Santiago Calatrava interview to Alain Elkann

by Alain Elkann

Santiago Calatrava. Image: © Thomas Hoeffgen

ART PRECEDES SCIENCE. Santiago Calatrava is a visionary architect, a structural engineer, a sculptor, and a painter based in Switzerland. In his architecture he has merged advanced engineering solutions with dramatic visual statements.

Santiago Calatrava, you are from Valencia in Spain where you studied to become an architect. Why did you then go to engineering school in Zürich, Switzerland?

My career has largely come about through different circumstances. I grew up in Valencia and, because my family was related to the director, was able to attend an art school when I was eight years old. By 16, I wanted to enter the School of Beaux Arts in Paris. But the year was 1968, and Paris was overrun with school protests, which did not elude mine. So I was forced back to Valencia and the local art school and the polytechnic. After six rigorous years of education, I earned a degree in architecture and urban planning. Yet, I was of a required age to do military service in Spain, which went against my most essential beliefs, for we were living in a dictatorial system. I knew that I had to leave my home country. Throughout my time studying architecture and urban planning, I had spent summer vacations visiting other European countries and Switzerland had always remained in my mind as a significant place. So much so that, eventually, I was convinced that the Polytechnikum in Zürich would be a great incubator to study engineering. I moved there to pursue those studies as far as I could.

Why did you decide to be an architect and engineer rather than an artist?

It was a conversion. I was in Paris throughout the summer of ‘68, working a couple of hours each day in a non-profit organization on La Rue Chanoinesse, just around the corner from Notre-Dame Cathedral. I often visited Notre-Dame, and it was then that I witnessed the beauty of the space as you entered; the sun was shining through enormous stained glass windows, and dust was rolling in the rays of light. This experience opened my eyes to the undeniable fact that architecture, like painting and sculpting, is an art. What I came to understand was that as an artform, architecture was bonded by the exact knowledge of technology or material properties, and the beauty of this cathedral was, for me, the pure essence of the craft; the alpha and omega. Engineering, I discovered, was essential to gain more receptivity about structural and material behavior. So, for me, it’s a symbiosis; together with painting and sculpting, the world of mathematics and mechanics is one that I love and am perpetually invigorated by.

“A building is not something static and rigid which changes only through the shadows when the sun is turning around it, but it can also change like a flower.”

Reggio Emilia AV Mediopadana is a high speed railway station in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Photo © Burg / Schuh, Palladium Photodesign

Santiago Calatrava, did the Swiss engineer Robert Maillart influence you?

I knew about Maillart before I entered the Polytechnic. Even his most insignificant bridges have something charming and delicate in them. Several, like the Tavanasa and Salginatobel bridges (both in Switzerland), are heroic gestures. Situated in the middle of dramatic mountains, they were built to allow farmers to pass through. Indeed, their beauty is in conjunction with the landscape.

Your work is mainly bridges and railroad stations, and among many others you did Mediopadana Station in Reggio Emilia, Zürich Stadelhofen, the Lisbon Oriente Station; you did Bac de Roda Bridge in Barcelona – which is known locally as Pont de Calatrava – the Lusitania Bridge in Mérida, the Puente del Alamillo of the Seville Expo. Why all these stations and bridges?

As I said, in my case circumstance play an important role. I met my wife as a student in Switzerland and decided to start a life there. But I didn’t have any connections or knowledge of people who would commission me to design a house or condominiums. So I was forced to win bids from public competitions. Together with a colleague, I was fortunate to win the competition for a railway station in Zürich, resulting in my first station. What makes railway stations significant is that they are functional, but can be beautiful too. They take years to be completed because so much goes into the work. Looking back at all of the stations I have done, each one is different from the next because they have been adapted to the local circumstances. Even if you are working in a very constrained field of functional and technical limitations when designing a station, there still remains a freedom to express yourself.

And also with bridges?

Bridges are very rarely private commissions. Once you design a bridge and it is well received, you will eventually get rewarded through more commissions for designing other bridges. The statical composition of a bridge is very limited. Either they are a beam, an arc, a cable-stayed, a suspension, or a tubular bridge. There are only a few models, but the variety of the circumstances, the length, the landscape, these provide the architect with a level of freedom. After so many years, I have learned that I take great joy from designing a bridge.

How do you conceive the shapes of your stations and bridges?

The Second World War destroyed major bridges and railway stations throughout Central Europe. As a result, they were quickly rebuilt after the war ended. In a similar manner in the 1950s, there was a demand to create and upgrade housing. This need to build quickly introduced a kind of doctrine of pure functionalism. In terms of bridges and railway stations, the results that emerged in the 50s and 60s had nothing to do with the designs of previous bridges or stations. Look, for example, at London’s Victoria Station or St. Pancras, or New York’s extraordinary Grand Central or original Penn Station. The same thing happened with bridges. Suddenly, the best bridge was the cheapest, one that simply could lead from one point to another. This attitude towards bridges ran counter to such designs as the Tower Bridge in London or almost every bridge in Paris, which, in my opinion, are truly the face of the city. This led me to begin designing bridges using steel, which was very uncommon at the time as most bridges were almost exclusively being made in concrete. In designing bridges, I pushed myself to find a new vocabulary, which manifested in combing concrete and steel, as seen in the Alamillo bridge in Seville, with the gravity of the pylons. Or the Lusitania Bridge in Merida, with the big arch in the center. Or even with the bridge in Barcelona, in which there’s a double arch, with one of them inclined. In conceiving new bridges and railway stations, it was fundamental for me to work within a new vocabulary. Everything grew and evolved from this lexicon.

“The sensation of entering, and the whole event of mass, of pillars, of stone, and all the space surrounding you and becoming your immediate environment exists in architecture.”

Santiago Calatrava’s Peace Bridge is a bridge that accommodates people walking and cycling across the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Image © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava, what do you aim to achieve with stations and bridges?

When designing a station, I take pride in creating large spaces for the public to enjoy. If you consider the most fantastic cultural buildings of our time, such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, or the British Museum, they receive 10 or 12 million visitors per year. But a station, such as the Oculus in New York, can easily receive up to 100 million people each year who commute to and from work, and pass through the same station each day. Whatever beautiful design you create in a railway station is in homage to them. Sadly, many of those people do not have the possibility of visiting the Louvre or the British Museum, so a station is a remarkable place to make a genuine effort to inspire. While working within the economic limits, a well-designed station provides the public a sense of beauty in their everyday life. It is my aim that they see and take pride in this beauty, because it is for them to enjoy.

When building a bridge safety is very important. How do you combine the technical with the beauty?

As an engineer it is necessary to be very prudent and take a very cautious approach to what you are doing. But on the other side of the equation, you can also work in a daring way. That is one of the beautiful parts of engineering. Many of my bridges are of a medium or even short length, but they appear audacious and elegant, almost as if they’re defying gravity.

Around the 90s you started adding movable aspects to your work, more or less like the wings of a bird, for example the Kuwaiti Pavilion in Seville in Expo92, the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, or the Oculus at the World Trade Centre in New York. What’s the point?

A quote that transcends time is that “art precedes science”. You can see this, for example, when studying the Impressionists from Monet to Sisley. They were painting in a way that was related to natural light and the effects of the light within nature and objects. Their artistic instinct towards light as the subject of their painting was happening before the revolutionary thesis of Albert Einstein, which later brought him the Nobel Prize on the physical nature of light. The idea of movement, speed, and dynamism in the art was already present in Italy’s Futurist movement in the early 20th century. Also Alexander Calder, the great American sculptor, and his mobiles, created with the idea of introducing elements which through natural or mechanical forces could change shape.

My PhD in Zürich involved folding complex spherical polyhedra into a line. The transformations from three dimensional shapes into a one-dimensional event fascinated me. It is possible, in my opinion, to make the shapes transformable. A building is not something static and rigid which changes only through the shadows when the sun is turning around it, but it can also change like a flower. My Ph.D. thesis was titled “Natura mater et magistra.” What I was dreaming of is done every day by flowers that open during the day when the sun is there, or sunflowers as they follow the arc of the sun. It is done even by leaves, by branches, by our own body, when we are opening our hands or opening our arms. There is a whole poetic version of that which opens in the moment you introduce a dynamic shape in architecture. The first time I did something movable in a building was by introducing gates. It was in a warehouse in northern Germany, and the client permitted us to use doors that open and change shape. It was very well received at the time, and they are still working to this day.

Santiago Calatrava’s Innovation, Science and Technology Building, opened in 2014, the first building for Florida Polytechnic University’s new campus in Lakeland, Florida. Image © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

As a sculptor you are inspired by Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin or Frank Stella and in architecture the building has to be nice to look at from the inside and the outside, but at the same time everything has to function.

Another sculptor whom I truly admire is Henry Moore. In a compendium of his notes about sculpture, there was a passage in which he compared sculpture to architecture. He explained that the sculptor works with material and has the freedom to express himself and is only bounded by the natural laws of the material he’s working with. Otherwise he’s free. Later, he said of architects that, different from a sculptor, they are bound by the laws of utility and functionality related to the use of the building. It’s a severe limitation. But, importantly, he included that one point at which architecture is superior to a sculpture is the human scale. Unlike a sculpture, you can penetrate the building and it can enclose you. You experience this by entering a cathedral. The sensation of entering, and the whole event of mass, of pillars, of stone, and all the space surrounding you and becoming your immediate environment exists in architecture. Rodin had enormous respect for architecture and visited many cathedrals in France, doing a series of notes about his experience. He spoke about architecture as the harmonious game of plans and volumes under the light. Even the last generation of great sculptors, Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet, and Chillida completed sculptures so big you can almost penetrate them. Perhaps they were blurring the lines between sculpture and architecture. (Or perhaps they wanted to be architects!)

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