During the interminable struggle to respond appropriately to 9/11, a slugfest that’s generated vast clouds of political and bureaucratic dust, we’ve had only one blue-sky moment—the unveiling last year of Santiago Calatrava’s luminous transit station at ground zero. The immediate response, even among weary cynics, was something like At last! New York’s finally rising to the challenge. The building not only represented a classical expression of hope (it evoked a bird taking flight) but gloried in the city’s past. It invited comparison to the secular cathedrals of Grand Central and the old Penn Station, and, equally, to the city’s great modernist celebrations of movement, Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at Kennedy airport and Pier Luigi Nervi’s bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge. Maybe, just maybe, the bravura new building suggested, civic culture in New York was not moribund. Maybe New York would once again find the energy to dream big. Maybe it would have a 21st century.
In the same period, Calatrava also proposed building a skyscraper near the Brooklyn Bridge, at South Street. This building was as culturally provocative as his ground-zero station. It seemed to infiltrate and subtly challenge the skyline, which is where New York dreams. Recently, the skyline has been bulking up like an athlete on steroids, the muscular boxes crowding out the slender spires of an earlier era. Calatrava, by contrast, presented New York with a slender, light-as-air building, one composed of twelve stacked cubes that rise like a stairway to heaven. Each cube was a residence, a townhouse afloat in the sky. And each, to be sure, was absurdly expensive. But the idea also seemed otherworldly, magical. He was putting the sky back in the skyline. It was the first New York building in a long while to provoke that peculiar architectural compliment: “What’s that!”
“I’ve always had a dream about New York,” says Calatrava. “New York is an island . . . those bridges . . . the skyline . . . the dynamism . . . ”
Ah, the old music. It sounds sweet to these ears.
Calatrava is very well known in Europe, where he’s become a symbol-maker for cities that want to jazz up their identity with memorable bridges, airports, railway stations, and cultural institutions. (The construction of Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao is the most celebrated contemporary instance of a city using architecture to redefine itself.) In the United States, he’s given Milwaukee a talk piece, creating an addition to its lakeshore art museum that has a dramatic brise-soleil that opens and closes like the wings of a bird. He will build a cathedral in Oakland, and, perhaps, the tallest skyscraper in Chicago. But his eyes are now mainly, and resolutely, focused upon New York. Although he lives in Zurich, maintaining offices there and in his hometown of Valencia, Spain, he has a townhouse in Manhattan, where his wife and three of his children now live. Soon, he’ll move in. “I would like to build a new practice in New York,” he says.
What will Calatrava’s arrival mean for us? To help the city get to know him, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is opening an exhibition next week called “Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture Into Architecture.” It will contain examples of the sculpture and drawing in which Calatrava works out his essential architectural ideas; it will also include models of buildings and work related to his transportation hub at ground zero. Calatrava himself is putting a modest face on his ambitions. “I am 54. I just like it here,” he says. “I am not aspiring. I would just like to contribute with a couple of gestures.” Well, I doubt it. There’s no such thing as a modest architect. Calatrava wants to make a big difference. His English is imperfect, but even so, his passion for the city seems to build as he talks, the words circling and rising. He emphasizes the great artistic challenge of living in New York today—both to bring new-world vitality into the 21st century and to reflect the psychic changes created by the terrorist attack. “September 11 has given the city more depth, making it more profound,” he says. “The city has gained a tragic sense of life. It is now like Athens or Rome or Jerusalem, one of those great cities that has been historically hurt and then rebuilt itself.”
Who in New York talks that way nowadays? Calatrava appears entirely unjaded, a true believer in New York’s past and future. He obviously relishes the challenges facing his adopted city. “You cannot ignore these challenges,” he says. “New York is not a place that lets you be indifferent. New York is this kind of place that, wherever you go, wherever you move, you are always confronted by your own time. New York is the city of the 21st century.” Of course, the skyline entrances Calatrava, who regards it as the city’s most important gift to the world: “The skyline is a great invention.” Even the ugly boxes, as offensive as they are individually, “as a group, lighted up at night, contribute to the mass.” He likens the skyline to a living forest in which the whole is greater than any individual tree. New growth must come into the forest if it is to remain healthy. “You do new things—or you repeat what others have done before you.” Repetition, it seems, leads to sterility.