Santiago Calatrava’s extraordinary designs

Talking to the renowned architect about his artistic legacy

Santiago Calatrava, architect, civil engineer and artist extraordinaire, has created some of the most remarkable, flight-of-fancy structures of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Such is the sheer uniqueness of his design aesthetic with which he approaches each project, whether it is something functional, like a bridge or railway station, or a cultural institution, that Calatrava has acquired the kind of stratospheric notoriety transcending mere professional monikers. 

For his countless admirers, the presence of a Calatrava building has the power to transform the character of an entire city. 

For me, these constructions – a more apt, if lengthy description might be ‘monolithic functional art sculptures’ – have an out-worldly, ethereal quality about them. Variously reminiscent of bird wings or giant flowers or human eyes, or musical/string instruments even, many appearing to defy the laws of gravity, suspended in space, hovering over the landscape, Calatrava’s creations at once challenge and overwhelm the senses with their stupendous boldness and luminous beauty. 

Calgary Peace Bridge (Photographer: Alan Karchmer/OTTO)

CB: Each of the structures you’ve built is ground-breaking in its own way. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re expected to outperform each previous project? How do you push the boundaries? 

SC: I think the question can be answered in two different ways. The first is my personal approach, and the second the importance of the subject itself. I will start with the latter.

The greater part of the projects I have been involved in are public works: train stations, museums, bridges, and recently a church. They are all destined for the public, to deliver public services. If you look at these from an architectural perspective, when you build a music hall you are landmarking the place. If you are landmarking a place, you are changing it.

For me the object of, say, a new museum is not only referential; it also creates new meaning for people using that place. It’s not just a mental thing, it is also a real thing: you are putting an object there and changing the character of an area.

You are also creating a facility, and therefore adding value. For me, the more special this object is, the greater the potential added value. 

That is just from an abstract perspective. Landmarking a place means increasing its prestige, changing (for the better, hopefully) its character and improving the neighbourhood. To live in Paris close to the Louvre, means quite something – it has a cachet, hasn’t it?

From another perspective, take a railway station: it is the gateway to a city through which you arrive and leave. For many people, especially in Europe with its high-speed rail, the station is the first impression they receive of a city. Its services are used by many thousands of people, even hundreds of thousands, every day; much more than many cultural institutions. So a little bit of culture, of art and taste, are very important in these buildings because you are communicating something to all these people every day.

Sketch for the City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia, Santiago Calatrava

The other answer to your question is more personal. I consider architecture as an art form; in this context, the architect is an artist.  And just like any artist, the architect is sending a message, telling a story to people. If you look at a Monet or a Degas painting, for example, the artist is telling you a story: ‘the time I lived in was like this, the way I perceived a particular subject or object is right here on the canvas’.  I too express myself though these forms I create. 

On the one hand architecture makes our lives better, our communities too, and it is justified to deliver pieces of art. Architects should have the capacity, through architecture, to express themselves and say to people, ‘this is my message to you, this is what I mean about you’.

When I look at older, extraordinary buildings – even if they are small, even coming to them hundreds of years after they were built – I can read the message that these people wanted to give to me. That is part of the nature of architecture, and its capacity to express itself or express the will of another person.

If you were asked to explain the overall message you are sending to the world through your buildings, these works of art, how would you encapsulate it? 

Yes, I can encapsulate it in one word, just to be concise: it is philanthropy. If you think about what is going on in the world – for example in Ukraine – everybody is constantly subjected to images of destruction. This is the direct opposite of construction, and our job is to build things in the service of people. You see in those images people losing their schools, their homes, the roof over their heads; you see the enormous difference between having something and being a refugee.

‘That is part of the nature of architecture, and its capacity to express itself or express the will of another person.’

We do things because we believe in humanity, in people, and we enjoy directly building the things they themselves will enjoy. 

Even creating something as simple as a table, with a chair at the correct height so that a person can sit comfortably; the whole profession is very much inspired by this idea of philanthropy.

How has architecture evolved and have we adopted a new architectural vocabulary to fit our century?

In my opinion it is an interesting question: is there progress in architecture, or is there general progress in art?

I believe that, in essence, there is no progress in either. People live and suffer in the same way as they did a thousand years ago. Where is the progress? It is ultimately in our techniques and technology – in health care, or in food distribution (in which architecture also plays an important role, because distribution requires harbours, and bridges and so on).

The concept of ‘technique’ is very deeply related to the word arkhitéktōn: the téktōn is the worker, and the technique is the skill of the worker. Thinking technically allows us to think effectively about problems and create solutions. When it is too hot, I can create shade, or when it is too cold I can make a fire, and so on.

But the vocabulary is also personal expression: it’s about finding shapes, finding worth and making it reality. There are forms, openings; there is light as a material, there is space as a result, and these things also deliver emotions. Emotion is also a very important component of architecture, and to us as people generally. So as much as I use the word philanthropy, there is also the emotional quality of entering into a beautiful space, or enjoying that place. The emotional component is also very important in developing a vocabulary, touching not only on the physical needs of a person but also their heart.

You’ve said that you are creating a new architectural vocabulary with your works which are in the realm of the extraordinary; do you think people have understood, and adopted, this vocabulary?

Let’s analyse the word ‘extraordinary’: out of the ordinary. 

In material terms, things you can touch, my works use very ordinary materials. They are built with concrete, they are built with steel, sometimes we pave things with stone or even with asphalt. These are places that hundreds, even thousands, of people go through and the structures need to incorporate very resilient and rough-wearing materials. So from that perspective, I would like to say that the most extraordinary thing I have done was the roof of the UAE’s national pavilion in carbon fibre. At least the most extraordinary thing looking at it from the point of view of our time. Yet the greater number of my works use materials that are very ordinary and very common.

I agree with you that some of my projects could be described as extraordinary, which I think is the result of two things. The first is the use of certain shapes, in particular combined with the structure – being an engineer I have sometimes used spans of 7 metres, but also sometimes spans of 200 metres or more – which brings you out of the ordinary. But where I look very much for the effect you have described is much more in the immaterial part. Space and light; the use of natural light, or artificial light, and the manipulation of space through compression and expansion – these are the most efficient ways to create emotion and let people think ‘I am in an extraordinary place’.

It is interesting to see that on the one hand, these are very common, almost everyday materials; and on the other hand, the immaterial qualities (defining the space from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling; the use of columns, and the colour white) are trying to dematerialise the material part of the architecture.

So what you’re saying is that you’re using materials we all have access to; and you’re the one, using your particular understanding of space and light, that ultimately creates the magic of these buildings.

I remember entering Notre-Dame for the first time. It was around 11 o’clock and I entered through from the north side of the cathedral, towards the transept. At the time I was 16, 17 years old, but even so I was amazed to see the enormous, expressive capacity of its architecture with the light entering through the stained glass. The same thing happened to me with Chartres, also around Paris – someone else might say the same of London’s cathedrals, or the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.

These are places in which the way things are done, you are blinded by the light. You can really see it, experience it with your eyes and your senses. Even the smell of these places. Then you feel as if the matter is no more there, you are almost in a magic atmosphere.

No other art has this capacity, neither sculpture nor painting. Perhaps literature, because it is experienced in the mind; or music, which we can experience by closing our eyes and be suspended in its immaterial atmosphere. But it is architecture that has this great capacity, and it was seeing these places as a sixteen year old that oriented me towards this profession. 

To understand more of the material side of being an architect, I decided to study mechanics and civil engineering – I even have a PhD in a very abstract subject – because there’s this paradox in architecture, isn’t there. On the one hand so material, so massive – concrete, steel, columns, foundations and all that you need – but on the other hand the magic in its relationship to space and also landscapes.

When you travel in Tuscany and you see those tall cypresses and then, on top of a hill, a beautiful house or a Greek temple. It is almost like the work of a dream made into reality. This hill is no more like the hundreds of other hills: it is a special one.

Similarly, the architecture of the city makes its identity. This aspect is eternal, in a sense. When you step back you can see it in both the typical constructions and in the ancient buildings – Greek, Egyptian, Syrian, among others – this approach to architecture that remains unchanged.

‘But it is architecture that has this great capacity, and it was seeing these places as a sixteen year old that oriented me towards this profession.’

To take another example: the skyline of New York, looking out from Queens or Brooklyn in the evening. It has this almost religious experience, seeing all these buildings lit up, the bridges: it’s exceptional. Even today there is some element that moves us in the same way as a thousand years ago.

You’re right that architecture enhances our lives in a very fundamental way because we live in and around it. I know you mostly do public buildings, have you ever designed a residential project?

I have, but not all my residential projects have been completed.I designed a tower, the Chicago Spire: a very tall tower for residents, part of the Chicago skyline. It was a beautiful project. When we started construction there was the [economic] crisis of 2008 and the project was stopped. There was another housing project in the harbour of New York, also a skyscraper, which also remains unbuilt even though it was well received. 

I designed and built a residential tower in Malmö, in the south of Sweden facing Copenhagen. It is called Turning Torso, and I am very proud of it. I was commissioned by HSB, a cooperative association – maybe 120 years old or more – which develops housing for workers and social housing. It was a great experience because they were very capable people, very certain about what they wanted.

I have built a couple of houses in Switzerland and in Rome. They are nice, I like them… I’ve never built something in the spirit of these prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright and such like. It’s a dream I still hope to fulfil.

When I was young I travelled a lot, and I went to the Mediterranean looking for architecture without architects. At the time a lot of the places which are now highly touristic, like Ibiza or Santorini, were very poor. It was difficult to even get there. I was always fascinated by the way houses were integrated in nature there and also by the deep sense of community. The uniformity of these white façades, and the geography of these houses when you step up into the hills, melding into the most beautiful landscape is extraordinary.

I once visited Mount Athos. I have made a small booklet of watercolours from this trip, called A Journey to Mount Athos; it was fascinating to see people living today in the same frame as they used to live perhaps one thousand years ago.

You’re describing vernacular architecture, when you say ‘architecture without architects’

It’s a great lesson, isn’t it, this architecture without architects. Studying the vernacular is a great apprenticeship of forms. We should treat it with great respect, because it is amazing to see how people have modified their environments.

In the past, people built using all the resources of earth: taking the stone and excavating the walls, and then using the same stones to create the chalk to paint the houses. Adding a little blue, and making these blue domes… it is wonderful to see how, if you let them, people can use their resourcefulness and imagination to develop beautiful things.

I singled out Mediterranean architecture because I am familiar with it the most, but I am sure that going to China, to India, to Africa, or anywhere else you can discover the same thing. This is a universal spirit of economy and the welfare of people.

Climate change is a burning issue now – no pun intended. Whether these are public projects, or residential buildings, mitigating against it is one of the most important roles that architecture has to play. What are your thoughts on the subject?

It is evident that things are changing, and it’s very important that we reflect upon how we architects can advocate too. I was recently involved in a railway station, and built several others. I’m very proud of them: shared transportation, especially by train, is environmentally sound and important. 

A similar thing is happening with bridges, with which I try to add, even if just a little bit, the sense of importance it has to requalify a place. There was a philosophy after the war, which extended through the 50s and 60s, in which so many bridges were destroyed that there was no reason to do beautiful (or nicer) bridges. But when you look at Paris, for example, each one of the bridges is different and distinctive. So in a way I try to restore, in the modesty of my work, the sense of quality transportation and services in the everyday lives of people. 

It’s clear for me that the next big question is how to be environmentally correct. Not only for me but for every architect. We must change our minds, reorient our constructions and choice of materials to diminish their environmental impact – what you would scientifically call the carbon footprint. We need to make more and better use of recyclable materials; we need to reduce the use of energy in our houses; and try to build more in the spirit of vernacular architecture that saw people creating buildings that were very affordable, beautiful, and adequate to their needs. That even enhanced their natural surroundings. This is what I mean with Mediterranean architecture: that if you took those things away the places would become commonplace.

This new philosophy is about living closer to nature, opening our eyes to it. There is nothing more sophisticated – scientifically, technically – than a flower. The way it opens and closes, it is magical, and in our garden, it is repeated thousands of times. It is also ephemeral, just for a couple days or so. In a way we have to find new sources of inspiration to continue creating in a more affordable way.

WTC Path Terminal sketch santiago calatrava
Sketch for the WTC Path Terminal, Santiago Calatrava

Your projects seem to defy gravity – how is this achieved?

We’ve been talking about space and light. Light is a material in a way: through light I am able to see you, see my hands, my environment. 

Thanks to Newton we’ve learnt about gravity, that we live in a gravitational universe. Our buildings are not only vertical, perpendicular to the earth, but they also grow outwards against gravity. So gravity is also a material to work with – the mass of things, the sense of what things weigh. How to defy gravity? Take something elemental like an arch, or a vault, or a dome with a hole in the centre. If you enter the Queen’s Chapel in Westminster, or another one of those extraordinary cathedrals, you see those vaults held up by such seemingly tiny pillars. 

All these elements are using force and gravity as an expression, like the colours of a painting. You see it in the use of a particular yellow or blue, the use of complementary colours – there is a whole dialectic between colours, balance and shade. In the same way you can use gravity, creating these enormous pillars which open up like tiny trees up along the walls and create leverage and so on. It is also a very fair and direct way to find a vocabulary to create shelter, to generate spaces and also administrate the way light enters through the perforations, or however you want it to.

Your buildings are like functional art sculptures and speak for themselves. Have you had any thoughts about your personal legacy? 

What has changed in my mind, over 40 years of work, is the awareness that whatever I’m making requires hundreds of other people. Imagine building a new station, who is involved? Other companies organising this or that, construction teams of welders, steel workers, masons… If you are honest with yourself, you become humble enough to feel like, simply, another worker.

‘All these elements are using force and gravity as an expression, like the colours of a painting.’

So it’s not about how I want to be remembered, but I would like the coming generations – because buildings survive us, ideally, even the most insignificant ones – to take away a positive message. A message of respect, but also the same kind of experience I had entering the Notre-Dame de Paris, or the Pantheon in Rome. When I enter those places, I do not know the name of the architect or those of the workers, yet I know all these people. They did all those things for this particular day, for this particular moment, for me. And likewise for many others.

That is very important to recognise. I recognise myself in the work I do, together with other people, and without these people the work would never happen. So I am just one of them. What I wish is that people – when they visit these stations, these bridges and so forth – that they realise it was a group of people who delivered that project for their use and enjoyment. That, eventually, is the best way to be remembered.

So you want to pay homage to all the people who have been involved, but you’re the person who sprinkles the magic, as it were.

Maybe, but I’ll tell you what it’s like. I am paid through the satisfaction of having a profession that I like, and paid by the joy of making some of those things, which are realised with the help of those colleagues. And that’s enough.

One of the most gratifying things is visiting one of these tremendous buildings, like the Pantheon in Rome, and you see the light shining through its dome. And I do not know who thought of that, even though I know what time and epoch it was built in. That building is still there: architecture is a gift to all of us over time. We need to understand architecture not as business – okay, maybe also as a business – not as a doctrinal programme, but as an abstract suggestion. What is a piece of art for? It’s just a gift, it’s there for itself.