The misunderstood architect

In the middle of St. Gallen's Marktplatz, the heart of the historic city centre, a white, modern bus and tram stop inevitably catches the eye. The structure, big enough to fit one bus under its awning, was built by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 1996. Like most of his work, it is both loved and hated: The architect has been sued for delays, overbudgeting and flaws in his work, but also honoured with dozens of international recognitions.

Like the shelter in St. Gallen, many of Calatrava's pieces of architecture are criticised for busting into cities without much consideration for the local context. Calatrava argues that cities change constantly; he also says that the criteria that prevail nowadays for the preservation of traditional buildings are not the same that people had in the nineteenth century. He cites the Abbey of St. Gallen as an example: “The pre-Romanic cloister was there a thousand years before the actual Baroque church was built.” Calatrava states that the existence of “old” buildings in cities should not impede architects from “putting something of the late twentieth century in the middle of it.”

“The existence of old buildings in cities should not impede architects from putting something of the late twentieth century in the middle of it.“

Calatrava’s bridges, tunnels, and buildings have become icons in the cities where they are built and usually add value to them.

Having a Calatrava building seems to be a sign of distinction, because they stand out. Critics, on the other hand, would say that his buildings are conceived as sculptures rather than to serve the citizens. The Spanish architect disagrees: Human beings, he says, are at the heart of his designs. He designed pieces of architecture like the World Trade Center transportation hub in New York; the Tower DCH in Dubai; the City of the Arts and Sciences in Valencia or the Women’s Bridge in Buenos Aires, among many others, with a particular user in mind. Though the commissioning jury was in his thoughts too: Behind a great project, he says, is a great client.

Human beings are at the heart of his designs, Calatrava says.

Calatrava signatures include inexpensive materials, like steel or concrete; large columns; and extensive use of natural light. White is another trademark. Many reprove this repetitiveness in his style, saying that similar solutions to different contexts might not work every time. Calatrava objects: “Bridges can be arches, can be beams, can be suspended bridges, cable-stayed bridges or tubular bridges, but there are not millions of typologies. What I can do is change those patterns to create a new composition. It is like in music: it’s the combination of the notes that makes the melody,” he says.

In fact, Calatrava says he makes an effort to keep himself up-to-date. And in a field that changes as slowly as architecture does, minimal signs of innovations make a difference. So if one day he designs a bridge with a single symmetrical arch and radially-placed cables, like the one he built in Italy’s Reggio Emilia, and afterward he reproduces it in Dallas, but bigger, that is an innovation, he argues. “Especially if you’ve been doing, as I've been doing most of my life, bridges that are unique.”

These days, drawing and painting water- colours takes up 90% of Calatrava’s time. When sketching his designs, he does not separate technique from art. He believes that the one is a vehicle towards the other. Technology and materiality are big change makers in architecture: The use of wood delivers a completely different architecture than the use of steel or concrete, for instance. Social needs and revolutionary ideological changes might mould the future of architecture as well. “I hope that buildings rise as a kind of heritage that we deliver to the coming generations, because they survive us,” he said, minutes after predicting that his buildings might not stand for a hundred years. “I hope my buildings survive. But today we build in a very fragile way.”

“I hope my buildings survive. But today we build in a very fragile way.”