Beyond Modernism: Santiago Calatrava’s Aesthetics

December 7, 2012

Santiago Calatrava stands as one of the world’s greatest contemporary designers, arguably one of history’s greatest (Gardner). Holding worldwide recognition and awards ranging from the Gold Medal of the Institute of Structural Engineers in London to Global Leader for Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum, he is mostly known for his architecture and engineering, though he works as an artist as well (“Biography”). For those who know his works beyond a passing glance, it may be difficult to distinguish which occupation precedes the others. His prolific work reveals him as a reincarnation of the Renaissance man, a polymath. Eschewing the common tendency to specialize, Calatrava has studied several of the humanities and sciences, and his lateral thinking has deepened and nuanced his designs in architecture, engineering, sculpture, ceramics, and furniture, as evinced by his work (Fox).

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, Spain

Moreover, Calatrava’s capacities have resulted in more than standalone single works: from the unification of his broad study emerges a singular aesthetic language with different dialects for each subject. An analysis of this language must include speculation as to what and why certain connections are made. This essay explores the manifestations of Calatrava’s aesthetics, as well as their unity.

Born near Valencia, Spain in 1951, Santiago Calatrava benefitted from aesthetic training at a young age. By the time Calatrava reached eight years old his parents had enrolled him in the Valencia School of Arts and Crafts. Before graduating from high school he studied in Paris as an exchange student (“Biography”). With his university of choice shut down due to student revolts in 1968, Calatrava returned to the Valencia School of Arts and Crafts only to decide before long that he wanted to pursue architecture. Citing in addition to other things his “excitement for artistic matters” (Complete Works 41) Santiago was accepted into the Escuela Technica Superior de Arquitectura de Valencia in Fall of the following year (40-41). After studying architecture and urbanism here, he was intrigued by the structure that lay beneath free forms and enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to study engineering. The connections Calatrava began to make between freedom and structure at this point mark a fundamental foundation in his aesthetic language (Bridges 31). It seems a natural tendency to associate ‘structure’ with rigidness and ‘freedom’ with improvisation, but this association is reductionist and misleading. Some of the greatest and least rigid-seeming art has a method. As a student Santiago clearly started understanding, or at least intuited that the creation of beautiful forms can be guided by an understanding of structure.

Calatrava graduated as an engineer and earned his doctorate, writing his dissertation entitled On the Foldability of Space Frames. It investigated the creation of structures composed of simple shapes, organized and joined together so that the structures can open and collapse. This study led to his famous moving and folding structures, like the roof of the Emergency Services Center and Pfalzkeller Gallery in Switzerland (Complete Works 44-5; 164-5).

Roof of the Emergency Services Center and Pfalzkeller Gallery

Roof of the Emergency Services Center and Pfalzkeller Gallery

But Calatrava does not build bridges by approaching a problem just as an engineer, and he does not build buildings by approaching a problem just as an architect. He partly credits his reason for this by an appeal to past builders:

“Until the 18th century, the figure of the architect and the figure of the engineer are completely mixed together. Look at Michelangelo, for example, who planned the fortifications of Florence and also designed the staircase for the Laurentian Library in Florence. Or Leonardo, the same. The difference between architecture and engineering comes in only with the creation of schools. It’s a bureaucratic distinction. The result of both disciplines is the construction of objects in a landscape” (Davidson).

The distinction between architecture and engineering may not be as great as that between engineering and art, but his interdisciplinary study correlates with reconciling different modes of thinking. Though inspired by some of the works of Le Corbusier during his enrollment at Escuela Technica Superior de Arquitectura de Valencia, Calatrava works with an architectural format that surpasses the functionalist modernism of Le Corbusier (Complete Works 41). Le Corbusier’s “machine aesthetic” translates as a restatement of Sullivan’s familiar “form follows function”, albeit with new methods and written architectural theories to expound on its implications. The basic tenet remains the same, namely, that a structure’s function precedes its form. This principle inevitably results in more limited aesthetic possibilities, each determined by assumed necessities per given function. The ‘rational’ geometry of Mies van der Rohe & Company’s modernism therefore presents a method and aesthetic—not the telos of architecture.

Calatrava’s skill, however, lies in meeting form with function: he considers how to alter a structure with methods outside pre-established ones, while simultaneously planning a new structural format expressed in a poetic gesture. To communicate it in a dialectic vocabulary, he advances the practice of architecture by taking the thesis of form and its antithesis function, and vice-versa, and bringing them together into synthesis. He studied engineering, art, and architecture. But he overcame looking at problems through a purely analytical or abstract paradigm. Instead he realized the relationship between them “as complementary mental tools and adopted them as two specialized intelligences coexisting in collaboration” (Bridges 33).

The union of function and form results from a synthesis of creative “branched” thinking and “linear” thinking. Neither one need specialize to a certain set of subject and not others; they simply present different thought processes with differing strengths and weaknesses. Using a thought process of sequential, straightforward thought that drives toward a certain goal constitutes linear thinking. Its advantage leans toward immediate efficiency but it lacks depth. Branched thinking, on the other hand, consists of free association and observing connections between one thing and another; it follows a trails more deeply without a pre-established goal. As a result, Calatrava’s “approach of the idea of art… of the art of engineering… of the art of architecture, and how these things can be linked together” in the development of a coherent aesthetic asks for, among other things, a relevant expression of the link (MIT Lectures 81). The marriage of function and form derives often from the method of analogy. Accomplishing the imagery of his works through the usage of analogy is both technically and figuratively oriented. Earlier in his education, he encountered Goya’s Five Point exercise, where an artist determines how to fit a human figure within the configuration of five drawn points (Complete Works 41). Envisioning bodily arrangements provides a familiar analogical picture for how the limbs work together with the body to support it, where joints connect and bend and twist, the pressure on each part, the tension and torsion at work; essentially, it shows the relationship between parts to sustain the whole. Now, he continues using mediums of sketching, watercolors, and sculpture in his creative process toward new solutions. Looking at these works razes the idea that creativity—a vague term as it is—consists of no more than mental ejaculation. Or as Tzonis puts it, that “[defies] any explication, ignoring the cognitive mechanisms of the creative process” (44). Rather, creativity consists of several aspects and “analogy…helps creativity by making new associations [and]…liberating the designer from fixed associations and biases” (118).

One advantage of Calatrava’s metaphorical or analogical use is the opportunity to provide a narrative. Sometimes the narrative takes place by a structure “explaining” how it works to the viewer, particularly in his bridges. Doing so indicates another way that his work bypasses functionalist modernism. His structures fulfill the function, and then proceed to relate how they did it, perhaps why. A look at the plan for the Caballeros Footbridge provides an instance of this. The Caballeros Footbridge’s unusual design prompts questions to the viewer, namely of why and how it is what it is. Yet by nature of its articulated structure, the bridge explains itself to the untrained viewer as she follows her eyes from bridge deck to cables to pylon to cables to piers (Bridges 62). When the explanation unfolds, the viewer makes a connection with the structure, an outcome of the dialogue between the two as the viewer questions and the bridge answers. None of this interaction comes about accidentally coming from an architect who says he maintains “a humanistic understanding of culture” (Fox).

Caballeros Footbridge

This footbridge embodies the union of form and function; it was intended to link a rural area to an urban one, but the land on the rural side was not suitable for stable construction in context of typical engineering. To resolve these conflicts, Calatrava placed piers on the urban side, with a pylon emerging from two main piers, tilted toward the rural side. Cables suported by the pylon extend to the bridge deck, which is cantilevered to the two main piers on the urban side. Cables also run from the small piers on the embankment to the pylon, supporting it against the pressure of its own weight and the pulling of the other cables. The structure thus relieves pressure from the rural side, concentrating it on the urban side for support. Meanwhile, the inclined pylon directs itself toward the rural area as though the city extends itself to it, rather than attempting to integrate it into itself. The end from rural side, furthermore, appears as an entrance grounded in the area and makes the rural area seem less an extension of the city linked by the bridge (Bridges 62).

In addition to explaining themselves, Calatrava’s designs feature themes of movement and flow, as well as tension and stability. When not explicit, as in the case of the folding “wings” of the Milwaukee Art Museum (Complete Works 295), movement takes place by analogy. Sometimes Calatrava accomplishes the image by a metaphor for a concrete entity, other times for a metaphor for motion, or both like Brancusi’s Bird in Space. Besides being visually harmonious, movement relates a certain idea throughout his aesthetics:

“Consider for a moment, that forces are like crystallized movement. This is, in my opinion, quite a beautiful understanding, because even in its static condition, in the most stable thing, movement is hidden. A movement is there, and because of that, I went from the idea of force and form…to the idea of movement and form” (MIT Lectures).

In illustrating movement, Calatrava brings out the forces at work in a structure. He eliminates the character of a work as being stationary and establishes dynamism. It becomes an object “best described in verbs” (Davidson). Consider the Turning Torso Apartment Building in Malmӧ, Sweden: inspired by sketches and a sculpture of his, the origin of its birth originated from contemplation of the human spine.

Calatrava's sketches and his resulting Turning Torso Building, Sweden

Calatrava’s sketches and his resulting Turning Torso Building, Sweden

Addressing this question of body structure led to analogy by means of the sculpture, where the boxes represent compression and weight of the torso and the wire outside them correlates to the spine. Movement in this example reflects torsion, harkening back to Calatrava’s reference to “crystallized movement.” At the same time it depicts the more obvious twisting motion of the spine (Charlie Rose). In a more explicitly metaphorical way, the Tenerife Concert Hall in Spain’s Canary Islands utilizes the crescent arch, reminiscent of a wave or falling scythe, to suggest motion with a single curved stroke (202).

Tenerife Concert Hall, Canary Islands, Spain

Some of Santiago’s work also features motion by the motif of rib-like supports. The principles of art take account of the fact that visual repetition creates a rhythm by which an artist creates a sense of movement, whether explicit or implicit. Taking advantage of this, the entrance of Lyons Airport Station has a roof reminiscent of vertebrae, composed of repeating ribs as seen from the inside. In this instance the ribs even form arrows to stress movement into the station (Complete Works 178-81). Similarly, supports for the cantilevered roof in Stadelhofen Railway Station, Zurich, as well as throughout the station, are repeated for a sense of motion. The movement is accentuated by the repeating supports running alongside the rail (72-6). This motif is not used arbitrarily; in the case of the former structure, its use incorporates human activity as vital to its design, rendering the structure as incomplete without people to   establish that movement as a glove is without a hand. As for the latter, it too advances the modernist mantra “form follows function” by   bringing the structure to move with the train.

Stadelhofen Railway Station, Zurich, Switzerland

The Bach de Roda Bridge in Barcelona serves as an example of the expression of motion’s sister, flow. The stairways on either side join the pedestrian walkways parallel to the same curve of the arches. A certain aesthetic flow is achieved through the elimination of traditional wide trusses spanning between arches. In place of the trusses, Calatrava joins each pair of arches, not only serving the engineering purpose of joining channels of compression in order to gain support, but communicating flow to the viewer. Once again, the structure explains itself: looked at from the outside, the viewer essentially grasps curves extending from the ground and meeting briefly at the peak before they fall to the other side of the river, completing their arc. Calatrava has captured the flow of forces into a lyrical composition that reveals at least one aspect of the bridge’s essence. Furthermore, as noted in Santiago Calatrava: the Bridges, the different channels of flow expressed by human use of the structure come together. Pedestrian traffic and motor traffic move at different speeds, and so the main road takes the middle of the bridge between the pairs of arches while the symmetrical pedestrian paths run between each pair. Integrated into the flow of the arches that join the bridge after the deck, pedestrians do not seem tacked on to the bridge, but one with its function (68-76).

Bach de Roda Bridge, Barcelona, Spain

Another theme prevalent in Calatrava’s work includes the conflict between tension and stability. Like motion, tension pervades the physics of structures. Calatrava explains that “we’re used to thinking of force as a stable phenomenon, but it has a cinematic variable, which is acceleration… If I lean on this table, the moment in which the support disappears, my elbow will make a downward movement” (Davidson). The possibility of collapse creates a contrast between present and future, potential and kinetic energy, success and failure. Artists have coined this aesthetic climax the “pregnant moment,” a term that captures the birth of a great thing while considering possible alternative failures. Ideally, the pregnant moment evokes ecstasy bordering suspense. Thus, a narrative presents itself to provoke the viewer into questioning how and why the structure stands without collapsing. Furthermore, it strikes him as an awe-inspiring success,   having seemed to dare physics as far as possible (Complete Works 125). Jerusalem’s Light Rail Train Bridge provides a demonstration of tension at work to produce the pregnant moment . The single pylon stands alone bent and inclined at an angle. The road deck curves around it, connected to it by cables from angles that look at a glance as though they would encourage the pylon’s downward fall. Yet the bridge remains steadfast, staying in place even as it seems to curve at breakneck speed (348). As Davidson suggests, one can interpret the bridge’s metaphor as a man pulling a load with ropes, a fitting analogy that provides one with an image to describe the structural formula at work. The bent pylon supports this interpretation, recalling a human body’s bent shape as it attempts to incorporate its own weight into pulling something, like a game of tug-of-war.

Light Rail Train Bridge, Jerusalem

Likewise, Calatrava’s sculptures address tension as a lead role in their narratives, such as the Sculpture Studies with Cube series. In each, one marvels at how it manages to avoid collapse. The juxtaposition of thin rods and wires with comparatively heavy boxes highlights tension: boxes play the role of weights to be supported, while wires pull and rods support and distance one thing from another. The differing arrangements all belong to a cognitive art, one that prompts physical analysis. While sharp, Calatrava’s sculptures can be fluid at the same time, and therefore offer a synthesis of two physical qualities. Their aesthetics could be called minimalistic: they include clean, smooth surfaces that cut through space in articulate compositions (254-7).

Calatrava Sculptures

Cube Sculptures by Calatrava

Despite tension, and actually complementing it, lightness in Calatrava’s design generates an ease of mind. Working with the themes of flow and movement, a sense of weightlessness seems to anticipate an uplifting spirit. Of course it has an aesthetic purpose in addition to its psychological one; the lightness of a structure shows gracefully delicateness of tension. Lightness characterizes nearly all of Calatrava’s work, but the most minimalistic structures, like the Puente de la Mujer in Buenos Ares, exemplify this feature particularly well. With its upward projection, it looks like it may take off.

Along with other motifs, allusions to nature appear throughout Calatrava’s work. From the “petals” of the Kuwait Building to the canopy of Oriente Station in Portugal, inducing the image of a forest, his works seem to respectfully draw from nature in order to make a greater connection with their inhabitants. In doing this, Calatrava optimistically presents the modern technology which makes these buildings possible as mankind’s benefactor, opening opportunities. The specific motif of an exoskeleton-like vertebrae, apparent in the entrance to the Lyons Airport Station, Turning Torso, further the natural scheme while aesthetically and symbolically reiterating Calatrava’s merging of structure and appearance. All these naturally-inspired forms persuade the inhabitant towards a new paradigm of technology not as consuming and intrusive, but light and welcoming.

Oriente Station, Portugal

Drawing the human body in his creative process as shown earlier, and with a humanistic outlook, abstractions of human figures come about in Calatrava’s work. Another case in point is one of the Alpine Bridge Projects, with a pylon forking into a “y” shape and holding the deck between. The form brings to mind, as its architect states, a metaphor of arms holding the deck up. Again, fusing form and function, Calatrava intended this to bring the forces in the bridge overhead (Designing Minds).

The influence of nature and the human body is found in Calatrava’s ceramics, which develops yet another way of thinking and approaching his aesthetics. Unlike most of his other works, his pottery features pictorial images, particularly motifs and repeated images overlapping each other in patterns: birds, plants, bulls, human figures. These choices in imagery reassert the inspiration he draws from nature. In addition, with regard to birds and human figures, he continues to assess bodily movement and the arrangements of parts (Figure 13). As for ceramics itself, Calatrava’s attraction is in part toward “a primitive approach to making things with your hands…Within the simplicity, [there is] something enormously complex and sophisticated” (American Ceramics). Perhaps he is referring to the heavy role of collective tradition within the practice which defines it broadly. Either way, the voluptuous curves of Calatrava’s pieces suggest a focus on his love for fluidity as well as a play with space as a medium, in the case of the jars. With architecture fundamentally being the process of organizing and separating space, at least one connection between architecture and ceramics is obvious.

 Pot by Calatrava

Pot by Calatrava

Having considered the major aesthetic themes of Calatrava’s creations, there are a few governing characteristics of his work, more obvious but requiring explanation. These aim towards the expression—and more significantly, the creation of a consciousness-influencing atmosphere–of an optimistic humanism.

In the same manner that Calatrava’s work tends to be marked with lightness of weight, it seeks ways for light to permeate the whole structures. Like Le Corbusier, he seems to think of architecture as largely involving “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light” (102). For Calatrava, light becomes a critical material in creating an experience:

“In my opinion, comfort in architecture is given by two words. One is “space.” The other is “light.” Narrow or small spaces are not as good. Less light, underground spaces, spaces where you don’t see the sky [are] not as good. These are the two keys to the future. I am always searching for more light and space…I believe that architects need to deliver hope and optimism” (Fortune).

Naturally this aspect of his aesthetic comes through predominantly in his bridges and buildings, and can be used to beget different effects. For instance, for most people the dappled bands of light filtering through the BCE place produce a more serene effect than the uninterrupted, joyous light of the plan for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub (Complete Works 142, 381-2). Supplementary to light, the use of white contributes to the purity, brightness, and optimism Calatrava anticipates in his bridges and buildings. It reflects white light, an embodiment of all colors bound and blended together. Furthermore, white conjures up a touch of the classical, adding an air of refinement. This and its neutrality serve as universally applicable aesthetic factors.

Through analyzing the many manifestations of Calatrava’s creations and what they communicate, a network of principles, themes, motifs, symbols, and usages of light and color comes into sight. Though his diverse projects mediums product different aesthetic experiences, a look at the overall similarities between his works reveal their common aesthetic language. This common thread brings them into unity. The focus of Calatrava’s aesthetics thus is a “universalist concept” while employing “the same language globally but…to the best advantage of local and specific conditions”. All this expresses his statements about loving mankind and his desire to work on unifying it—lacking no hope that this can be achieved (Davidson).


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