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Santiago Calatrava

Sculpture into Architecture

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 18, 2005 to March 5, 2006

Rendering of 80 South Street

Rendering of planned residential skyscraper at 80 South Street in Lower Manhattan

By Carter B. Horsley

Santiago Calatrava in recent years has ascended to the pantheon of internationally acclaimed architects and his fame now is exceeded only by Frank O. Gehry (see The City Review article).

His 80 South Street project along the East River, shown above in a rendering, for developer Frank J. Sciame in Lower Manhattan is the city's most eagerly anticipated new project, even more so probably than the Freedom Tower project at Ground Zero on the other side of downtown as it is more flamboyant and radical. It is, however, still unclear whether it will get built as the developer is still testing the market for its ten very expensive four-story-townhouses-in-the-sky condominium units. (Gehry's design for an even taller, mixed-use tower a few blocks away has yet to be unveiled, leading some observers to speculate that both towers could be even more important skyline catalysts for a renaissance of Lower Manhattan that the developments around Ground Zero.)

Rendering of railroad terminal near Ground Zero

Rendering of railroad terminal at site of demolished World Trade Center

Calatrava's transportation hub in Lower Manhattan, shown above, is advancing, however, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art currently has given him a one-man show of his architecture, sculptures and drawings, the museum's first exhibition on a living architect since 1973.

In his October 24, 2005 review of the show at the Metropolitan Museum for New York Magazine, Mark Stevens observed that "During the interminable struggle to respond appropriately to 9/11, a slugfest that’s generated vast clouds of political and bureaucratic dust, we’ve had only one blue-sky moment - the unveiling last year of Santiago Calatrava’s luminous transit station at ground zero. The immediate response, even among weary cynics, was something like At last! New York’s finally rising to the challenge. The building not only represented a classical expression of hope (it evoked a bird taking flight) but gloried in the city’s past. It invited comparison to the secular cathedrals of Grand Central and the old Penn Station, and, equally, to the city’s great modernist celebrations of movement, Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at Kennedy airport and Pier Luigi Nervi’s bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge. Maybe, just maybe, the bravura new building suggested, civic culture in New York was not moribund. Maybe New York would once again find the energy to dream big. Maybe it would have a 21st century. In the same period, Calatrava also proposed building a skyscraper near the Brooklyn Bridge, at South Street. This building was as culturally provocative as his ground-zero station. It seemed to infiltrate and subtly challenge the skyline, which is where New York dreams. Recently, the skyline has been bulking up like an athlete on steroids, the muscular boxes crowding out the slender spires of an earlier era. Calatrava, by contrast, presented New York with a slender, light-as-air building, one composed of twelve stacked cubes that rise like a stairway to heaven. Each cube was a residence, a townhouse afloat in the sky. And each, to be sure, was absurdly expensive. But the idea also seemed otherworldly, magical. He was putting the sky back in the skyline. It was the first New York building in a long while to provoke that peculiar architectural compliment: 'What’s that!' In the United States, he’s given Milwaukee a talk piece, creating an addition to its lakeshore art museum that has a dramatic brise-soleil that opens and closes like the wings of a bird. He will build a cathedral in Oakland, and, perhaps, the tallest skyscraper in Chicago....If Frank Gehry is obsessed with the 'skin' of buildings, as many critics suggest, then Calatrava delights in revealing their bones. But he’s nothing like a 'form follows function' man; there’s not much residue, in his sensibility, of the puritanical strain of modernism that once rejected ornament and artifice. Calatrava is essentially a baroque artist. He’s theatrical. He loves movement. He uses contemporary engineering to create acrobatic curves to wow an audience. His buildings are often biomorphic in appearance - like those of Saarinen, the fanciful modernist who is one of his heroes - rather than rectilinear. He likes the arc. His signature shape is the wing....Calatrava’s bridges - arguably his best work - are often whimsically asymmetrical. They suggest a smile or a wave of the hand, instead of a trudge across no-man’s-land. His airports and railway stations have an airy quality of uplift....The Milwaukee addition evokes masts and sails as well as wings. The transportation hub at ground zero was inspired by the thought of a child releasing a bird into the air. A man of curves in a city of grids, Calatrava could help change our visual culture. But his more important role may simply be to embolden New York. If Calatrava gets a number of important commissions - and our pusillanimous pols don’t financially starve his ground-zero station to death - he could help change the visual culture of New York. A man of curves in a city of grids, he could soften some of the city’s hard edges and awaken a more feminine, playful spirit. (He loves the Flatiron Building, with its prowlike curve and strange raked angles.) Calatrava believes that New York needs many more excellent buildings of “intermediate” scale, to help humanize and modulate the powerful effect of so many towers. He’s also an architect who insists upon air and light, which is rarer than you might think. The weight of New York is impressive, of course, but that doesn’t mean architects shouldn’t also think about dematerializing line, floating forms, and bringing more light down from the sky. Perhaps Calatrava’s emphasis upon engineering and technological whiz-bang will also help revive the now moribund tradition of creating brazen engineering marvels."

Calatrava at press preview

Santiago Calatrava, at right, at press preview of show at the Metropolitan Museum

Calatrava's fame is based on his extravagantly graceful and poetically alluring bridges, transportation centers and museums. They are invariably light-colored structures whose complex but cohesive forms are easier to comprehend than Gehry's convoluted, often amorphous and mysterious compositions. Both architects deliver drama: Calatrava with invitations to serenity; Gehry with adventurous magnetism. Calatrava's works remain in, if not define, the Modernist mainstream. Gehry's works are eccentric exercises in imagination. Both are capable of considerable magic.

Some critics have derided his non-architectural creations and others have suggested that some of his works are extravagant for the sake of bravura.

In the December 15, 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books, Martin Filler, in a long article entitled "The Bird Man," surveys recent books on Calatrava and is pretty critical of his aesthetics in a rather brilliant, but harsh essay:

"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....

"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....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....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. [See a reproduction of the design in The City Review article.] 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....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....

Shadow Monster

Look towards "Shadow Machine," 2005, Santiago Calatrava, in exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

"The Metropolitan exhibition's subtitle, Sculpture into Architecture, reflects its subject's deep desire to be taken seriously as an artist; ...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....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.

"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....

"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....

"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?"

In his October 25, 2005 review of the museum exhibition in The New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that "no one would argue that Mr. Calatrava's sculptures would make it into the Met on their own merits; as art, they are mostly derivative of the works of dead masters like Brancusi." "One criticism," Mr. Ouroussoff continued, "that surfaces is that his work is too gimmicky. Structural purists, for example, compare Mr. Calatrava unfavorably with the early 20th-century engineer Robert Maillart, whose early bridges, resting on delicate three-hinged arches, were models of efficiency. Virtually unadorned, they are ingenious structural diagrams stripped down to their essence. By comparison, Mr. Calatrava sometimes seems caught up in his own wizardry; his designs become overwrought. The evidence both for and against this argument can be found in the show. Not far from the transportation hub is a model of the Milwaukee Art Museum, its lobby enveloped in two enormous brises-soleil. Their forms rise and fall to control the light flow into the lobby, evoking a bird occasionally stretching out its wings. The movable structures are a well-worn Calatrava theme, but here they amount to self-indulgence. The structure encloses nothing but a lobby; the museum's art galleries are secondary. Their irrelevance to the design is evoked in the model, where they are simply chopped off midway. At other times, it is this kind of bravura that makes you love his work. The sprawling City of Arts and Sciences, Calatrava's masterwork, testifies to the range of his vision. The concrete and glass canopy of the planetarium conjures an eye rising out of the water, and the repetitive arches of the winter garden are imbued with a ripe sensuality, taut with energy. Like Gaudi's creations, Calatrava's work is about fantasy: the rigorous structure of the armature is there to hold the flesh together and give it life."

Calatrava and model of Turning Torso

Santiago Calatrava explaining the twist of his "Turning Torso" model

In an article in the October 31, 2005 edition of The New Yorker magazine, Paul Goldberger noted that "Calatrava’s first high-rise apartment tower, in Malmö, Sweden, has been christened the Turning Torso," adding that "The title is a reference to a white marble sculpture, by Calatrava, of a human form in motion; in 1999, the five-foot-high work so captivated the building’s developer that he hired Calatrava to stretch the piece into a skyscraper - even though the architect had not yet designed one." "The fifty-four-story structure, which has views of Copenhagen from across the Øresund Strait, opens in November," Mr. Goldberger continued: "There are a hundred and forty-seven apartments - each of which has slanting windows, curving walls, and oddly shaped rooms - and all of them have been rented."

Calatrava, Mr. Goldberger maintained, "is the most crowd-pleasing architect since Frank Gehry. His work, too, is dazzling and emotionally engaging. And, just as Gehry exploited the trend of museum building in the nineteen-nineties, Calatrava has aligned himself with the latest architectural fashion: bespoke luxury-apartment towers. In 2003, he designed a striking apartment complex for lower Manhattan consisting of twelve four-story cubes stacked in a tall, open frame. And this spring a Chicago developer, Christopher T. Carley, announced that Calatrava will design a corkscrew-shaped, hundred-and-fifteen-story tower, along Lake Michigan, which will contain condominiums and a hotel; the building, when completed, will be the tallest in the United States."

"Calatrava buildings don’t sit on the ground; they dance above it," Mr. Goldberger continued. "Dancing is not what skyscrapers are expected to do, and Calatrava’s Turning Torso takes some getting used to. Unlike most skyscrapers, which are designed to look immobile no matter how much they may sway in the wind, this tower looks strangely kinetic - as if it were poised to move horizontally. Usually, the thrust of skyscrapers is vertical: capped with fancy tops, they resemble castles or rocket ships. Most architects who design skyscrapers focus on two aesthetic problems: how to meet the ground, and how to meet the sky - the bottom and the top, in other words. Calatrava is interested solely in the middle. For him, the skyscraper isn’t a classical column, with a base, a shaft, and a capital. It’s all shaft - which he has made an object of propulsion and energy....Calatrava’s Malmö design begins with a structural motif - the human spine - and builds from there. The Turning Torso literally has a spine, since Calatrava has designed the building with an external steel frame running up one side of it....Calatrava’s dancer, then, is more like a marionette-controlled by visible means of support. But this doesn’t detract from the design: the steel bracing is one of the handsomest things about this building....Inside, the Malmö apartments are generally what you would expect - sunny living spaces with sleek, refined European kitchens....What makes the apartments special - but also more difficult, depending on your standpoint - is that there are almost no rectangular rooms. Living rooms are shaped like pie wedges, or have the zigzag outline of a W. Some wall-height windows are raked nearly at the angle of a car windshield. Unlike in most apartments, a person inside the Turning Torso is always aware of the building’s exterior. The Malmö tower is somewhat cluttered conceptually: the audacious stacked-box idea competes with the even more powerful notion of a twisting skyscraper. In Calatrava’s design for lower Manhattan, the concept of stacked cubes is expressed more cleanly and successfully."

Bodegas Ysios, Laguardia, Alva, Spain, by Calatrava

One of Calatrava's finest works is the Bodegas Ysios in Laguardia, Alva, Spain. Its undulating roof and silvery edges are equisitely articulated.

While some of the criticisms that his works are excessive and extravagant are perhaps occasionally valid, so what? So are Gothic cathedrals and the Parthenon!

Sculptures by Calatrava

Some sculptures by Santiago Calatrava

Calatrava is unquestionably a very great form-giver, and, perhaps more importantly, he is not formulaic in his designs and their high quality is very consistent. His transportation hub, and the 80 South Street projects are not his masterpieces, but then this is New York where building is not easy and Calatrava's mere celebrity presence is making a difference in the city's design sensitivity. Both projects pay no heed to architectural context and the hub's above-ground section is too large and rather aggressive, like his Shadow monster. Still, New York should welcome them and hope that he will do more projects here. As to aspersions that his sculptures are not up to Brancusi's and Noguchi's, well one could argue that contemporary art is not up to Donatello and Verrochio. His sculptures are fine and handsome.

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