The test of time: an interview with Santiago Calatrava

12 December 2016

Lifetime achievement awards are retrospective in nature, affording the opportunity to look back over a career that enjoys a firmly established narrative: a pat on the back for a job well done; the celebration of the twists and turns that have ultimately propelled the story to this happy denouement. Hindsight tends to dull the sharp edges and contextualise the controversies.

Santiago Calatrava does not fit this model. Still only 65, there’s a strong argument that he would have made for a less contentious recipient of the Leaf Award for Lifetime Achievement a decade ago, when the Valencian architect, engineer and artist was popularly portrayed as an heir to Gaudi, a visionary artist whose public works, from bridges and stations to cultural centres, displayed genuinely transformational properties for the towns and cities within which they sat.

The title of an unauthorised professional biography published earlier this year, Queríamos un Calatrava, somewhat sardonically evokes the conviction among municipal authorities at the

turn of a century that Spain’s most decorated contemporary architect was a sure-fire shortcut to putting their town or city on the map.

But the past ten years have witnessed a significant twist in the tale. Headlines now focus on missed deadlines, cost overruns and building malfunctions. Calatrava has become one of those public figures where mere mention of his name demands a prefix: ‘divisive’; ‘controversial’; ‘besieged’.

The greatest single driver of this shift has been his work on The World Trade Center Transportation Hub, which finally opened in March, six years behind schedule and, at a cost of almost $4 billion, twice its original budget. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey director Pat Foye declined to hold an event to celebrate the opening of hub, describing it as a “symbol of excess”. The architect lays much of the blame for cost overruns at the Port Authority’s door. Either way, Calatrava’s highest-profile undertaking to date has been dubbed ‘the world’s most expensive train station’; its cost is the defining characteristic of a project that, in its attempt to honour the victims of the 9/11 attacks, aspires to a spiritual and metaphysical plane that soars high above bottom lines.

Greater than the sum of its parts

Many have cited this move to New York as the catalyst for a fall from grace, but, looking at his career as a whole, there appears to be a broader delineation: Calatrava pre and post-Global Financial Crisis.

Much like Frank Gehry, another unapologetic aesthete once beloved of enterprising public servants, the unabashed aesthetic ambition of Calatrava’s designs – and the lofty language within which he cloaks them – seems particularly out of step with a popular prevailing mood in this age of austerity that so values humility and soberness. Perhaps it is not the architect who has changed, but the context within which his work sits.

“I certainly think so,” Calatrava replies, when asked whether he recognises the practitioner who started with commissions of a much subtler scale back in the early ’80s. “The spirit in which I work today very much reflects the attitude I had when I first started, thinking every project is an opportunity to demonstrate the beauty of architecture.

“In the beginning, many of those opportunities came from the generosity of my colleagues, fellow architects – a bus shelter, or a balcony. But, even then, I understood that the bus shelters could one day become railway stations and the balconies bridges. With time, it became so.”

He wasn’t wrong. New York is Calatrava’s seventh station and, while there is no doubting that

the spending of tax payers’ dollars undergoes far more scrutiny than the figures invested into corporate architecture, it seems paradoxical that an architect so synonymous with public works has developed such a reputation as a self-serving egoist.

His belief in architecture as a public service seems entirely genuine, with Calatrava citing the formative impact of visiting St Pancras and Grand Central stations in his youth.

“This sense that these spaces belong to everyone and are bringing art into the everyday lives of many, many people,” he exclaims. “How many visit the largest museums? Perhaps 12 million a year. Grand Central gets those numbers in under a month. Therefore, whatever you do for human beauty, for dignity with these spaces has enormous potential diffusion and impact.

“There’s the potential to send to the man on his way to work – a man who perhaps would never think to visit a museum or to consider art but whose audience we have for ten minutes each day – a message that is transcendent: ‘Look, this place is for you’.”

A New York wise guy might snarl in response, “I know, I paid for it”, but Calatrava believes this fixation on cost fails to consider the intangibles of value. “How many times has Grand Central paid for itself,” he counters – the architect is never shy about drawing parallels with his illustrious forbearers. “The same space serving 45,000 at the beginning now serves half a million. Four generations of New Yorkers have experienced this beautiful space, considering it their own.

“Architecture is so often now considered a commodity, a pure tool to solve a problem. People say the important thing about a railway station is its functionality, moving people in and out. But that can’t be everything. These buildings survive us and serve as evidence of the period in which they were built. People read our time through our buildings. Of course cost is important. Of course functionality is important. But there are many other things these buildings should do; there’s the inherent capacity for delivering far more benefit to society than merely delivering people from one place to another.” 

A game of two halves

This line of argument encapsulates what makes Calatrava’s most successful projects so spellbinding and his detractors so furious. It also makes for a man unwilling to compromise his vision in order to placate increasingly nervous financiers footing the bill. In truth, they should know what they’re getting themselves into and his response when asked how he engages with the criticism is unlikely to do anything for their blood pressure.

“One must discover a sense of serenity,” he replies. “Where once they were generational, it now seems we enter a new crisis every seven years. This is not the cycle of buildings of such complexity, which can take 12 to 15 years to complete. Having been confronted several times with projects that must rise above or across crises, you need to retain a degree of calm. In the end, when all else is finished, only the building remains.”

And even then, sometimes the public doesn’t appreciate what it’s got until it’s gone. The modernist movement of the mid-20th century saw the original Penn Station razed and almost spelt the end for Grand Central. Fashions change – and there’s no denying that Calatrava is rather unfashionable at this moment in time – but it seems extremely premature to declare what his legacy might actually be.

“From day one, I thought of architecture as an art,” he says. “An architect, like an artist, is in a position to deliver his own message in his own way and in his own words. Of course, one must study and learn from the great masters, not design in an isolated world, but looking at what has gone before, trying to emulate that spirit; through that process one can develop an original and personal vocabulary all one’s own.”

Perhaps his most distinctive accent has been an ability to elevate engineering into the realms of high design. The New Yorker’s architecture critic described it as like the interior tailoring on a couture gown: “You can’t see how it works, but it looks gorgeous, and it costs a fortune to produce.”

“Fashion is an art I greatly admire,” Calatrava declares. “It’s so ephemeral. Every season, a new collection; the amount of creativity demanded of such constant reinvention. [Oscar] de la Renta

was a neighbour and through our conversations I came to see a strong relationship between the two disciplines. The effort these fellows commit to renovating themselves is a real challenge for us architects.”

One project that seems to be helping Calatrava find rejuvenation is St Nicholas National Shrine, a redesign of the Greek Orthodox church destroyed by the collapse of Two World Trade Center in the 11 September attacks. In discussing progress, Calatrava becomes more clearly animated than at any other point during our conversation.

“I have so much joy for this project,” the architect declares. “It’s not the biggest at Ground Zero, not by some way, but the work is so significant, and I’ve been following it from the very beginning – I don’t know how many hundreds of sketches I’ve produced.

“I have had to learn a lot about orthodoxy to work for a church where the liturgy is more than 1,000 years old. You enter a new world where, apparently, the freedom of creation is smaller because the rules are as they are, but, on the other side, you discover enormous things – the sheer beauty of Hagia Sophia, the profundity of this faith. There are new experiences and they help change you.”

A journey not yet complete

Work at Ground Zero has so dominated Calatrava’s career over the past decade that there remain marked gaps in his portfolio. He is yet to build anything in Asia, for example, and has not benefitted from the emergence of China’s appetite for prestige projects that has benefitted any number of his contemporaries. That is about to change, with plans unveiled for three multimodal bridges in Huashan, spanning a new Yangtze River canal in China.

Each uses a variation of ‘through arch’ bridge design (the deck passing through an arched structure); they’re instantly identifiable as ‘Calatravas’ and also suggest a transition of the model that made him so successful in the first place: enter secondary, somewhat unfashionable cities and showcase the revitalising power of statement architecture. It will be interesting to see what comes next; China has a lot of secondary, unfashionable cities.

Further along the development path is Dubai Creek Tower, which broke ground in October. Influenced by the form of the lily flower and the minaret, it will feature rotating balconies, vertiginous observation decks and elevated gardens intended to evoke the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Though the official height is yet to be announced, upon completion it is expected to be the tallest tower in the world.

“For the moment, this is the project giving my office the most to do,” Calatrava reveals. “But I am still working on other things, designing an opera stage, for example. You must keep your mind open.”

It is clear that Calatrava is unchastened by his New York experience, though remains upset by the direction the popular narrative has taken. As commitments at Ground Zero wind down, it will be incredibly interesting to see what form this next phase of his career takes and where its centre of gravity lies.

“In all these years, I never for a second lost my love of the profession,” he says. “I am committed to delivering works that serve the people, but it is inevitable you cannot please everybody and that is not what the work should aspire to do. That is not art, and architecture is

the most abstract of arts. Its essence is similar to music, the sense of the intangible, a symphony condensed into a moment.”

Calatrava will hope that the cacophony of noise that has engulfed him continues to quieten, but this is a narrative that is far from its conclusion. Much like the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, it seems far too early to reach absolute conclusions on the merits of his lifetime achievement award. Over time, hindsight may dull some of the sharp edges and contextualise the controversies, but don’t expect Santiago Calatrava to change for anyone.

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