From the first, Calatrava has looked relentlessly ahead. He was born in Franco’s Spain, a repressive and suffocating environment. Artists like Picasso could maintain the culture of Spain only by moving beyond its borders. Toward the end of Franco’s reign, Calatrava, having earned a degree in architecture, moved to Zurich to study civil engineering. He continues to emphasize inventive structure—and to insist that there’s no necessary difference between engineering and architecture. If Frank Gehry is obsessed with the “skin” of buildings, as many critics suggest, then Calatrava delights in revealing their bones. But he’s nothing like a “form follows function” man; there’s not much residue, in his sensibility, of the puritanical strain of modernism that once rejected ornament and artifice. Calatrava is essentially a baroque artist. He’s theatrical. He loves movement. He uses contemporary engineering to create acrobatic curves to wow an audience. His buildings are often biomorphic in appearance—like those of Saarinen, the fanciful modernist who is one of his heroes—rather than rectilinear. He likes the arc. His signature shape is the wing.
No doubt the claustrophobia of Franco’s Spain has something to do with Calatrava’s appreciation for wings and open air. Over the years, his actual commissions have added to this impression of a man who wants to escape, to keep moving, and to fly. Although Calatrava himself believes that his “transportation” specialty developed largely by happenstance—as a young Spanish architect in Zurich, he could get commissions only by entering architectural competitions for public works—his ongoing delight in such projects suggests a deeper passion. Bridges are especially close to his heart. They offer an escape from earthbound problems. They make connections. They also seamlessly unite engineering and design. Calatrava admires the historical “heroism” of the Brooklyn Bridge, and he considers the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco one of the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century. He loves the George Washington Bridge, too: “I like the presence of the pylons, to see all those metal crosses when they are lighted. And also the tremendous slenderness. How daring it was to build a bridge like that at the time!”
Calatrava’s bridges—arguably his best work—are often whimsically asymmetrical. They suggest a smile or a wave of the hand, instead of a trudge across no-man’s-land. His airports and railway stations have an airy quality of uplift. Like Grand Central Terminal, they emphasize light and have a larger-than-life presence, encouraging weary commuters to lift their shoulders. Both his addition in Milwaukee and the cultural center he built in the Canary Islands are extravagantly shaped. Calatrava is one of those architects who think sculpturally: His buildings could almost be giant works of public art. In fact, the power of the computer and the development of new materials now enable architect-engineers like Calatrava to devise heretofore unimaginable shapes for buildings. The Milwaukee addition evokes masts and sails as well as wings. The transportation hub at ground zero was inspired by the thought of a child releasing a bird into the air.
A man of curves in a city of grids, Calatrava could help change our visual culture. But his more important role may simply be to embolden New York.
Calatrava draws constantly, with ease and fluidity. He’s filled up dozens of elegant sketchbooks. He often draws the figure. His proposed tower at South Street derives, ultimately, from drawings he made of bodies twisting back upon themselves; these, in turn, inspired him to create a sculpture that’s an abstracted version of such figures; now the sculpture is evolving into an actual building. No doubt Calatrava will continue to design curvy, biomorphic structures—you can’t really change your handwriting—but he’s also excited about his new, more rectangular style. He’s proud of the building because, he says, it is a new kind of skyscraper: It won’t transform the skyline, but will add something fresh. Some criticize the tower as yet another cultural celebration of wealth, an example of the ostentation that has turned New York into a place of hoggish materialism. (Each of the four-story “townhouses” contains 10,000 square feet of space and is priced between $29 million and $59 million; unless the developer finds buyers, the skyscraper may never be built.) The critics have a point. At the same time, wealth often makes possible the creation of the magically grand or elevated. New York has never lacked for palaces.
If Calatrava gets a number of important commissions—and our pusillanimous pols don’t financially starve his ground-zero station to death—he could help change the visual culture of New York. A man of curves in a city of grids, he could soften some of the city’s hard edges and awaken a more feminine, playful spirit. (He loves the Flatiron Building, with its prowlike curve and strange raked angles.) Calatrava believes that New York needs many more excellent buildings of “intermediate” scale, to help humanize and modulate the powerful effect of so many towers. He’s also an architect who insists upon air and light, which is rarer than you might think. The weight of New York is impressive, of course, but that doesn’t mean architects shouldn’t also think about dematerializing line, floating forms, and bringing more light down from the sky. Perhaps Calatrava’s emphasis upon engineering and technological whiz-bang will also help revive the now moribund tradition of creating brazen engineering marvels. This was always a city of engineers, not just fancy-pants aesthetes.