Calatrava: “Architecture as an art” Matt 05 Aug 2005

18 comments Latest by Kate Williams

World-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava is constantly sketching. Even at a press conference announcing his latest design, he whips out his pen and starts drawing in order to explain his ideas.

While this drawing business has elements of showbiz — what a Disney animator he would have been! — it’s also Calatrava’s way of thinking: dreaming onto the sketchpad, trolling for inspiration, one seemingly unrelated image giving way to another and another until something clicks and a path opens up. Birds lead to human figures, which lead to eyes, which lead to something like a church monstrance.

He recently unveiled a modified design of the planned World Trade Center transit hub for downtown Manhattan. With its comblike needles, the station’s shape has been compared to an armadillo, a fish skeleton, and a winged dinosaur. Calatrava himself said he was inspired by the crown of the Statue of Liberty in designing the shape.

The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain

The fluid, organic design of the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain (above) has rejuvenated Calatrava’s hometown. The proposed Fordham Spire in Chicago twists and turns high into the sky. “I know that Chicago is an Indian name, and I can imagine in the oldest time the Native Americans arriving at the lake and making a fire, with a tiny column of smoke going up in the air,” Calatrava said. “With this simple gesture of turning one floor a little past another, you achieve this form.”

Some more Calatrava quotes from a recent interview after the jump.

“I have tried to get close to the frontier between architecture and sculpture and to understand architecture as an art.”
“I always try to design buildings that respond to people’s needs including the need not only for functional buildings, but for buildings that represent something for the community. Also, I have always tried to relate the building to the city — not only in master-plan areas like the Athens Olympic Sports Complex or the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, but in railway stations or museums.”
“The most touching thing that anyone can say to me is that I have done something beautiful for the community.” And while landmark projects such as the WTC Transportation Hub define this architect’s career, he says that even “a small bridge in a beautiful natural place, a winery in a delicate setting, can also move your sensibility and show you how important it is that architecture does not become a predator on the landscape, but rather gives dignity and human scale to its environment. Even in the most modest circumstances, there is the possibility for emotion and poetry.”

18 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Dan Boland 05 Aug 05

I really hope the Fordham Spire project happens. I think it will be an amazing addition to the Chicago skyline.

Megan Holbrook 05 Aug 05

It certainly would be great. As a proud Milwaukee resident, I can tell you that Calatrava’s addition to our art museum is absolutely spectacular. If you haven’t taken the time to visit it yet (an hour and a half away by train), you’re really missing something special…

Josh Wand 05 Aug 05

So can someone link to video or photos of said drawings?

Mike 05 Aug 05

Now, that is an architect! Looking at some of his portfolio (also, I have been to the Milwaukee museum extension and hope hope hope the tower is built here in Chicago), his designs are just creative and great spaces. Makes Frank Gehry’s work look very tired, old and formulaic.

Tony 05 Aug 05

From what I understand, there is a good deal of push-back within Chicago over the proposed building. I believe the words “giant screw” have been bandied about.

Mike 05 Aug 05

Hey Tony,

Blair Kamin, the Tribune critic, gave it a great review. I think a lot of the skepticism has been pointed at the the developer and whether he can pull it off. It sounds like he is a bit of a huckster. And, Chicagoans have heard “biggest building” talk several times before , so that may be where some of the attitude is coming from.

The building itself is beautiful (especially compared to the Freedom Tower disaster in NY) and I haven’t heard or read any complaints. Whether it gets built or not, that’s a whole other story.

Megan Holbrook 05 Aug 05

Also the Milwaukee Art Museum is suppose to beOne of the Worlds Most Overrated Public Spaces.

Not sure who Fred Kent is, but his critique of the building is a little bizarre: “The plazas of the Quadracci Pavilion are incredibly sterile, surrounded by roads wide enough to be highways.” It sounds like he didn’t even go inside.

The best description I can give you of the interior of the pavilion is that it’s like being in a Greek temple the very first day it opened (minus all of the bright paint with which they were supposedly adorned). It’s an incredibly pure, white light-filled space. I can’t imagine it ever being described as sterile.

The gardens were the last work of a famous landscape architect, Dan Kiley, who did the beautiful sunken garden at the Art Institute in Chicago. They’re minimalist but appropriate - they provide a open, subtle layout that compliments rather than competes with the addition.

Kent’s beef with Milwaukee choosing to work with Calatrava on this addition is described as, “the “Bilbao Effect”, in which a city garners international attention for a showy architectural project” which he claims “has become pervasive, with many mid-size cities splurging on high-profile architects in the hopes of attracting more tourists.”

Well, duh! It works! Bilbao is now an internationally recognized city, with probably 20x the tourism it ever garnered before. Milwaukee would be overjoyed for this type of attention…

Nicholas Ochiel 06 Aug 05

I’ve been following this blog and a couple of others written by [what I believe] are the best designers in this century:)

Only recently, though, have I realized the true importance of good design. Could you guys suggest a reading list (books, periodicals, blogs) that I should pay attention to in order to become as good a designer as you guys are?

Wesley Walser 06 Aug 05

His designs are truly stunning, but I am guessing that you have to have some authority behind you before you can start designing things like that.

Reguardless they look great, and the lighting on the buildings is just amazing.

tom richey 22 Dec 05

A quote from this blog
“While this drawing business has elements of showbiz � what a Disney animator he would have been! � it�s also Calatrava�s way of thinking”

I so very glad Calatrava is not a Disney animator.

majid 15 May 06


Dr Lisa Anderson 19 Jul 06

I have just found this site. Came in looking for backup for a fun debate on the statement made by Australian architect the late Harry Siedler that Architecture is the mother of all (public)arts.

I am on the negative.

Should anyone have something witty to throw me. Please do.

I guess my concern is within some of the stuff here…is drawing all it takes to seperate an artist from an architect?

I am currently taking a line that plays with Alien as a demonstration of the kinda mother that architecture might be in relation to art?? a bit hard…but it is supposed to be funny!

Look forward to some help.


Al 18 Sep 06

Valencia is becaming “the” city to v�sit. Calatrava�s buildings in his native town are just STUNNING !. The city of Scinces and Arts will also hold in few years 3 new twisted skycrapers on the water.

Kate Williams 08 Oct 06

Dr Anderson,
I don’t know if this adds anything to the debate, but in basing one of my characters in a novel undertaking the discovery of the place of art in this new millenium, my “hero” is an architect (loosely based on Calatrava). He is not the novel’s protagonist, but rather someone who the protagonist aspires to be. So I suppose, despite my being another kind of artist - struggling to say/do something important about the world - I’d side with the positive. Architects who firmly situate themselves directly at the intersection of art and public space are, I believe, mothers of art. We are all, as artists, borne out of that need to communicate with one another. And in the end, language fails. Art - the more it removes itself from the responsibility of reaching a community, a people - also fails. Architecture engages a community without having to ask for permission. It becomes a part of the community in palpably unassuming ways.