Going Places

As he sets his sights on the United States, can Santiago Calatrava make the leap from engineer of elegant infrastructure to architect of world-class buildings?

For architects, life really does begin at 40. Young practitioners of the building art, for at least the first decade after they finish architecture school, rarely receive commissions substantial enough to merit attention outside the professional press. The architect's house for his or her parents is a staple of the beginner's résumé, followed by remodelings and additions. And if economic times are bad or a client's taste is conventional, the opportunity for large-scale construction can easily be delayed until the age of 50, as it was even for such towering figures as Louis I. Kahn and Frank O. Gehry.

But when the architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava celebrates his half-century, on July 28, he can look back on one of the most impressive building careers of his generation, with more than 50 remarkable structures that have put him in the forefront of his specialty. The Spanish-born, Swiss-based Calatrava has transformed the European landscape with the most breathtakingly beautiful works of infrastructure the Continent has seen since the heyday of the great Swiss engineer Robert Maillart, who revolutionized modern bridge design in the 1930s. One can say of Calatrava's forms what the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion wrote of Maillart's daringly sculptural reinforced-concrete spans: "His shapely bridges spring out of shapeless crags with the serene inevitability of Greek temples." Pared down to a few essential arcs, curves, and cables, Calatrava's designs seem like celestial stringed instruments, the harps of the gods set down on our imperfect earth.

Though Calatrava's pure-white bridges, overpasses, and viaducts possess a classical grace, there is nothing at all nostalgic about them. That is especially noteworthy, given that his career began in the late 1970s—just as Postmodernism refocused contemporary attention on the historical past. Through all the subsequent architectural style wars, his vision has remained remarkably consistent and supremely confident, giving his output a rare coherence in these pluralistic times.

Once you have seen just a couple of the architect's memorable schemes his work becomes unmistakable, though not because he repeats himself. Instead, in our current age of architectural trend-mongering, Calatrava's distinctive blend of scientific logic and romantic flair remains entirely his own. And the scale a which he works is unquestionably impressive: Where most architecture is measured in inches and feet, his can best be gauged in miles and acres.

Calatrava's dogged work habits and extraordinary expertise have won him a major international following and ten honorary degrees. That ceaseless drive has also made him a rich man. Though few architects become millionaires—an economic reality of the labor-intensive building art—Calatrava has prospered in the lucrative realm of large-scale, government-funded public works. He lives on a magisterial scale that dwarfs that of most of his colleagues, who (like the spendthrift Frank Lloyd Wright) nurture exquisite tastes that their incomes often cannot satisfy. Yet Calatrava is no status-seeking showboat. Although he thinks nothing of ordering expensive bottles of wine for lunch, he chooses not some obvious Rothschild label but instead the underappreciated Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron, esteemed by connoisseurs.

Calatrava's home-and-office base is the imposing turn-of-the-century lakeside villa in Zurich where he spends much of the year. He and his family occupy the sleekly remodeled piano nobile, with conference rooms and archives for his 60,000 drawings in the basement and his drafting room in the spacious, skylighted attic. The mansion's large rooms are discreetly but expensively furnished with modern furniture classics (by Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Gray, and Gehry) and excellent contemporary art (by Sol LeWitt, Terry Winters, and others). Also on display are several dozen of the one-of-a-kind tables that Calatrava has designed but thus far declined to sell, giving some rooms the air of a high-end showroom.

Likewise, there are Calatrava residences and offices in Paris and his hometown of Valencia; holidays are spent at the posh Suvretta House resort in St. Moritz. And on the best stretch of New York's Park Avenue, the architect recently bought a townhouse that he plans to have remodeled and use as part of his campaign to attain a higher profile in the United States. It's easy to imagine the impeccably mannered, uncommonly charming, deeply intelligent, and genuinely warm Calatrava taking the American power establishment by storm in that newest showcase of his success. (To further familiarize Americans with his work an exhibition, Poetics of Movement: The Architecture of Santiago Calatrava, will be on view from March 25 to August 5 at the Meadows Museum at the Meadows School of the Arts, in Dallas.)

Wider American recognition is already under way with the phased opening, beginning this May, of Calatrava's stunning addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum on the shore of Lake Michigan. With its prowlike platform jutting out over the water and dramatic profile of tilting masts strung with support cables, it resembles a streamlined clipper ship ready to set sail. The building's effectiveness as a display space remains to be tested as the temporary exhibitions for which it was designed are installed in the flexible, 11,000-square-foot gallery, but there's no question that the structure will function spectacularly as a dynamic symbol of the revival of Milwaukee. Even if this building is no Guggenheim Bilbao—the critic- and crowd-pleasing Gehry masterpiece that has become an international attraction—Calatrava's latest completed work places him among the most visible exponents of the quintessential building type of our time, the art museum.

Interestingly, Gehry was interviewed for the Milwaukee museum job before Calatrava was ultimately chosen, and Calatrava's exceptionally graceful Volantin Footbridge spans the Nervión River in Bilbao just a few hundred feet southeast of Gehry's Guggenheim, which it complements beautifully. But though both architects use organic forms, the results they achieve are very different indeed. "I have great respect for Santiago," Gehry says. "I love talking to him. He's a brilliant musician, very well read, a high-level intellect. But there is a romanticism in his work that I would veer away from, which probably comes out of all that intellect, all that music. I try to purge myself of those romantic notions, although we all have them."

The son of a prosperous produce exporter, Santiago Calatrava Valls was born in the Valencian town of Benimamet, a center for Marrano Jews, who converted to Catholicism before and during the Inquisition and from whom he is descended on his mother's side. His father's aristocratic family stems from a medieval order of knights, and there is a Calle Calatrava in the historic district of Valencia. A crusader's cross is carved over the entrance of the architect's office in that city with the Latin motto in hoc signo vinces ("in this sign you will conquer").

Calatrava grew up during the final decades of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's long dictatorship, and his family was eager for him to study abroad to escape the confines of Spain, which under Franco had become a cultural backwater. At 13 Santiago became an exchange student in Paris, but his later plans to study there at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were thwarted by the événements of 1968. Today, Spain boasts perhaps the most vibrant architectural culture in the world, with the highest level of contemporary construction anywhere.

Calatrava sees the dramatic change this way: "During the forties, fifties, and sixties, Spain was condemned to remain apart from the rest of Europe because of a residual Fascist regime. But the country's cultural tradition reaches over centuries, and it remained high. Since the return of democracy, Spain has profited from a huge enthusiasm that comes from freedom. It has been unique in the possibility of implementing things that would be very difficult to do in other places. Gehry's Guggenheim is a good expression of that."

After Calatrava received his architecture degree from the technical college in Valencia, he moved on to the prestigious Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich for a Ph.D. in civil engineering. It was there that he met and fell in love with the Swedish-Italian law student Robertina Marangoni, whom he later married. (The couple speak German together at home, as it's the easiest overlap among their many languages.) Remaining in Zurich to be a teaching assistant at his alma mater, Calatrava opened his own office there in 1981 and began entering architectural competitions, the most common way of gaining public commissions in Europe. His strenuous efforts won him several breakthrough projects, and by his early thirties he was well on the way to one of the major architectural careers of our time.

Personally as well as professionally, Calatrava is at a very good point in his life. With his thick black hair, bushy eyebrows, and dark, soulful eyes, he looks years younger than his age. His devoted wife, Tina, manages his business and legal affairs (together with her brother), and the couple has four healthy children. Calatrava would seem to have it all, but it's clear that this restless creator, like his knightly forebears, yearns for new worlds to conquer.

In addition to his thriving architecture and engineering practice and avocation as a furniture designer, Calatrava is also an avid painter and sculptor. He spends part of most days making watercolors of the human body, which he considers the touchstone for his organic designs. Like the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who spent each morning sketching a nude female model from life in order to loosen his drafting arm and awaken the biomorphic spirit that animated his architecture, so Calatrava uses his art to enliven his architecture. Unlike Aalto, however, the Spaniard eschews hiring live models. As he says with a smile, "I know my wife, you know."

Le Corbusier, the most influential architect of the 20th century, craved for his Purist paintings and sculptures the same high recognition that his buildings commanded; not content to be the Picasso of architecture, he wanted to be the Picasso of art as well. But Calatrava's claims for his art are far more modest, and appropriately so, for his repetitive and rather weak figure studies and his sixties-slick sculptures in resin, bronze, and marble are of interest only because of his renown in another medium. Nonetheless, the architect made sure both his watercolors and sculptures were prominently displayed in his retrospective at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence last fall, affirming his desire to be seen as a Renaissance man in the cradle of the Renaissance.

"The beauty of using painting in the everyday work of the architect," explains Calatrava, "is that in order to conceive a building, you make several hundred sketches that contain the essence of the building. If you give those sketches a life in themselves through the force of the painting, you can transmit the emotion to those who are working on or commissioning the project. When I give my people a package of sketches, or my client a book of drawings, it is not a description of where the toilet is or where the doors are, but an emotional aspect that underlines the artistic quality of the architecture."

More than being accepted as an artist, however, Calatrava is most ambitious to be taken seriously as an architect of major buildings, and not just an engineer of infrastructure. "If you look back on the twenty years of work I have behind me," he says, "there have been two goals. One is to make a link between the arts of engineering and architecture. The second is to link architecture and art. When I was at school, art was seen as very distant from architecture. But I think architecture deserves to be in the center of art history, as it regularly produces the most expressive achievements of its time. I hope that my work helps architecture approach the language of pure art."

Though it takes decades for architects to step up to the big commissions, typecasting starts early in a profession where specialization by building type is the norm. Except in the highest reaches of the profession, architects who design hospitals are unlikely to be asked to plan churches, or those who excel at schools chosen to build airports. When an architect is being considered for a project, the most frequent question a client asks is, "Has he designed one before?" Thus, as middle age opens up before him, Calatrava knows it's now or never if he is to progress beyond the boundaries of his current practice, peerless though he is in building bridges.

A decade ago, Calatrava found out just how difficult the crossover from engineer to architect could be when he was asked to complete the most famous unfinished building in America, New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Begun in 1892, construction of the massive Episcopal church on Manhattan's Morningside Heights proceeded at the glacial pace of medieval cathedrals but stopped altogether at the outbreak of World War II. In 1991, the cathedral's adventuresome dean, James Parks Morton, asked Calatrava to turn the sanctuary into a New Age biosphere, a well-meaning but muddled mix of transcendental nature worship and ecological activism.

Trying to transform the existing Gothic building into a colossal greenhouse, Calatrava was inspired by the Art Nouveau architecture of his countryman Antoni Gaudí, whose unfinished Church of the Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, was the inspiration for the bonelike ribs and vaults of the proposed St. John's. Formally interesting and functionally loony, Calatrava's "celestial garden" drew a flurry of attention when it was unveiled, but was ultimately shelved when it failed to attract donors to bring it to reality.

As Calatrava describes his concept for the cathedral, "The beauty of it is that it is a metaphor for a tree. Down below you have the original crypt, which represents the roots, then you have the nave, which represents the trunk, and up in the top of the building you have the green atmosphere of the bio-shelter, filled with light, which represents the branches and leaves. We put a very high spire over the crossing to give the proper scale for a building in Manhattan. From my apartment in Paris I can see both Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower, and St. John the Divine would be a combination of the two.

"I believe that in order to realize such an idea, you need a lot of time," he continues philosophically, as indeed he might, by keeping in mind that it took more than two centuries to bring Notre-Dame de Paris to completion. "I always keep the hope that someday we will realize it, which is a good reason to continue to be in touch with New York and with the Cathedral." The St. John's experience was not entirely wasted, however, as it went a long way toward helping Calatrava win the commission last year for the new Christ the Light Cathedral in Oakland, California.

There was no patronage problem with Calatrava's biggest architectural scheme to date, his vast City of Arts and Sciences, in Valencia. With Gehry's Bilbao museum, begun in 1991, and the Barcelona Olympics and Seville Expo, both of 1992, the city fathers of Valencia began to worry their town would be left in the dust of Spain's extraordinary architectural boom. Valencia's most pressing urban problem was what to do with the long-dried-up bed of the Turia River, which cut a broad swath through the historic city. To fill in that void and make the provincial center culturally competitive with Bilbao, Barcelona, and Seville, Calatrava won the opportunity to design an 87-acre, $350-million complex that includes an opera house, science museum, public garden, and planetarium.

Understandably, Calatrava is immensely proud of being asked to put his mark so strongly on his native city. "I feel a big responsibility," he says. "It is a unique chance to configure not just one building but several structures that are a city within the city, and to see how such an intervention can affect the evolution of the city."

Set among reflecting pools, fountains, and promenades, the futuristic ensemble brings to mind a 1960s world's fair, or Brasília, the instant South American capital of the same vintage. The Opera House is still two years from completion, but the Science Museum, Planetarium, and garden have recently been finished. Most successful is the garden, shaded by a stately, white-finished slatted metal canopy that evokes the filigreed elegance of 19th-century greenhouses. Though Calatrava's open-sided shelter contains no glass, and will eventually be overgrown by climbing bougainvillea, it stands firmly in the tradition of the Crystal Palace, the mid-Victorian wonder often cited as the first truly modern building.

But because Calatrava resorts so often to organic prototypes, his buildings have the disquieting tendency to look too much like body parts excised from some Brobdingnagian being. For example, his Valencia Science Museum, which was completed last year, brings to mind nothing so much as a colossal rack of lamb that's been picked absolutely clean. Compared with the lush and lively biomorphism of Gehry's Bilbao museum, which has been likened to everything from a fish to an artichoke, Calatrava's science museum seems stiff and static. It is also inhospitable to the exhibits inside it, which are dwarfed by the overpowering scale and set within freestanding enclosures to offset the glare from the stories-high glazing between the building's ribs. And how expensive will it be to air-condition this glass-walled behemoth during the long, blazing Valencian summer?

There's nothing in the least static about the City of Arts and Sciences' oddest structure, the Planetarium. More than two centuries ago, the visionary French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée dreamed up a gigantic spherical cenotaph meant to symbolize the universe, and dedicated to the memory of Sir Isaac Newton. Around the same time, another revolutionary French architect, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, imagined his theater at Besançon reflected in the iris of a giant eye. Both those hypothetical designs informed Calatrava's Planetarium. The half-sphere of the auditorium is covered by an arching roof with curving motorized sides that raise and lower like eyelids, complete with scores of projecting metal lashes. The whole bizarre construction is set amid a reflecting pool that mirrors the form, producing a humongous blinking eyeball. This is kitsch, pure and simple: a familiar thing taken out of context, its scale distorted, and transformed into a grotesque object.

Much more pleasing are Calatrava's transportation buildings, the train stations and airports that capture the thrill of high-speed movement to perfection. His flamboyantly winged Lyon-Satolas Airport Railway Station recalls the soaring uplift of Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at JFK, and, like its celebrated antecedent, can best be compared to a bird in flight. On a much more intimate scale, his Stadelhofen Railway Station, in Zurich, nestles into its curving site with a tactful deference appropriate to the staid residential neighborhood it serves. And in Valencia, his Alameda Bridge and Underground Station turns the mundane act of catching a subway into an exciting journey. But Calatrava is somewhat disappointed with his new Sondika Airport, in Bilbao, finding the terminal building too small—which he tried to warn the client against. However, the architect says that the client knows that the building can be expanded at any time.

Sometimes Calatrava expresses movement too literally, and his fondness for motorized elements in his buildings can seem like excessive technological bravura. For example, his rejected proposal for the reconstruction of the Reichstag, in Berlin (which eventually went to the British architect Sir Norman Foster), came closer to the spirit of the original building's dome than the winning design. But Calatrava's glass-and-steel cupola was meant, at the flip of a switch, to pivot outward like the unfolding petals of some monstrous flower. Though the architect intended this high-tech trick to symbolize the openness of the reunited and democratic country, it's easy to understand why such a gimmicky concept was rejected in favor of one that better embodies the stability that a national capitol should convey.

That particular project sums up the conundrum at the heart of Calatrava's work, which strives to be at once technological and organic, scientific and spiritual—a tall order for any work of art. "Wherever you look in nature you see order," explains Calatrava. "And the essence of that order is very geometric, very mathematical. You can see it in every leaf of every branch of every tree. Everything in nature is ordered—as Einstein said, 'God does not play dice.' And that is a very beautiful idea."

Martin Filler is the architecture critic of The New Republic.