The symphonist of steel

Santiago Calatrava, the symphonist of steel

Santiago Calatrava
Santiago Calatrava

For one of the busiest architects in the world, the 63-year-old Santiago Calatrava projects an aura of enviable leisure.

The Real Deal visited him recently in his sumptuous home/office, formed from two contiguous townhouses on Park Avenue in the 60s (he has a larger office Downtown, as well as one in Zurich and another in Doha, Qatar). His uptown space doubles as his studio, not only for architecture, but also for the painting and sculpture to which he devotes about three hours of each day. His elaborately wrought earthenware pots, as well as paintings of plants and abstract wooden sculptures, fill a second-floor gallery that looks roomier and more refined than many a museum around the city.

In the ensuing discussion about his architecture, Calatrava proved so generous with his time that you might never suspect that he is in the midst of completing one of the biggest and most expensive projects in the history of the United States — the $3.7 billion transit hub at Ground Zero — or that he has just embarked on another large project nearby, building a replacement for the Greek Orthodox church of Saint Nicholas that was also destroyed in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or that he has completed over 100 other notable projects on four continents.

And though he uses English (as well as French, German and Catalan), very effectively, our conversation took place in Spanish, the language in which his expansive conversation feels completely liberated.

Calatrava is such a diplomatic and generous soul that it is hard to draw from him a critical word about New York City or its architecture. The most he would say in this regard concerned 432 Park Avenue, which he sees every time he leaves his house and begins walking south. How did he like the building? After worrying that the strict modularity of the windows might prove tedious, he smiled and said, “I am still getting used to it.”

Read on for some more insights from this renowned architect and futurist:

TRD’s Gardner: How do you find the experience of working in New York?

Calatrava: There are more restrictions on building in this city than elsewhere, and the building code is more rigid, but it also permits greater liberty. You see this in the diversity of the buildings. The building code favors a kind of cubic construction: most of the buildings in New York are boxes. At the same time, there is the tradition of Gothic architecture that you see, not only in the cathedrals around the city, but also in the extraordinary towers of Midtown and Lower Manhattan, with their antennae, [which are] like spires. 

Still, the cubic element dominates, as you see in the Seagram Building — a great building — as well as Lever House and Citicorp, not to mention a building right down the street from me, by Rosario Candela, an excellent architect. But as regards diversity, we shouldn’t forget the great works of infrastructure that define the city, like the Brooklyn Bridge and the George Washington Bridge.

Is there a place for your kind of architecture in such a context?

Besides the cubic tradition, there is another in New York that favors the anomalous. The foremost example, of course, is the Guggenheim. But there are also churches like Saint Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue. And I think you could argue that this curving element is far more pervasive than one might think: You see it in the many water towers on the roofs of buildings throughout the city. All of that was an inspiration for me when I was designing the Greek Orthodox church of Saint Nicholas near Ground Zero. In a way, the church is the opposite of the transit hub. If that is about openness, Saint Nicholas, with its dome surrounded by masonry walls, is about enclosure and confinement.

You have previously described your work as between structural engineering and architecture. Do you consider yourself more of an architect, or an engineer?

A cross [between the two], but an architect first and foremost. Architecture derives from the idea, from art, whereas engineering derives from ‘pragma,’ from experience. Engineering is like virtuosity on a musical instrument, the part that is pure skill. 

I love the materiality of architecture, the manipulation of material, and I think that comes from my being rooted in engineering.

As construction of the World Trade Center transit hub has progressed, its price has soared to $3.7 billion.

As construction of the World Trade Center transit hub has progressed, its price has soared to $3.7 billion.

Are you happy with the way the transit hub was constructed? I’ve read reports to the contrary.

I think it turned out well, especially the part that was made of steel. That steel section is unique in the world. It is completely new. At the same time, it invokes some very iconic New York structures, like the suspension bridges across the Hudson and the East River. It can be seen within the tradition of strong civic architecture in New York and also in the American tradition of going to the limit, of testing boundaries.

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How do you see the transit hub interacting with the rest of the World Trade Center site?

It interacts at both the formal and the functional level. I see it as the spinal column of the site, and as the center of movement into and out of the site. I also believe that it is the component that unites, that will bring together, the Freedom Tower and Towers 2, 3, and 4.

[Conversation pauses as Tiberius, Calatrava’s golden retriever, shuffles into the room, seeking to be petted.]

How many projects are you working on now?

Not many. I don’t have a big organization. And all of my projects depend directly on me. [In fact, he employs about 90 people at his various offices: although that is not a small number, it pales in comparison with the offices of say, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill or Robert A.M. Stern Architects.]

What about 80 South Street? Do you think that unbuilt visionary design of yours might be revived?

That building was like a dream. The site is magical, across from Brooklyn and next to some of the oldest buildings in Manhattan. But it is not entirely Utopian. Buildings have their moments. Sometimes they are conceived before their moment comes. As Mahler said about his symphonies, ‘Meine Zeit wird kommen. My time is yet to come.’ Perhaps that can be said about 80 South Street as well. In Manhattan there is … a culture of construction that permits the exception to occur.

Any parts of that culture you’d like to expound on?

Well, the Port Authority …

You know, that’s not an institution that we locals usually associate with imaginative architecture…

Without the support of the Port Authority, a project like the transit hub could never have become a reality. The Port Authority wanted to memorialize all of those whom it had lost on 9/11. To understand that, I think, is fundamental. 

A private developer like Larry Silverstein, who has done heroic work, could never have done something like that…. In fact, much of my work around the world has been done for state agencies.

Let’s come back to the idea of the Trade Center site as a whole.

I have great regard for what Daniel Libeskind was trying to do. He has created a skyline on the site that reflects the larger skyline of the city itself. And the New York Skyline is one of the great inventions of the 20th century. 

The aesthetic consequence of the skyline at the World Trade Center site will become clearer when all of the towers are built. There is an almost musical element to the way in which the towers interact, as though rising from each one to the next in a steady crescendo that culminates in the Freedom Tower. TRD

James Gardner is the architecture critic for The Real Deal.