Q&A: Santiago Calatrava, the Fine Artist?

As he opens a new exhibition in St. Petersburg, Calatrava explains the different facets of his creative life, from painting and drawing to sculpture.

Santiago Calatrava

Courtesy Dmitri Kasterine

Santiago Calatrava, the celebrated architect and engineer, is no stranger to the museum world. His architecture and fine art has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, most notably the retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2005. His latest show, Santiago Calatrava: The Quest for Movement, will open on Wednesday at the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The exhibition will take place inside the Winter Palace, in the magnificent Nikolaevsky Halls. Prior to the opening, I talked to Calatrava from his studio in  Zurich about the show, how he juggles art and architecture, and the role sketching plays in both his life and creative process.

Martin C. Pedersen: Is this the first exhibition by a contemporary architect at the Hermitage?

Santiago Calatrava: Yes. They are showing paintings, sculptures, architectural sketches, and models. I have to say—it’s very large, the exhibition is about 20,000 square feet. I am exhibiting in the old Hermitage, inside the so-called Winter Palace.

MCP: How does your fine art co-exist with your architecture? How does one inform the other?

SC: I think it is not unusual, if you look at history. A lot of artists, who have done painting and sculpture, have also done architecture. Even in the recent history of architecture, if you look at the work, particularly, of Le Corbusier. Although he was an architect, he worked very patiently every day on painting and sculpture. In my case, even before I started doing architecture and engineering, I was sculpting and painting. It’s more than 30 years that I have been doing that.

MCP: How do you fit your fine art into the insanely busy schedule of an international architect?

SC: It’s true that I have to travel very much, because my work is really spread all over. I’m working here in Europe, and I’m also working in North America, Brazil, Taiwan, but I work seven days a week, so it’s not difficult for me to divide the day into two parts. In New York I have my office and my atelier where I paint, and they’re close together. Here in Zurich, where I am now, in my house, my painting workshop is upstairs. I also have a sculpture studio. So I try to put all those things close together. I dedicate every day, hours, to the work of architecture and engineering, but I remain physically close at hand to the painting and art.

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Milwaukee Art Museum, model

Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava, LLC

MCP: Do you work on fine art in the morning or do you tend to do it late at night?

SC: When I was younger I used to dedicate many hours of the night to work, but now I am a day person. I wake up early in the morning. Also because I suffer from the jet lag, I might be up at three o’clock.  In general 5:30 is my waking time.

MCP: You’ll get up to draw or sculpt?

SC: Also to exercise a little bit. Five days a week I do a little bit of fitness, early in the morning, and then I work all the way through until seven o’clock or eight o’clock in the evening.

MCP: When you’re traveling for architecture, do you still do your art, or does that get put on hold until you can get back to your studio in New York or Zurich?

SC: You know what happens to me? Imagine you arrive at customs, and they say, “Open your bag.” I have a very serious bag that looks a little bit like I’m a businessman. But then I start pulling out watercolor boxes, paintbrushes, and the customs person asks, “You are an artist?” I find it so funny, because maybe I don’t look like an artist, but indeed my bag is full of sketch paper, watercolors, which I carry wherever I go, brushes, and pencils. Even sometimes in airplanes, if I’m doing a long trip, I may dedicate a couple of hours to drawing. It’s beautiful at 30,000 feet, in the comfort of an airplane, to sketch.

MCP: What are you sketching on a plane?

SC: It depends on the problem that I am working on. Sketching, even watercolor sketching, has always been my way to express myself. When I’m developing a resolution to a problem—it may be abstract, it might be a geometrical problem, it might be a part of a building, or just an idea for a sculpture—I do a lot of sketches. Sometimes maybe as many as 20 or 30. Sometimes, depending on the project,  hundreds of them. The most prolific part of my work is the sketching, because I’ve done, apparently, more than 100,000 of them. On the other side, I’ve done less than a hundred sculptures in 30 years. And less than one hundred and something pieces of ceramic. It’s clear that sketching and drawing and painting are for me basically the first step, and also the most direct way that I use to express myself.

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Winterreise (silver/aluminum)

Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava, LLC

MCP: You think with your head and hands.

SC: Exactly, exactly. It’s a language. It’s a way to express yourself, and even a way to bring ideas in a first step to fruition. By drawing you bring not only your gestures, but you are bring all of your intelligence, all your concentration, and also all of your intuition.

MCP: Obviously drawing is central of your architecture and engineering. At what point does the drawing, your drawing,  go into the computer? Is it after a hundred drawings? Or is it earlier? How does that process work, from paper to playing around with the forms in Revit?

SC: The hand drawing of course can never have the precision of the computer. But it’s very important to go through the process until you reach the limit of what you can do with your hand. You try to represent something, and to understand it. It’s very interesting that moment when you start working in the office, with people who are using the computer. I use experienced people who have been working with me for more than twenty years. They’ll take my sketches and create rough approaches based on them. And then another step is started. We’re sketching ahead,  but we’re also correcting the drawings that they’re producing and moving from the loose activity of sketching to the precision of an architectural drawing.  This process might take weeks and even be combined with models. In both the New York and Zurich offices, we have model shops. I like very much to work in model, even in a very rough manner, because the model shows you not just the 3-D reality, but also the imperfections. And from there we might work between models and computer drawings and sketches.

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Museum of Tomorrow, model

Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava, LLC

MCP: It doesn’t sound like you stop drawing at any point in the process.

SC: Exactly. Even in the working drawings, sketching is still important. With hand drawings you’re always working with the same two instruments, your hand and your intuition—even if you’re trying to solve a real construction problem.

MCP: An increasing number of younger architects don’t sketch—at least not by hand. Does that trouble you?

SC: Every architect has a different approach. There are instances where the architect might have a very specific idea in his mind and start drawing a very controlled thing. For example, the architecture of Mies van der Rohe for the Seagram Building. You might have the impression that he started out knowing exactly how the corners had to be done. But if you look at his sketches, you will see that they are also very beautiful and very free, and some of them very elemental. So even in an architecture of that precision, the sketch plays an important role. You can still see the influence of the free hand, and the approach of the first vision.

Categories: Architecture, Arts + Culture

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