Santiago Calatrava’s Favorite Bridges

Most New Yorkers who followed the World Trade Center redevelopment efforts have settled into a mood of weary resignation. The cynics among us, possessing perfect 20/20 hindsight, feel the outcome (gargantuan office tower, appropriate memorial, copious retail) was somehow preordained, and perhaps it was. Amid all the squabbles and compromise, there was one undisputed triumph: the arrival of Santiago Calatrava. His transportation hub—a majestic glass and steel structure that will hover like a bird, wings-outstretched—is almost certain to become a landmark when completed in 2009. Recently Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen called Calatrava at his studio in Zurich, and spoke with him about his New York work and love of bridges, as well as the importance drawing plays in his creative process.

You have two New York projects, the transit hub downtown and the residential tower on South Street. How are those progressing?
Very well. At South Street, [developer] Frank Sciame has his permits from the city, everything he needs so that he can start the process of developing the building. We hope to break ground this year. If we start building in June, we would be able to finish by the end of 2007.

How about the transit hub at Ground Zero?
The transit hub is a bit different. The two main partners I am working with are very prestigious American firms in transportation and engineering, DMJM+Harris and STV. But we are also working with a lot of local consultants, so this is a major team effort. Right now we’re finishing up preliminary engineering. We have been doing an analysis on all kinds of issues: lighting, climate, foundation, façade, and the building’s relationship to the neighborhood. We’re almost in design development.

Your work is split between buildings and bridges. Where do you start with the bridges? Do you always have a form in mind?
Among all the things that an architect or engineer can do, bridges are probably the one object that follows most closely the dictates of structure. Simply because there’s a limit to how much you can conceive of working against gravity. If you do a tower, for example, the columns work against gravity but move vertically into the sky. The expression and the function are almost the same. But to move against gravity horizontally is quite a challenge.

Bridges are very deeply related to the static. But each one is different. Even within the strict, functional vocabulary, you have real choices. Sometimes the choice is in the configuration of the column, sometimes in the precise choice of a beam, an arc, or the suspension system. You can say, “Oh, I would like to see in this place an arc,” or “I would like a very tall column for support.” This is finally what makes bridges works of art, objects of desire. Indeed, because the human will can configure many parts of it, we can endow bridges with a character that everybody can be surprised and delighted by.

Which bridges do you like best?
I love the Golden Gate Bridge. From the point of view of the landscape, it’s one of the most beautiful objects you can imagine. If you asked me for a historic bridge, I would choose the Pont Neuf in Paris. Another one I like very much is the Brooklyn Bridge, because it’s so heroic. It has a quality—maybe it’s not as supreme in the landscape as the Golden Gate—but it started the whole idea of heroic bridges. It was a fight to build it, a tremendous effort. People died. It has this rich dimension of drama. Looking at it you understand a whole city, even a whole country. In the middle of the columns, the pillars open up like gothic arcs in a cathedral! It’s completely unexpected. It belongs to the dreaming. And then up at the very top, a small American flag. It’s a sign of conquest, getting beyond limits. It’s so moving. It touches your heart. It’s a bit naïve, you understand? It’s like a naïve painting. But everybody can understand this great achievement. Everybody can be touched and moved by its beauty.

When you’re designing bridges, do you imagine walking or driving across them?
When I was very young, I renounced driving. I don’t even have a driver’s license. So, naturally, in my mind’s eye, the travels I do across unbuilt bridges are related to the pedestrian experience. Walking gives you an appreciation for other people. It gives a sense of your personal capacity. Our body delivers us a certain scale. So if you’re lucky enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, between the cables, through the pillars—the dynamics of going up, up, up, and then descending down into Brooklyn—is a tremendous experience.

Do you do as many drawings for bridges as you do for buildings?
Oh yes. It’s funny. While I’m talking to you, I am in front of my book drawing.

It seems that you draw almost every square foot of the buildings you design. Do you do that with bridges as well?
Yes. I think it’s important. It has nothing to do with construction, but it’s still one of the best ways to communicate. More than that, it’s a beautiful way to communicate. Federico Fellini used to do a lot of drawings for the shots he wanted. Akiro Kurosawa used to draw, not because the drawings he did were exact, but because they delivered a kind of aesthetic feeling for the colors, shadows, and moods.

Do you use drawings to communicate with clients as well?
Yes, because of the force of drawings. When you see the drawings of Rodin or Picasso or even Cezanne, you see so much. It’s a human exercise, like walking. And in an age of computers, these things have become even more relevant. Drawing delivers a sense of humanity, directness, and spontaneity.

Categories: Cities