One of the most well-known and celebrated architects of our times is the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Known for his innovative and dynamic architectural style, Calatrava has designed some of the most famous buildings in the world including the Olympic Sports Complex of Athens and the Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden. This doesn’t mean Calatrava is universally beloved.
In fact, in recent years Calatrava’s projects have received their share of flak. As an architect who is admired and reviled in turns, Calatrava has had a highly publicized career. Is there a school of architecture he follows? What are his inspirations? Let us try and understand the design philosophy of Santiago Calatrava.
Calatrava started his career as a structural engineer, who gained fame for the unmistakable beauty of his designs. Even though he started practicing in 1981, he received international attention several years later in 1987 after he finished designing his first bridge in Barcelona. This was the beginning of a career filled with many spectacular bridges, amongst other structures. He has designed over 47 bridges so far, in cities all over the globe. These bridges, inspired by elements of nature, are a perfect blend of technological prowess and aesthetical beauty. This has been a recurring trend of Calatrava’s throughout his career. His refusal to compromise on his artistic vision ensures that he is increasingly bold and daring with how technology is incorporated in his designs.
Along with being a talented architect and structural engineer, Calatrava is also a sculptor and painter. While he has claimed to not follow any particular architectural style or movement, he has drawn inspiration from the works of engineers and sculptors. As an architect, Calatrava is fascinated by the concept of movement in buildings and sculptures. He has often tried to translate this idea of the flexibility of structures into many of his projects with varied success. The Turning Torso in Malmo is one of his most popular designs which originally started as a sculpture. His designs have proven that art in its many forms is an intrinsic component of architecture.
The human body has also been one of the major inspirations for Calatrava’s designs. From the Turning Torso to buildings like the L’Hemisferic and Museu de les Ciencies Principe Felipe in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Calatrava, like many artists and architects before him, Leonardo Da Vinci to name one, has been fascinated by the complexities of the human body. He is also inspired by numerous other natural elements like sea waves and bird wings. Several of his buildings and bridges open like a bird extending its wings, graceful and beautiful at the same time.
Calatrava’s designs look towards the future, not just in terms of technology but also through the materials that the architect uses. Indeed, Santiago Calatrava has revolutionized the usage of concrete and steel in architecture. Calatrava also has a predilection of using the color white. This stems from the fond memories of whitewashed Mediterranean buildings of his childhood. This usage of white color lends a certain airiness and lightness to his structures, combined with his organic designs, the final buildings appear almost ethereal and other-worldly.
Despite his affinity for technology and its many benefits, Calatrava has retained a love for that simplest of all pleasures- Drawing. So does he sketch only buildings? Not at all. Calatrava has a particular fondness for every single natural element. From rocks and trees to human figures and their movements, he has admitted to being fascinated and inspired by the intricacies of nature.
Though Calatrava has never truly been a follower of any one school of art, his design style can appear very similar to Expressionism. Not just because of the unusual and unique designs, but also because the architect allows his thoughts and emotions to seep into his creations. However, it would be very difficult to categorize Calatrava’s style. His designs often have a polarizing effect on the viewer’s minds. Are they futuristic? Contemporary? Modern? And if they are expressionists then there’s another dilemma. Do these designs follow Neo-Expressionism or Structural Expressionism? Calatrava himself has never confessed to following one particular style or movement. He is that rare architect, one who considers architecture a blend of many arts. Architecture is not his first or only love. Every form of art enthralls him. This makes Calatrava seem like the perfect architect. He’s creative, passionate, innovative, and detail-oriented. He loves what he builds and it shows.
But despite the numerous accolades, he’s won and his impressive portfolio, the fact remains that not all of his structures are universally beloved. His buildings have been criticized for being exorbitant monstrosities, more often over-budget than not. His pet project, the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia has many design flaws and was massively over-budget. Yes, he’s extraordinarily innovative, but are his actual projects staying true to his vision? Or is there a lack of testing and experience in terms of how he treats his materials and how far he pushes the boundaries of technology?
However, the inescapable truth is that almost every iconic architect has his share of naysayers. From Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid, no one has managed to steer clear of criticism. Criticism is part and parcel of any architectural project. It does not detract from the architect’s obvious genius. After all, as Santiago Calatrava once said, “There is so much vulgarity in the every day, that when somebody has the pretension to do something extraordinary for the community, then you have to suffer.” There is no creativity, without criticism.