Santiago Calatrava at Metropolis: His Work and His Inspirations

We were eager to engage Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in conversation when he came to Metropolis’s New York City offices recently while in the United States working on various projects and speaking engagements. Here was the man whose ability to combine natural form with high technology has been memorably realized at the Milwaukee Art Museum among other buildings, and whose bridges look like gigantic creatures with steel spines. His training in engineering and architecture and mathematics, his interest in art, history, and languages make him a true Renaissance man. We were ready to be impressed, and we weren’t disappointed. (Related article: see “INgeniUs”, June 2001)

During our luncheon, Calatrava took someone’s note pad and sketched as he talked, revealing the thinking behind his flowing forms. He examines each detail of each structure in his sketchbooks, constantly refining it, until the desired form appears.

“I especially enjoyed when he drew for us to help us understand his buildings,” noted Criswell Lappin, Metropolis art director. “Every architect should speak with a pad of paper in front of him or her. Thank God he’s doing something for Atlanta [the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra building which is in the design stages now, construction to begin in 2005],” said this native of the American South.

“One thing Calatrava said seemed particularly telling to me,” recalled Metropolis assistant editor Jonathan Ringen. “He was talking about the influence of the ancient Greeks on modern culture—architecture, art, language—and he commented that when we talk about ‘important things’ we use Greek words. He chose two words to illustrate his point: pragmatism and enthusiasm. I think that probably provides some insight into the values he holds dear.

“He was a mesmerizing storyteller. I loved the way much of the conversation over lunch was dedicated to him drawing historical connections between art, architecture, engineering, advanced mathematics—all disciplines that he himself practices. And how he returned several times to the ways the arch—the basic building block of his work—developed around the world. Somebody should give this guy a PBS documentary: ‘Calatrava’s History of Civilization’, perhaps.”

To Metropolis executive editor Martin Pedersen “Calatrava seemed, in this digital world, like a total throwback. His work is so elegant and modern, and to think that he literally draws every square meter of it is amazing. He’s not simply drawing every inch of a house, which interestingly he’s never done, but he covers with those hands of his every scale inch of some massive projects. It’s no wonder he doesn’t juggle eight or nine projects, the way most architects of his stature typically do, because his process wouldn’t allow for that. It’s almost as if, as large as they are, he’s handcrafting those works. There’s a deep and profound connection between the work of Santiago Calatrava and his hands.

“And in the way he talks about art, you sense that it’s almost a spiritual connection. I hope (and pray) the Oakland cathedral [The Cathedral of Christ the Light, to be built to replace Oakland’s St. Francis de Sales Cathedral which was irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake] moves forward, because a church on a lake in the middle of a city is the kind of project he was born to do.”

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