Fred A. Bernstein

A New Opera House for Tenerife

Calatrava helps bring tourists to Santa Cruz

Published in Islands, February 5, 2003

When officials of Tenerife - the largest of the seven Canary Islands - began planning a new opera house, it was more than culture they were after. The idea was to use architecture to give the island's biggest city, Santa Cruz, a boost. And by hiring Santiago Calatrava - the 52-year-old designer of swoopy train stations and bridges throughout Europe -- they have almost certainly succeeded. When Calatrava's $90 million building opened in September, it drew an international crowd of critics - some specializing in music, others in architecture -- to ooh and aah over both the building's acoustics and its most distinctive feature: a 200-foot-high canopy that dangles over the cone-shaped auditorium. At the end of the opening night concert, Calatrava got a standing ovation from the crowd (which included members of Spain's royal family). The next day, the local newspaper crowed, "Tenerife enters the global vanguard."

But to succeed globally, Calatrava had to think locally, taking his inspiration directly from the island. Over lunch at the Santa Cruz restaurant La Cazuela, Calatrava recalls visiting Mt. Teide, Tenerife's volcano, and wishing he could descend into its cone -- a la Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Santa Cruz theater, he says, grew out of that dreamlike ambition. "It's a volcano you can enter," he says. But then, Calatrava (who is promiscuous with metaphors) has another explanation for the building: it's a wave crashing against Tenerife's shore. And it's also a seabird. And a shell. Has any building ever had so many island associations?

Calatrava was sill in his thirties, and little known beyond his hometown of Valencia, when the Tenerife authorities first asked him to design the theater. Early plans were for an inland site -- the Santa Cruz waterfront was devoted to an unsightly container port. But as the city began moving the container port away -- part of a decades-long project to reclaim the city for tourism -- the waterfront site became available. That's when Calatrava, decided to build his response to Teide, which (despite its location off the coast of Morocco) is the tallest mountain in Spain.

The Swiss architects behind London's Tate Modern, Jaques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, have designed a new oceanfront promenade for Santa Cruz At the same time, a contemporary art museum and a botanic garden specializing palm trees are under construction.
But until those projects are completed, Calatrava's building will be the city's big draw. Its 1,600-seat auditorium will host a year-round program of orchestral and operatic events. Even those who never buy a ticket will be dazzled by the building, which is covered in broken white tiles, the better to glisten in the Tenerifan moonlight.

Is the building's voluptuous canopy an extravagance, because it serves no practical purpose (and because the steel that supports it had to be shipped from Europe to the remote island)? Some modernist architects find Calatrava's design over-the-top. But Peter Reed, a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, takes a different view. "The wing does have a function," he says. "A sculptural function."