How Santiago Calatrava's Buildings Marry Engineering With Biology

How Santiago Calatrava's Buildings Marry Engineering With Biology


 He owns three, actually: one serves as his office, another as his home, and the third houses two of his four children. | Portrait by Martien Mulder
Santiago Calatrava's buildings marry engineering with biology. And they may just be beautiful enough to make Americans care about infrastructure.


One of three Calatrava bridges over the Hoofdvaart in Hoofddorp, the Netherlands (2004). Bridges are one of his obsessions. He has built some 40 of them. | Photograph by Alan Karchmer


Construction began last fall on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas (seen here in a rendering). It will be followed by another Calatrava span, part of a $2.2 billion project to reclaim the Trinity River banks and revitalize West Dallas.

Two decades ago, Tom Fisher, now dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design, visited Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in Zurich, where he has a staff of 40 and a lakeside villa.

As he was ushered into the architect's office, Fisher noticed an odd artifact hanging above the desk: the skeleton of a dog. "I thought it was his long-lost pet," he says.

It was, in fact, a gift from a veterinary student in Zurich, whom Calatrava had befriended. "He was living with me in the same house when I was doing my PhD," Calatrava says, "and I helped by doing the drawings for his thesis -- and he gave me a skeleton."

It's been said that the mechanical perfection of that skeleton inspired Calatrava's first big civic commission, the design for a train station in Zurich, whose corridors resemble an animal's rib cage. But Calatrava vacillates when asked about the source of his ideas. "Does nature inspire your buildings?" I ask, when we meet in his elegant town house on Park Avenue in New York. We've just paged through stacks of his watercolor sketches of figures in motion, landscapes, sea creatures, and birds. "No," he says, firmly. A pause. Then, "Sometimes I say yes," he confesses with a mischievous little smile. "Sometimes I say the human skeleton, because it's true that there's something essential in the construction of our body." He splays his hand, wiggling his thumb by way of illustration. "In my hands, there is a little bit of architecture and engineering. What architecture does is what a coat does for our body. It wraps us."

Anyone familiar with Calatrava's work is immediately struck by its biomorphic suggestiveness. His first skyscraper -- dubbed the Turning Torso -- in Malmö, Sweden, which is 54 stories high, with a 90-degree twist, was based on his sketches of the human spine. His art museum in Milwaukee has wings that open to the sky. A train station in Lisbon has columns that look like a forest of palm trees. A planetarium in Valencia, Spain, began with the sketch of a human eyeball.

"A biomimetic infrastructure is what's inherent in Calatrava's work," says Fisher. "He has this insight that natural processes create efficiencies. I've had arguments with people who think his work is extravagant and overly expressive, but I think the idea behind it is really profound. Nature and evolution take things down to their most elegant form, no more material than absolutely necessary, but also build in redundancy. If every architect took Calatrava's lessons to heart -- that evolution is the best engineer and nature is the best designer -- and acted with that in mind, it would be transformative."

Calatrava's understanding of natural engineering has allowed him to build radically innovative structures, some of which seem to defy gravity. "There's no question that he will go down as one of the great artistically oriented engineers in history," Fisher says.

Calatrava's best-known work in the United States is a project yet to be built, the transportation center at ground zero in lower Manhattan. Apart from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, that site may be the most emotionally fraught parcel of real estate in the world. Calatrava's initial design was inspired by the idea of a child releasing a dove, with 200-foot-tall canopies mimicking ribbed wings that would open every year on September 11, letting sunlight enter the subterranean spaces.

When the plan was unveiled, critics were generally rapturous, comparing it to the secular cathedrals of Grand Central or the old Penn Station, and to Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal at JFK. Others thought it was an appropriate in-your-face gesture to the man who made the rebuilding necessary. "We wanted this to be 'Up yours, bin Laden,' " one construction worker told me.

The project has since become tangled in a world-class battle of egos and political posturing, the budget has ballooned, and the internecine finger pointing is played out in the city's tabloids. Calatrava, in the middle, has repeatedly revised his project, and has done so with a stoicism borne of long experience. After nearly three decades of working for municipalities, he knows that part of doing public-works projects is the inevitable squabbling over costs and the not-infrequent calls for his head.

"You must understand the difference between being an architect and a politician," he says resignedly. "Architecture is a profession of perseverance. You have to come through. The politician is there to blame someone. I don't have the vocation of the martyr. So you have to develop a kind of deafness. They can say what they want; I just work and work and work."

Like his fellow starchitects, Calatrava has seen some high-profile projects crash along with the economy. The Chicago Spire, a twirly 150-story pillar with a tapering point, intended to be the country's tallest building, is nothing but an excavation as developers try to jump-start financing. Eighty South Street, a Manhattan tower of 12 condos stacked like a stairway to heaven, fell victim to a dip in the supply of hedge-fund moguls willing to pony up $30 million for an apartment.

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