Architecture is an Art
The GROUND opted to focus on the concept of balance or equilibrium something Calatrava has portrayed again and again in his structures. We began with a visit to his private gallery in New York,
in his Manhattan townhouse.
Born in 1951 near Valencia, Spain, Santiago Calatrava is not only one of the world’s most prominent architects but also an engineer and an artist. He is particularly known for designing bridges and architectural structures that look as if they had sprung from the pages of his sketchbook.
Each time Calatrava designs a new public structure, it seems that it quickly becomes a community landmark and earns him international recognition. A humanist at heart, his projects are inspired by natural environments and his desire to craft a better everyday experience for people. Often futuristic in appearance, his buildings rely on modernist principles of architecture (the material triad: steel, glass, and concrete) while suggesting shapes and motions of organic entities. His architectural language is also easily recognizable; it’s articulated through clean geometric lines, refined to create movement and total equilibrium. In the viewers’ eyes this vocabulary communicates a feeling of ascension, along with a spiritual element that embodies ideals of optimism and hope.
“The natural shapes of my structures give a sense of optimism.”
Since the start of his career, Calatrava has designed over 30 bridges, as well as numerous train stations and airports. He contributed to reshaping Manhat- tan’s skyline with a proposal for the 80 South Street Tower project, a structure consisting of a stack of 10 cubes offset from one another and held up by a giant scaffold. Recently, he designed the main transportation hub for Ground Zero (2008-2014). Calatrava is also the only architect to have his work exhib- ited at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Given the chance to sit down with this professional city re-shaper, The GROUND opted to focus on the concept of balance or equilibrium – some- thing Calatrava has portrayed again and again in his structures. We began with a visit to his private gallery in New York, in his Manhattan townhouse.
The human form itself dictates one’s entrance into the house; his doorknobs are shaped as female nude torso on one side and as a male upper body on the other. The architect noted that he has always been fascinated with the structure and anatomy of the human body. After a flight of stairs and a set of transparent doors, we encountered series of architectural models set on pedestals lined up against the wall. These miniature structures were made of basic geometrical shapes held in equilibrium by an ingenious support device. Shapes such as that of the cube, cone, and sphere have been central motifs both in Calatrava’s drawings and in the design of his early buildings.
The gallery occupies the entire second floor of the house, which is built around a central staircase. This layout shapes a path inviting the visitor to stroll through corridors in a circular manner, giving the impression of a ritual procession. During our visit, the white wooden floors and the large windows immersed the space with light. The atmosphere felt meditative and inspira- tional, like being in a sanctuary.
“The first structures I created were inspired by the observation of human and animal anatomy […] the first buildings I created in the United States were very much influenced by nature and plants, maybe because nature is so over- whelming and majestic here!”
Along the walls hang a number of paintings, watercolors, and hand drawings, positioned next to ceramic vessels, all created by Calatrava himself. Indeed, Calatrava is a very well rounded artist; he began his formal drawing and painting training early in his life.
“My relationship with art began very early on; I began attending drawing classes at an arts and craft school around the age of 8.”
After graduating from high school, Calatrava went to Paris to study at l’École des Beaux Arts. But soon after his arrival, the May 1968 student uprising shut down the school and forced him to return to his hometown in Valencia. There, his interest in mathematical rigor directed him to pursue architectural training at the Escuela Tecnica Superior de Arquitectura. After graduating, he continued his academic education in Switzerland, where he studied civil en- gineering at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Calatrava stressed that throughout these years of training, drawing remained one of his principal activities. His architectural experimentations began only after he had finished his postgraduate studies.
“I always had an interest for mathematics, so I turned to architecture, which seemed to be a good balance, but I always kept on drawing.”
Today, the works displayed in his gallery exemplify Calatrava’s humanist approach. They are all inspired by the observation of the human and natural worlds; there is a series of small watercolors of female nudes, large canvases with a painted tree motif, and artworks depicting animals. During our inter- view, Calatrava pointed out the relationship between his architectural struc- tures and the organic world. Humanism for Calatrava appears to be more than an interest in the study of the human environment – it’s a real ideologi- cal conviction. Growing up in the ’60s during Franco’s Spain, the artist always supported humanist ideals in the pursuit of freedom.
Paintings and ceramic vessels displayed in his gallery convey the militant spirit Calatrava has not been able to shake from his core. One of the recurring icons for him is that of the bull, a symbol of the virtues and values of Spain. He takes this classic Spanish motif and expresses it as a herd of charging beasts, emphasizing a strong sense of movement and perhaps the pride and faith that action can thrust a culture toward a better future.
Aware of the impact of human intervention on a landscape, as well as its role as trace of human achievements, Calatrava takes a high-level view of architec- ture as a way for humans to leave a mark on the otherwise celestially formed natural space. Attentive to environmental issues, Calatrava notes the shift in the relationship between human beings and wildlife that ensued over the centuries.
“Our relationship to the landscape has changed tremendously since the 19th century. We are no longer Caspar Friedrich’s romantic characters observing nature’s sublime power. With time we’ve tamed nature and altered landscapes, and today we have come to realize that Earth is an aging mother that requires care and attention.”
Since World War II, Calatrava says, utilitarian constructions and industri- alization have “polluted” the most beautiful natural landscapes. Concerned about the fragility of the planet, Calatrava’s designs attempt to give new meaning to civic structures. This aspiration is made apparent by the types of commissions he takes on. In effect, 90 percent of his constructions are heavily used public structures such as bridges or train stations.
Calatrava expresses a profound wish to contribute to society. He hopes that beyond their structural function, his constructions will convey a sense of hu- man consciousness and dignity.
“In a way I feel like Matisse, sharing the same idealistic vision of things. With my designs, I want to make people’s lives easier and more functional while of- fering them the satisfaction of seeing something beautiful. I hope that in con- trast to the everyday life, this experience of beauty will “uplift” their dignity.” Moved by the architectural heritage left by civilizations over the years, but always forward looking, Calatrava’s designs attempt to reconcile past and present by conveying a sense of movement toward a better future. He noted that architecture is a centuries-old art form, given that even ancient cultures built structures for life and work.
He says that architecture has given him a sense of pride in mankind, that people have always looked for ways to im- prove their structural environment. But the balance between “improving” an environment and “protecting” it has been a delicate one for Calatrava. He says that he always attempts to defer to local fauna and flora and thereby to respect nature’s majestic splendor.
“We must combine the urban landscape with nature. Bridges are a perfect means to do so because they cross-waterways that bring a flow of nature into the cityscape.”
Even though the science of engineering is at the core of Calatrava’s designs, it is his artistic vision and his love of nature and humanity that drive him to create awe-inspiring, timeless structures unbounded by their utilitarian function.