Santiago Calatrava in his Park Ave. studio. His design of the World Trade Center PATH station has put him in the public eye in New York.
Creator of New York’s new PATH hub draws inspiration from the worlds of painting and sculpture
As the World Trade Center PATH hub begins to soar over the 16-acre site, a year away from opening, the man behind it is hunkered down in a basement on the Upper East Side.
There, beneath one of the three side-by-side townhouses he calls home, Santiago Calatrava paints. His studio is spare, a world away from the dozens of surreal and angelic bridges, train stations, museums and other buildings he has erected around the globe. The Spanish-born architect spends hours here at a time, sometimes much of his day. Rows of canvases, all bearing a solitary pink orchid he has painted for weeks in a growing state of wilting, attest to his obsession.
It might seem like one of the world’s most renowned and recognizable designers is hiding out down here. After all, Calatrava has come under increasing criticism in recent years after some of his projects have suffered from ballooning budgets, construction delays and craftsmanship issues.
But the relentlessly optimistic architect, with a disposition as sunny as his native Valencia, is simply hard at work when he picks up his paintbrush. To him, painting is the genesis of his creative process, his brush as important as the computer software on which his buildings are eventually drafted.
“You have to study the object, inhabit it, in order to create,” Calatrava says. “You never know where the inspiration comes. Architecture is a code. It’s a pure code, derived from the dimensions of nature.”
To understand one of the most unknowable architects of his generation, a good place to start is with his art.
Lucky for New Yorkers, they’ll no longer have to settle for peering through construction fencing downtown for a glimpse of his work. In May, the Marlborough Gallery on 57th St. will show 50 paintings and sculptures by Calatrava.
And coming next spring, Calatrava will have the honor of taking over one of the most visible public art projects in town when he installs eight huge sculptures on the Park Ave. medians between 52nd and 55th Sts.
The pieces are now being prototyped inside his townhouses on the same boulevard, where he keeps his New York office and home. They look like the stingers, tails and wings of giant alien insects, or perhaps feathers that have fallen from the dove to which Calatrava often compares the PATH hub.
“He’s an exceptional draftsman,” says Pierre Levai, director of the Marlborough Gallery. “He has a tremendous imagination. What’s in his head and what’s on the page are one and the same.”
That also could be said for his architecture, which helps explain why so many Calatrava building look like they were plucked from a dream, not a drawing board. The canvas, not the blueprint, is their foundation.
It might come as a surprise that his art is far less abstract than his buildings, but the two remain critically linked.
Inside a gallery on the second floor of two of the townhouses, dozens of paintings and ceramics are on display. There are forests with large thickets of brown trees on a black background. Bulls stampede across other canvases, or inside pottery that looks like it could have been buried for 3,000 years on a Greek isle.
“These are all studies for buildings,
directly or indirectly,” Calatrava says. “They keep me thinking about form, shape, density. They keep me sharp.”
Art has been central to the architect’s life since he was a child. The youngest of four siblings, he was constantly sketching, so much so his eldest brother took him to an art school when he was 8.
“I was half as old as the other boys, but they let me stay,” Calatrava says. “I was good, and I wouldn’t go away.”
That persistence has carried him throughout his career. When Calatrava decided to put his skills to practical ends by becoming an architect, he wound up spending 14 years in school, ultimately earning a Ph.D in structural engineering on top of his architectural degree from the Zurich Polytechnic, the MIT of Europe.
This technical grounding is often credited with Calatrava’s ability to create his unusual structures.
“I did not want to do stereotypical buildings,” he says. “When I found I could not figure something out, I decided to learn about it, until I knew as much as I could. It’s my way.”
Throughout it all, Calatrava kept making art, sketching the world around him, but increasingly it became the basis for his architectural work as well. After graduation, he started sculpting, using blocks of polished granite, metals rods and wire to create cantilevered structures. In 1992, MoMA mounted a show of these workthat helped solidify his reputation, which then rested on a few bridges.
One, a group of blocks spiraling upward around a shaft, became the inspiration for a 54-story apartment building in Malmo, Sweden. The developer of the project was inspired when he saw the sculpture, and asked Calatrava if he could turn it into a building. The result, completed in 2005 with five floors in each block, was for a time the tallest apartment tower in Europe. A similar 70-story project was proposed for the South Street Seaport but later derailed by the real estate bubble.
“It’s amazing, even when he’s painting, you can watch him doing math problems in his head, calculating dimensions,” says Frank Sciame, developer of the South Street tower.
Rarely is the inspiration so literal. Calatrava points to a series of sketches of a nude man, framed on the wall.
“See, here is an arch, here is another; this could become a column,” he says, as he traces along the body with his finger.
He then grabs a notebook, traces the outline of a hand, and quickly begins sketching. Within two minutes, he’s taken the curve made by the thumb and the forefinger, turned it into a boomerang-shaped column and then repeated it across the page to create a schematic for a train station.
“That was my first rail project ever, the Stadelhofen in Zurich,” he says with a smile.
It’s a neat parlor trick, but also the kind of presentation that wins over clients, many of whom rave about his work even if it may cost a little more than they originally expected.
“The bridge has become an instant landmark for Dallas. It’s in every car dealer’s ad now,” says Gail Thomas, director of the Trinity Trust in Dallas, which commissioned the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity River in 2007. The city was so pleased with its new icon it has commissioned a second larger bridge as part of a highway extension.
For the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church that soon will rise across from the World Trade Center, Calatrava used a similarly seductive sketch to win over the congregation of the small parish that was destroyed on 9/11. The architect studied the Hagia Sophia in Turkey, where he discovered an icon of the Madonna and Child. He took the figures, and in a series of seven drawings, working like M.C. Escher, he transformed the pair into abstract circles and lines until, voila, he had the blueprints for a domed chapel.
“The building is infused with such a remarkable spirit,” church spokesman Mark Arey says. “Calatrava’s passion is so deep, and it will radiate out from this building.”
It may come as a surprise that the church wanted to work with Calatrava after all that’s been said about the PATH hub two blocks to the north. Initially budgeted at $2.2 billion in 2004, the price has nearly doubled to $3.94 billion. The timeline has also grown, from four years to 11.
But Calatrava defends himself as a small cog in a massive machine at work on what is, arguably, the most complex construction project since the Tower of Babel.
“We are responsible for 20% of the project while two multinationals with thousands of employees [the Port’s engineering subcontractors] make most of the decisions — there is only so much we can do,” he says. “And still we have done everything possible to cut costs wherever possible while still maintaining the integrity of the station.”
Even Port Authority officials he once sparred with acknowledge the architect has bent over backwards to try to rein in expenses at the station.
“The original sin was the idea you had to create this signature piece of architecture for what’s not a very busy station,” says one former Port official who worked closely with Calatrava. “But once Santiago took it on, and really recognized the challenges, he worked hard to contain them.”
Part of the problem was the station was used to absorb costs for other projects on the 16-acre site, such as the foundations for the 9/11 Memorial and all three of Larry Silverstein’s towers along Greenwich St.
“It was this grand public works project, so it was seen as less offensive if it got expensive, unlike the memorial, or, God forbid, an office tower for a private developer,” another top-ranking Port official says.
The source estimated the project without its nontransit components would cost at least half what it does today.
The church has also witnessed Calatrava’s commitment. “We’ve never been worried about our budget,” Arey says, “and Santiago has worked very diligently to meet our needs.”
Not that criticism of Calatrava projects is always unfounded. In Valencia, he spent 15 years building the City of Arts and Sciences, a complex of four cultural buildings and acres of parks, where the budget nearly tripled. Bridges in Bilbao and Venice have had issues with safety due to slippery tiles.
Thomas Hanrahan, dean of the Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture, which awarded Calatrava an honorary doctorate in 2010, believes it is the architect’s unconventional buildings, and the notoriety they bring, that has drawn attention to any flaws they might have.
“It’s total B.S. — every architect gets sued, every building leaks,” Hanrahan said. “But because Santiago’s work is so unusual, it’s easy for people to attack him.”
He’s far from the first.
The buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, arguably the most famous American architect since Thomas Jefferson, have been plagued by problems over the years. In large part it’s because of Wright’s experimental use of forms and materials like textile blocks, a fabric-like concrete material that regularly rots.
America’s reigning starchitect, Frank Gehry, has suffered his share of complaints, and lawsuits, over issues including esthetics, leaks and blinding reflections.
Even at the World Trade Center, Calatrava is not alone. The budget of the former “Freedom Tower” is twice what was anticipated, making it the most expensive office building in the world at $3.8 million. But when architect David Childs criticized the Port for sheering $20 million in costs by removing a decorative sheath from the building’s 408-foot spire, he was celebrated as a hero.
Meanwhile, Calatrava has quietly made sacrifices across his project, such as rough paint on his bony columns that is more affordable but gives the structure a mottled, stucco look. Yet he remains a villain, as these artistic sacrifices have come in for just as much criticism now that parts of the station have begun to open.
The criticism has clearly wounded this proud man. After all, to build such singular works requires a certain ego.
The minimalist artist Frank Stella, a long-time friend of Calatrava’s, knows the feeling.
“He really does it all; he’s a Renaissance man,” Stella says. “That’s why it’s hard. He knows what it takes to create art, but people actually have to inhabit his work, and you can’t always satisfy everyone.”
But Calatrava is certainly going to keep trying.
“I just want to build the best buildings,” he says. “It’s not about me, it’s about the buildings, creating a space where society can gather and marvel in beauty and nature.”