The table conversation last night involved this wonderful hatchet job on Santiago Calatrave. I’ve occasionally baffled people by mentioning how no designer on the planet irks me more, so it was pure schadenfreude to seeing him get raked over the coals in yesterday’s New York Times.
“But he’s a structural poet!” is the usual response, and that gets the casual conversationalist a small flamethrower of a rant from me on structure, economy, poetry, and beauty. Calatrava’s work often looks ‘structural,’ but the fact is that after a dozen or so super-elegant and rigorously conceived bridges in the 1980s, his work has been less about actual problem solving, and far more about creating sculpture. Very, very expensive sculpture, that sometimes can’t be left out in the rain.
The Times points out a litany of complaints from recent clients ranging from well-documented cost overruns (the Valencia City of Science project, presented as the primary exhibit, was some 300% over budget—even my garage wasn’t that bad) to construction problems so basic as to be actually baffling (a glass bridge in the same city’s rainy and occasionally snowy climate that has contributed to 50 serious injuries). The article appears as his PATH station in New York is rising above ground level, giving critics and residents alike a glimpse of what (ahem) $4 billion dollars is getting them.
Being in the middle of Nervi research, it’s impossible to not draw a comparison. Calatrava gets compared to Nervi, and to Maillart, all the time because his buildings look like “structural” architecture. But that comparison ends with the visual similarities. In the words of signor Nervi:
I am convinced that the structural architecture of today, like that of the past and of always, must give the impression of a stable and tranquil equilibrium rather than that of an astonishing, if not frightening, marvel of acrobatic exercise. Daredevil construction acrobatics, encouraged and made possible by present-day materials and calculating methods, at best must be limited to temporary structures with precise publicity goals, such as exhibitions. [emphasis added]
Calatrava’s gymnastics are usually in response to a problem he creates for himself—what would happen if we took a museum and buried the whole thing in the ground? And then applied a random physiological metaphor—say a whale’s rib cage—to the whole enterprise? You’d get something unusual, that’s for sure, and Calatrava’s response to the Times was to point out that he gets paid to design “extraordinary” things for cities. True enough, but that sounds dangerously close to the ever-feared “interesting,” which jurors use to euphemize a scheme that went off the rails early in the process and never looked back.
Valencia, or PATH, or the Bilbao Airport (which, whoops!, doesn’t have an arrivals hall) …these are what happens when a designer doesn’t have constraints. We’re all tempted to follow design ideas down whatever rabbit holes they take us into. But most of us have clients who start to tug on the leash when things get weird, or we have contractors who do their jobs of saving us from ourselves. The real world has a way of putting up constructive resistance and making us distill our craziest ideas down to the essential, problem-solving spark that usually got us interested in the first place. Any architect who had clients coming to them saying “money is no object, we want one of your things to make our city the next Bilbao,” would produce some baffling, if mesmerizing, stuff as well.
(By the way, why do we still talk about the “Bilbao Effect” twenty years later? The fact that we haven’t had another building that’s single-handedly rescued a region with architectural tourist dollars–the fact that we still say “Bilbao Effect” at all–doesn’t this disprove entirely the wisdom of handing superstars a blank check and expecting the Moleskine-wielding hordes to fly in to the rescue?)
Am I piling on? I am piling on. But the idea of a designer who has built his reputation on allegedly integrating art, architecture, and engineering–and who then details a mosaic tile roof on a concrete shell without building in a single expansion joint has richly earned the cracking, buckling building skin that results. And the lawsuit. And, frankly, the awesomely sharp criticism of the New York Times in full attack mode.
It may be, as the late Herbert Muschamp hoped, that the soaring lines of PATH will add a “spiritual” dimension to downtown. What’s $4 billion if the result is as “extraordinary” as promised? Well, the question is, “extraordinary” for whom? As the New York Observer noted this past spring:
With its contribution to the project, which was supposed to cost it virtually nothing, ballooning to nearly $1 billion, the Port Authority now finds itself unable to fund the sorts of regional transportation projects that have traditionally justified its existence.