Take an Exclusive Look Into the Studio—and Life—of Architect Santiago Calatrava
by Nick Mafi
The inimitable architect sits down with AD to explain his daily routine, philosophy on design, and creative process
In its most basic form, the purpose of architecture is to provide shelter. For a building to go further than this fundamental purpose, it must delight. That’s the only way in which a structure can extend past its physical boundaries to truly touch those who encounter it. And there are few, if any, individuals who can produce this sensation better than Santiago Calatrava.
Yet Calatrava never thought he would grow to become a pillar in the field. In fact, he never even thought he would be an architect at all. It was a calling that came when he least expected it as a young student. “I spent a summer in Paris doing social work,” Calatrava recalls to AD. “The office was located close to Notre-Dame and, one day, I decided to visit the building. The moment I entered, the sun was shining through enormous stained glass windows, and dust was rolling in the rays of light. It’s no coincidence that I was in a cathedral, since this was my conversion into architecture.”
Today, Calatrava is among the world’s most successful and sought-after architects. It’s a profession in which he is both a rationalist and a romantic. His ability to design structures that provide the public with a space to work, shop, and move through a city are only heightened by his understanding of elegance in structural form. Since his first major project (Zurich’s Stadelhofen station in 1990), the 72-year-old architect has amassed a series of prestigious commissions (The World Trade Center Transportation Hub), as well as awards (the AIA Gold Medal) throughout his illustrious career. And while his success has necessitated the opening of studios in Dubai and New York, it’s in a studio on a quiet, leafy street close to central Zurich where the architect spends most of his time.
An early morning, spent at home
“Each morning, my journey begins exactly at six,” the affable Calatrava says. “I pour coffee, feed our family dog, Stella, then let her roam the yard.” It’s these early morning obligations, the architect explains, that keep him grounded and focused in routine. “Then, I ride my bicycle 20 minutes to a local tennis club near Lake Zurich.” After playing for an hour, he cycles home. With a shower and breakfast out of the way, Calatrava begins his first salvo into creative rigor. “On the third floor of my house, I have an atelier that I use to paint from nine to noon.” The Spanish architect is as deft at wielding a paintbrush on canvas as he is at taking a pencil to drafting paper. (In his hometown of Valencia, Calatrava was first enrolled in an art school at a young age.)
To walk through his atelier is to roam his mind. Paintings can be seen of a charging bull, a skeletal hand, bodies suspended mid-dance, and a dove mid-flight. “I find much beauty and inspiration in the natural world,” Calatrava admits. This inspiration is apparent to anyone who has looked at one of his completed structures, making Calatrava more of an alchemist than architect. He has a way of manipulating steel, glass, and concrete into something soft, even ephemeral. Examples abound: a tower that reads as a torso (Malmö, Sweden), a communications building that recalls a flame (Barcelona), a museum reminiscent of a flying bird (Milwaukee), a pedestrian bridge more like a pair of tango dancers than a mere structure (Buenos Aires).
At the studio by 1 p.m.
After the paintbrushes are left to dry, Calatrava eats lunch downstairs. Then, it’s less than a 10-minute drive from home to the studio, where he arrives around 1 p.m. The work space is located in an early 20th-century residence near the northern tip of Lake Zurich. Once owned by a prominent local brewing family, this space is where the architect has worked since 2002. Today, the house turned studio is a blend of old-world charm and no-nonsense Swiss organization.
It’s in this office of 30 employees that Calatrava embarks on what he declares the everyday job of an architect. “Since I am an engineer by education, the material parts of the architecture are very clear to me. But there’s so much more to consider. A successful architect needs to be like the director of an orchestra. It’s in the finding of a good contractor. It’s in working with the unions, working with the finances, working with the limitations of the land, the limitations of the local zoning laws. These tasks can be viewed as mundane, but the importance of them cannot be exaggerated.”
Though Calatrava understands the banal necessities required to finish a project, he certainly doesn’t allow them to stymie his creativity. For him, it’s not just the architecture that’s important, but the meaning for those who enter it. Case in point: Calatrava’s Oculus. The structure is part transportation hub, mall, and monument. There is beauty outside and within the building. There’s a metaphorical connection to the unthinkable that happened above the hallowed ground it’s built on. There’s room for each person—be they New Yorker or tourist—to meditate on their own thoughts. To interpret or define the space. To consider the private loss for so many in such a public place can be humbling. It’s, therefore, in this structure that Calatrava’s greatness can be seen and be felt. For, if his designs have one thematic thread in common, it’s that they unlock the perfect balance between openness and enclosure, between serenity and security.
“No painting, no sculpture, no musical ballad allows you to physically step inside the work of art, except for architecture,” Calatrava says. “This, for me, makes it exceptional.”
On September 11, 2001, at 10:28 a.m., the World Trade Center’s North Tower collapsed. Calatrava views that exact moment to be the start for the reconstruction process. Now, starting in 2016, the glass affixed to the top of the structure will move aside at that exact same time on the anniversary of the attacks, thereby allowing natural light and air to flow through the space. The moment symbolizes New York’s resilience by turning one of the city’s darkest moments into its brightest
Back at the office, the architect works with his team to address the various demands and requests coming in from around the globe. (Helpfully, Calatrava speaks eight languages.) The architect and his colleagues busy themselves with upcoming design competition entries, or the final steps in soon-to-be-completed projects, such as New York’s St. Nicholas Church (fall 2022) and a train station in Mons, Belgium (end of 2023 or early 2024). It’s when speaking of train stations that Calatrava perhaps becomes his most philosophical self: “I think, if done right, a train station can be very powerful in the identity of a place. Look at the Gothic stone gates in my hometown [of Valencia]. These were built over 500 years ago as a way to impress other European cities, so when they arrived, they knew Valencia was important.” Calatrava argues that it’s the same with New York’s Grand Central Station. “The first time I visited this station, I couldn’t believe it. I just stood there, absorbing everything for 20 minutes, maybe more. I thought to myself, every person who walks through this station has immense pride. And that is because they know this gift was designed specifically for them to use, but in a way that will always be memorable.”
The Auditorio de Tenerife, in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, is considered the most iconic modern building in the Canary Islands. Designed by Calatrava, and completed in 2003, the structure features a central arc that appears to be suspended, as if defying gravity.
Dinner with his wife, then back to sketching
By early evening, Calatrava leaves the office for his home, where he dines with his wife. After spending quality time with his partner of five decades, the architect will turn back to work from the comforts of home. In the winter, he prefers to sit in front of a fire, quietly exploring the contours of his mind as it maps the contours of a new building. “I end my day by sketching or painting designs,” he explains. “I may create 100 sketches of a building before we begin mapping it out in the studio. And I do this because it’s crucial for me to continually revisit these sketches. Each time I do, I come back with an even greater understanding of the design, for I have found no better instrument for introspection than sketching or painting. You see, if we are to design buildings simply to perform functions, they are likely to become obsolete. With my hundreds of sketches and paintings, I try and break through that fate.”
Step Inside Santiago Calatrava’s Zurich Studio
Santiago Calatrava’s Zurich studio is located in a quiet neighborhood, separated from the street by a fence lined with a row of trees and bushes.
Outside the main front entrance to Calatrava’s studio. The building once served as the home for a wealthy beer-brewing family in Zurich.
The architect works on the main floor of the office. A door (not pictured) opens onto a lawn which leads to his sculpting studio.
Calatrava is a man who can persuade others by the sheer authenticity of his talent. Case in point: In 1996, Calatrava was one of seven contestants in a competition to design a train station in Liège, Belgium. His rivals arrived in groups, equipped with a litany of previous work. Calatrava showed up alone with his paintbrush. He won the commission. Pictured, the architect’s painting desk at his Zurich office.
In his office, Calatrava has framed pictures with Pope Francis (right), as well as Oscar Niemeyer (left). Of Niemeyer, Calatrava says: “More than anything, this man was a poet. He had an enormous sensibility in the way he approached his craft.”
Calatrava’s office sits on the ground floor of the studio, while the architects who help turn his sketches and paintings into formal plans work in a large room below—pictured here.
With his team, Calatrava works on design competitions and commissions from around the globe. Intricate models of his designs are also made in-house.
A view of the studio from the expansive lawn edged with a loggia. Even outdoors, the space is serene, closed off from the more boisterous central Zurich (which is less than a mile away by foot).
The multi-floor studio has room for some 30 employees.
Looking away from the main office, the sculpting studio can be seen.
Inside the sculpture and model-making building. Here, employees do work related to current commissions and upcoming design competitions.
Sculptures and models of various sizes of wood and steel are made in this section of the studio.
Elements left by previous owners of the space, such as this ceramic fireplace, or kachelöfen, can still be seen in the studio.
The yard surrounding the main studio includes pebbled paths and verdant gardens.
The architecture firm took over another building across the street from the studio in 2019. The new office is currently being modernized to host future meetings and exhibitions.
The studio is unassuming, nestled within a quiet neighborhood. It is close to the city center and several small parks.
The main studio building can be seen in the background, while a tram heading toward nearby central Zurich rolls past in the foreground.