Fred A. Bernstein

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Santiago Calatrava, from the Canary Islands to Manhattan Island

Santiago Calatrava's opera house at Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands is dominated by a winglike canopy nearly 200 feet tall.

Published in The New York Times, October 26, 2003

Walking around Santiago Calatrava's Park Avenue town house is like helicoptering over some of the world's most striking buildings. On one pedestal is a bronze sculpture that resembles the architect's birdlike addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. In another room, an assemblage of steel cables and ebony cubes echoes his twisting apartment tower in Malmo, Sweden. And upstairs is a bronze sculpture in the form of a long, curved wing. "This one," he says, "is Tenerife."

Mr. Calatrava is just back from Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest city on the largest of the seven Canary Islands. There, off the northwest coast of Africa, he has produced an astonishingly photogenic opera house. Above its main space - a 1,600-seat auditorium in the shape of a tilted cone - a winglike canopy rises almost 200 feet before swooping back to earth. The building can look like a turtle, a crescent moon, an eyelid, a cresting wave, a helmet, a palm frond or an erotic Georgia O'Keeffe flower.

That representational quality - everyone who sees the opera house wants to compare it to something - helps explain Mr. Calatrava's success. (At 52, he has completed 60 buildings, including train stations and airports throughout Europe, and has dozens more in the works.) "People need symbols, and Calatrava's buildings provide them," says David Marks, the London architect who with his wife designed the Eye - that city's sleek, popular Ferris wheel.

And now Mr. Calatrava has a chance to create a symbol for New York. Last summer, he was commissioned to design a $2 billion transportation hub at the World Trade Center site. In The New York Times, Herbert Muschamp called that commission "the clearest sign yet that the rebuilding of ground zero will be an achievement of cosmopolitan dimensions."

For the moment, Mr. Calatrava is speaking about the project only in general terms, under the watchful eye of his client, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But clearly he has grand ambitions for the station. "It has to feel as important as Grand Central, or the old Penn Station," he says. It is also likely to have echoes of two other important New York structures: Eero Saarinen's T.W.A. terminal at Kennedy Airport and Pier Luigi Nervi's bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge (which Mr. Calatrava says he has investigated from every angle). Both make startling use of poured concrete, the material Mr. Calatrava has formed into buildings and bridges as if it were Silly Putty.

Like Nervi, Mr. Calatrava is an engineer by training, and that makes it possible for him to construct the ambitious buildings he calls "penetrable sculptures." When his addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum was in trouble a couple of years ago - no one could figure out how to build the movable "sunshades" that Mr. Calatrava insisted on - he became a licensed engineer in Wisconsin, then arranged to have the pieces made in Spain and flown over on a Soviet transport plane.

Mr. Calatrava's current projects include bridges in Jerusalem, Dallas and Venice; a new hall for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; an 86-acre cultural center in Spain; and a series of projects for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. As a result, he is away more than he's home, often sleeping on airplanes. His Swedish-Italian wife, Robertina, runs the firm's three offices (in Valencia, Mr. Calatrava's hometown in Spain, Paris and Zurich) from their Manhattan residence, while keeping tabs on the couple's four children.

On a rare morning in New York, just before leaving for a meeting with the Port Authority, Mr. Calatrava bounds up and down the stairs of his town house like an eager graduate student. His conversations - conducted in seven languages, sometimes three or four per sentence - are laden with references to poetry, philosophy and music. When he says Mendelssohn, does he mean the composer, Felix, or the architect Erich Mendelsohn? No matter - he has ideas about both. Equally fluent with a pencil, he sketches constantly, more often to illustrate points than to record ideas (of which he appears to have a surplus).

A new book by Franklin Toker about Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater suggests that the anti-Semitism of Pittsburgh society is what motivated Wright's patron, Edgar Kaufmann, to build what he hoped would be one of the world's great houses. In that case, just imagine what Mr. Calatrava's background might produce: in 1691, Raphael Valls, a prominent rabbi, was burned at the stake in Palma de Majorca, Spain. Mr. Calatrava's mother (still living in Valencia) believes she is descended from the rabbi; Santiago grew up knowing that his family had been chuetas, from the Spanish word for pig: Jews who "proved" they weren't Jews by eating pork in public. (While many Spanish Jews became Catholics during the Inquisition, Mr. Calatrava says his family "never really" converted.)

On the other side of the family, Mr. Calatrava's father, grandfather and uncles, who were in the export business, were imprisoned by Francisco Franco in the 1930's. "The war marked them in a tragic way," Mr. Calatrava says. Wanting to escape the stifling atmosphere in his home country, Mr. Calatrava moved to Zurich to study engineering; he was particularly interested in the streamlined concrete bridges of the Swiss engineer Robert Maillart. He would have gone on to Princeton - to study with the Maillart devotee David Billington - had he not met Robertina, then a law student in Zurich.

While living in a Zurich dormitory, he helped a veterinary student with drawings for his dissertation. In exchange, the veterinarian gave him the skeleton of a dog, which the Calatravas' oldest son, Rafael, now 23, named Fifi. Mr. Calatrava hung the skeleton in his Zurich office.

It proved a fitting gift. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1980, he quickly won a commission to design a train station in Zurich. That building introduced the skeletonlike forms that became his trademark. Studying spinal columns, birds in flight and even fluttering eyelids, Mr. Calatrava had found a way to create buildings that suggested movement - perfect for airports, train stations and bridges. (Mr. Muschamp has since called Mr. Calatrava "the world's leading poet of transportation architecture.") Then, in the 1980's, he began working on the $350 million City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia (where the last structure, an opera house, will be completed in 2005).

In the 1990's, Mr. Calatrava arrived in New York with a plan for completing the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a show at the Museum of Modern Art and a millennial time capsule - a project for The New York Times Magazine and now on view outside the American Museum of Natural History.

Gambling that the city would embrace him, Mr. Calatrava reportedly spent $7 million for the town house, its interior now stripped down as a backdrop for his sculptures and watercolors. (He also bought the house next door, reportedly for another $7 million.) Then came 9/11, the date on which he said New York joined Jerusalem, Rome and Athens on his list of "heroic cities." By beginning the ground zero project just as the cultural center in his hometown wraps up, Mr. Calatrava is literally moving from the old world to the new. And that's where Tenerife comes in, because - as Mr. Calatrava said in a series of conversations during a weekend of inaugural festivities - the Canary Islands have been a bridge between civilizations: the place Columbus stopped to provision his ships on his way west.

Mr. Calatrava had that history, and the island's dramatic topography, in mind when he designed the $80 million opera house. Without the wing, he said, the building would have been "too small a gesture" for its site: the base of the volcano Teide, the tallest mountain in Spanish territory. And so the concert hall, largely completed in 2000, wasn't opened until the 3,500-ton wing could be constructed - which added three years and millions of dollars to the cost. As in Milwaukee, he stuck it out.

Even now, the wing isn't perfect, with what looks like a white pipe connecting it to the roof of the concert hall below. The pipe was a compromise, Mr. Calatrava says later over coffee in Manhattan. Immediately he begins sketching a more elegant version of the connector, which he says he will take up with the Tenerife contractors.

The imperfection may be the inevitable result of his extravagant ambitions. Until now, Mr. Calatrava's curves were mostly the curves of individual structural elements, which, one could choose to believe, were the product of an engineer's calculations, looking the way they did because they had to. But in Tenerife, the spectacular arc is the end, not the means. Mr. Calatrava has defied the key precept of modernist architecture, that form must follow function. Instead he is following his own aesthetic predilections. For that he owes one debt to Antonio Gaudí, the Catalan master of undulating forms, and - with his turtle-helmet-eyelid dominating the Tenerife coast - another to Salvador Dalí.

OF course there are detractors. The British architecture writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams said, "architects sneer that Calatrava is an engineer, while engineers dismiss him as a sculptor." David Cohn, an American architecture critic living in Madrid, says of the Tenerife auditorium: "What is this large tongue or tentacle looming over the whole work? Is it an orchid? A sea monster? Calatrava doesn't take artistic control of the subliminal suggestions these works provoke." He adds that giving the wing a purpose would have improved it. "Function," he says, "disciplines expression."

Peter Reed, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, disagrees. "If you're going to criticize Calatrava," he said, "you need to criticize a lot of other people, including Frank Gehry, on the same grounds." Mr. Calatrava's buildings "make you aware you're someplace special," he added, and praised Mr. Calatrava for bringing inspiring architecture to the civic realm. "It's refreshing that his buildings aren't Prada boutiques, but places for the public," he said.

And if the public loves them, Mr. Calatrava always sees something he could have done better. "Buildings," he says, joking, "never look as good as Fifi."

But his buildings may come closer than anyone's; they are the stars of "Zoomorphic," a current exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum that focuses on a supposed "new wave" of animal-inspired buildings. In the show's catalog, Mr. Aldersey-Williams compares the Milwaukee museum to a "shark's gill basket" and Mr. Calatrava's Lyon station to an anteater's snout.

Asked about the comparisons, Mr. Calatrava steers the conversation to Picasso. "Even at his most abstract he was a figurative painter," he says. "But the objects he painted were a means to an end. The paintings were really about his feelings. I'm doing the same with architecture - making it an abstract figurative art."

Picasso has particular meaning for him. "The artists of my parents' generation" - he cites Picasso, Miró and the poet Antonio Machado - "had to build a Spain outside Spain. My generation is making up for lost time." He says the exuberance of the opera house, then, is a direct response to the repression of the Franco era. Not to mention the the Inquisition.

But Mr. Calatrava is also working outside Spain - on a global scale. Even Saarinen didn't have the success that Mr. Calatrava is having, and Nervi (whom Mr. Calatrava calls "the father of us all") is hardly known to the public. Over lunch at the restaurant La Cazuela in Santa Cruz, Mr. Calatrava begins naming great architects who died ignominiously (Gaudi, hit by a streetcar and taken, unrecognized, to a hospital for indigents; Louis Kahn, who collapsed in Pennsylvania Station in New York).

What does it mean that he has achieved so much recognition in his lifetime, when many of his idols struggled?

"It's a bad sign," says Mr. Calatrava, while signing autographs for the restaurant's owner. He adds, eyes twinkling: "It makes you grateful for your detractors."