, and because it is possible it is part of our time.”

Calatrava’s largest American commission to date is his $2-billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub at Ground Zero, which is now under construction, while the rest of that beleaguered rebuilding project languishes. In contrast to the nervous, fragmented forms of Daniel Libeskind’s master plan or the bland minimalism of Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s World Trade Center Memorial, Calatrava’s dazzling white steel-and-glass train station—which is scheduled for completion in 2009 and will have a motorized roof that will open the main concourse to the sky—seems optimistic and uplifting. Its symbolism is unmistakable, and many immediately interpreted it as a dove.

Calatrava has confirmed that this design began with his vision of the bird of peace fluttering up from the hands of a child—a vision later enacted by his young daughter, who released two white doves at the building’s groundbreaking. Like Libeskind, he has an intuitive understanding of the emotional issues in play at Ground Zero and is not shy about emphasizing them. Whereas Libeskind’s Freedom Tower invoked the Statue of Liberty, the revolution of 1776, and his own immigrant experience as shamelessly as a vaudevillian waving the Stars and Stripes to milk applause, Calatrava’s Transportation Hub, though not overtly patriotic, is just as implicitly commemorative, even though that was not the client’s requirement. And unlike the unlucky Libeskind, who has been pushed out of the project, Calatrava has been adept at pleasing the different interest groups involved in it.

When the design for the Transportation Hub was first presented at a press conference early in 2004, reaction was ecstatic, summed up by Mayor Bloomberg, who exclaimed, “‘Wow’ is the first word that’s got to come to your mind.” Others saw it as an instant historic monument, perhaps out of eagerness for some sort of makeshift memorial while the real one remains in limbo and rebuilding at Ground Zero remains stalled. As the chairman of the city’s landmarks preservation commission half-joked at the unveiling, “Should we preemptively landmark this?”5

4.

Calatrava’s avian obsession first manifested itself in the wing-shaped glass-and-steel canopy over the entrance to his Wohlen High School of 1983–1988 in Wohlen, Switzerland, but really took off with the pterodactylian wings of his Lyons Airport Station of 1989– 1994 in France, one of several train terminals he has built. His biggest American bird thus far is perched on the shore of Lake Michigan: the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, an addition to Eero Saarinen’s building of 1953–1957, which was expanded by David Kahler in 1975. In the museum’s official publication on the new building, Calatrava chooses a telling metaphor to describe what he deems his old-fashioned architectural education: “Learning was handed to me…. I preferred to hear a bird singing rather than a person singing like a bird.” Alexander Tzonis compares the building’s 217-foot-wide mechanized brise-soleil (or sunscreen) to “the wings of a great seagull.” Yet, as Kent reports, “the brise soleil does not do a wonderful job of keeping sunlight out.”

Many contemporary architects want to give their work a greater feeling of animation. No one does it better than Gehry, who has built some of the liveliest public buildings since the Age of Baroque. Lacking Gehry’s sculptural gifts, Calatrava hopes to create movement with the press of a button, and in designing the Quadracci Pavilion in Milwaukee he combined his two great fixations: birds and machine-powered building parts. Malfunctions have plagued his electronic components elsewhere. His preference for bravura effect at the expense of function can also be discerned in the disparity between the Quadracci Pavilion’s extravagant superstructure, which is little more than a lobby, and the dreary exhibition galleries consigned to the concrete box beneath it like some bothersome afterthought.

Calatrava based the museum’s new ground-level structure on Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal of 1958–1962 at Kennedy Airport in New York. Saarinen wanted that building to evoke a bird on the wing, no easy trick in a medium so fettered by gravity. Yet he managed to do that not by means as simplistic as Calatrava’s shallow symbolism, but by simulating a buoyant physicality analogous to flight with an aerodynamic flow of sinuous lines and billowing spaces. At TWA (before recent, ham-handed alterations), changes in floor levels were so gently finessed that they never interrupted continuity of movement. The illusion was so subtle and sustained that after one passed through the luminous, gently arching tunnel to the departure gates and finally boarded a plane, the real takeoff could come as an anticlimax.

Cost overruns are not uncommon in architecture, particularly for designs that depart from structural or technological norms, or demand a finer quality of execution than commercial schemes—conditions typical of buildings for cultural institutions. Budgets are exceeded for many reasons, not all of them within an architect’s control. Luck in timing can be crucial, especially on lengthy projects. I.M. Pei’s East Building of 1974–1978 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington was to have cost $70 million, but technical problems, labor disputes, and soaring prices during an inflationary decade pushed the total to $94.4 million. Rethinking a scheme when it is already underway can also prove expensive. The initial budget for Yoshio Taniguchi’s Museum of Modern Art of 1997–2004 in New York rose at least $52 million, in part because of changes the client requested during construction (which eventually cost $425 million, although the Education Building remains incomplete a year after the museum reopened). Projects that must be rushed to completion to meet an urgent deadline can incur punishing overtime charges. That happened with the 2004 Athens Olympics, whose centerpiece was Calatrava’s Olympic Stadium, which has a motorized roof and was finished just in the nick of time, and is the subject of another new book by Tzonis.

Overspending to create a conspicuous work of architecture can have a damaging effect on other institutions; it will take years for the Greek government to pay for its Olympic orgy. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Centre Georges Pompidou of 1971– 1977—the true prototype of the modern museum as popular architectural spectacle—wound up costing so much more than planned that the French government solved the shortfall by cutting support for several regional museums.

Much the same has happened in Milwaukee, where the cost of Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion almost quadrupled, from the original estimate of $35 million to $125 million. Sheldon Lubar, a trustee of the museum, told a newspaper that “he discovered that the project had been mismanaged by former trustees and staff members.”6 But the increase was caused at least in part by technical problems in constructing the building’s wing-like machine-operated brise-soleil. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, but buildings do not have to move, at least not in the literal and often costly Calatrava manner.

The emergency fund-raising drive the Milwaukee Art Museum launched to pay off the last $25 million in cost overruns set off a chain reaction that has brought several of the city’s older cultural institutions close to bankruptcy because of increased competition for local donations. Last June, the Milwaukee County Board guaranteed a $6 million loan to keep the Milwaukee Public Museum from closing, criticizing “building binges” that have fueled the funding crisis.7 After the initial spurt of curious visitors that followed the opening of the Quadracci Pavilion, attendance figures—and revenues from entry fees—have fallen below the museum’s projections, raising further financial concerns. Although the building has become the logotype for a comprehensive marketing strategy to stimulate Milwaukee’s flagging economy, the huge deficit run up by Calatrava’s scheme casts doubt on the judgment of local patrons.

Some other American cities, however, see the Milwaukee project not as a misadventure but as a model for improving their public relations. Buffalo is trying to use its considerable architectural heritage—which includes landmarks by H.H. Richardson, Sullivan, Wright, and Saarinen—as the basis of a program to increase cultural tourism and boost an economy that, like Milwaukee’s, is hardly robust. Nonetheless, historic buildings, no matter how distinguished, may not be enough to compete with wonders like the Quadracci, some Buffalo officials fear. According to Edward Healy of Buffalo’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, “You need awesome, you really do, because these other cities are doing awesome. That’s what creates buzz and incredible word of mouth.”8

The flashy contours, flamboyant engineering effects, and mechanical gimmickry of the Calatrava style are futuristic in a way that went out of fashion circa 1965, when the last New York World’s Fair closed. The seemingly advanced (though in fact retrograde) aspects of his architecture disguise its underlying sentimentality, and make it palatable to patrons of a certain sophistication who would reject more pronounced expressions of kitsch. That he has found a constituency in the art world is perplexing, but his appeal to a popular audience makes perfect sense. As cultural institutions around the world reinvent themselves as marketers of mass entertainment, the architecture they commission is reflecting that change all too clearly. Like the mythical Roc, the huge bird that flew Sinbad the Sailor to safety, the architecture of Santiago Calatrava speaks to magical hopes for salvation. And in the world he is helping to reshape, who would not want to be uplifted on the wings of the dove?

Letters

The Bird Man’ March 9, 2006

  1. 2

    Deyan Sudjic, “Landmarks of Hope and Glory,” The Observer, October 26, 2003, p. 6, reprinted in expanded form in Sudjic, The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World (Penguin, 2005), pp. 317–346.

  2. 3

    Luis Fernández-Galiano, “Fanfare and Fantasy,” AV Monographs 105–106 (January–April 2004), pp. 216–219.

  3. 4

    Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste (Universe, 1969).

  4. 5

    See David W. Dunlap, “A PATH Station That Honors 9/11, and Opens Wide, Too,” The New York Times, January 23, 2004, p. B1.

  5. 6

    See Steve Litt, “Despite Some Doubts, Art-Museum Expansion Should Work in Cleveland,” The Plain Dealer, September 25, 2005, p. J1.

  6. 7

    See Dave Umhoefer and Avrum D. Lank, “County Board OKs Museum Bailout Deal; Loan Guarantee Comes Amid Fears for Other Institutions,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 24, 2005, p. 1.

  7. 8

    See Mark Sommer, “Erie County Fiscal Crisis Cuts Deep into Tourist Potential,” The Buffalo News, July 19, 2005, p. A1.

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