A FLAIR WITH CONCRETE AND STEEL
Zurich-based Spanish architect SANTIAGO CALATRAVA tells y-jeanmun-delsalle how he creates inspirational spaces that convey emotions through a personal artistic approach
architect, artist and engineer Santiago Calatrava made a name for himself by constructing a series of graceful, harp-like bridges and dramatic, sculptural buildings, which elevated engineering to an art form. He creates architectural masterpieces of astonishing beauty rather than strictly utilitarian ones. In New York City, his World Trade Center Transportation Hub is stunning, the major public commission speaking of his aesthetic virtuosity.
The Oculus is composed of steel ribs and glass arranged in a generous elliptical shape. Between two gigantic arches, a roughly 100m-long operable skylight frames a sliver of the sky, and opens on temperate days as well as annually on September 11, enabling natural daylight to flood into the structure and filter down through all floors to reach the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (Path) train platform about 18m below ground. Although it could be compared to motifs from different world traditions — the Byzantine mandorla, the wings of cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant, the sheltering wings on Egyptian canopic urns — the shape, according to Calatrava, references a bird released from a child’s hands.
“One of the things I find most exciting about architecture is that it is an activity that has the capacity to offer works that, apart from being useful in their functional role, make it possible to convert spaces into something inspirational,” he states. “As architects, through our work, we are able to transmit feelings to whoever is contemplating it. By developing this functional role that also provides a service, the architect has the capacity to establish extraordinary relationships with people, which is, by itself, something beautiful.”
Calatrava, whose reputation is centred more on form and less on function, is an architect known less for his pragmatism. When not making buildings, you’ll find the aesthete creating sculptures, ceramics and paintings. Drawing is integral to his deeply personal creative process, as he sketches and produces watercolours endlessly to explore and rework his architectural designs.
Born in 1951, he attended the Arts and Crafts School in Valencia from the age of eight. Obsessed with drawing, he carried his pencils with him wherever he went and seemed destined for a career in art until he discovered the work of Le Corbusier. After graduating with a degree in architecture from the Polytechnic University of Valencia in 1974, he took a post-graduate course in urbanism and studied civil engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to learn how buildings are constructed in order to push the limits of architectural convention, earning a doctorate in 1981. That same year, he established his own architectural and engineering firm in Zurich, before subsequently opening offices in Paris, New York and Dubai.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always felt a profound attraction towards the arts,” Calatrava discloses. “I was very influenced by my parents, from whom I learned to consider art as a state of mind that is able to move us. When I turned 16, I moved to Paris with the intention of studying fine arts, but it was May 1968 and the school was closed due to riots. During my time in the city, I entered a shop to buy paintbrushes and I found a book on Le Corbusier, which was a revelation for
me. Unable to start my studies in Paris, I returned to Valencia, enrolled myself in arts school, and later in architecture school. During those years, I balanced my studies with trips across Europe, which allowed me to learn about vernacular architecture and acquire unforgettable life experiences.
“This learning process has served me both in my training as an architect and in the practice of my profession later on. Often, when you have dedicated yourself for such a long time to one job, you find yourself in a completely different place from where you had started. What’s important is that throughout your route, you’re able to find the path to express emotions through your works.”
Calatrava quickly built up a reputation for combining high-tech engineering solutions with grand visual spectacles, particularly in his mastery of bridge-building. His Alamillo Bridge, built for Expo ’ 92 in Seville to provide access to an island that hosted the exhibitions, features a 142m-high pylon slanting asymmetrically away from the river, holding up a span with over a dozen pairs of cables, thereby transforming the bridge into a type of sculpture that could revitalise the surrounding environment.
Other notable bridges include the Bach de Roda Bridge in Barcelona, the Campo Volantin Footbridge in Bilbao, the Woman’s Bridge in Buenos Aires, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas, the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin, the Fourth Bridge Over Canal Grande in Venice and the Bridge of Strings in Jerusalem.
“I believe each one of the projects I’ve created reflect who I am as an architect,” he remarks. “It’s logical that there’s an evolution both in design and process because our life is a continuous learning curve. I’ve always attempted to speak my own language. That doesn’t mean a person can be entirely autonomous; one is constantly subject to outside influences. But I always have the ambition of bringing my own ideas to life and incorporating my feelings into my projects.”
His innovative buildings of concrete and steel showcase organic shapes and rhythms as well as zoomorphic forms. “I’ve always been inspired by nature,” Calatrava explains. “We can see how it renews itself constantly, offering multiple nuances and sensations, which are not always the same for every person. From that inspiration, architects have to look for their own language, a way of expressing themselves. All this is very obvious in my work and in the way I design a project.”
His spiralling Turning Torso apartment tower in Malmö, Sweden, evokes a twisting spinal column, while the Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport Railway Station suggests a bird with outspread wings about to take flight. Numerous iconic works have followed, including the Stadelhofen Railway Station in Zurich, an opera house, a science museum, a planetarium and gardens for the almost-35ha City of Arts and Sciences that gave a new lease of life to an underdeveloped and neglected area of Valencia, the Liège-Guillemins TGV Railway Station, the Palacio de Congresos convention and exhibition centre in Oviedo and the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.
Other projects on the drawing board or under construction include one in central Huashan, China, which comprises three large vehicular and pedestrian arch bridges for access across a new canal. These connect the road level to promenade pathways at the canal level, and include relaxation zones around and beneath the bridges.
With Peninsula Place, Calatrava is at the heart of the transformation of Greenwich Peninsula, London’s single largest regeneration project set to become a new cultural district. The roughly 130,000sqm development will include a new tube and bus station, a theatre, a cinema, a performance venue, bars, shops, a well-being hub and a nearly 25m-high winter garden over which three towers of workspaces, apartments and hotels will rise; all are tied to the Thames via a new land bridge.
Mixing contemporary, sustainable design with the UAE’s rich culture and heritage, the Dubai Creek Tower landmark, inspired by the forms of a lily and minaret, will feature 10 observation decks as part of an elongated, oval-shaped bud at the top of the tower, while the slender stem acts as the structure’s spine, with cables linking the building to the ground representing the ribbing of the lily’s leaves.
Calatrava describes his hopes for the future: “Architecture must face environmental issues such as climate change. The environmental impact of buildings must be considered, as well as the carbon footprint and the use of recyclable materials. We cannot avoid any of these issues. Architecture needs to create buildings that are aligned with our mind and spirit, and don’t destroy, but rather, integrate harmoniously with the landscape.”
LEFT: SPANISH ARCHITECT SANTIAGO CALATRAVA; BELOW AND OPPOSITE: THE WORLD TRADE CENTER TRANSPORTATION HUB IN NEW YORK CITY CREATES A PAUSE AMID THE DENSE COMMERCIAL TOWERS