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An Interview with Santiago Calatrava
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By Rober Ivy, editor-in-chief

Photo © Luca Vignelli

Santiago Calatrava fulfills an astonishing variety of roles in a specialized age: engineer, architect, sculptor, artist, builder, husband, father. The Spanish-born architect Calatrava and his wife Robertina live and work in an elegant white villa beside Zurich's Lake Zurichsee. On a spring day, he and Record editor-in-chief Robert Ivy met in a museum-like space on the residence's piano nobile, amid Calatrava's models and works in progress. Yellow light and Bach pierced the quietude, and when he spoke, Calatrava talked like an animated philosopher. The two then strolled to lunch beside the lake, a daily ritual for Calatrava.

ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: How do you formulate your ideas and develop them?

CALATRAVA: I try to emphasize the importance of place. The very first impression will come from the place. And I think it is fundamental to establish a link of feeling with this place.

Another relevant element that I would like to emphasize is the human context. So along with the topographical landscape, climatic environment and cultural landscape as a natural event, we also have the human climate. And with those elements I then begin a work of synthesis. I try to express ideas as best I can maybe by sketching on paper. At this point, the sketch is the first manifestation of the idea. In terms of a graphic language, it is just the result of an idea that comes from these factors combined.

 
  Click below to view Calatrava's watercolor studies for the Milwaukee Museum of Art

 

I explained that in a very rational way, but things don't always happen so rationally. Sometimes you think this is the real shape for a place. But, when you say the real shape you also mean this is the shape that solves the problems or part of them, because you are also able through your experience or capacity for synthesis to understand that [problems can be solved] in this shape or in this volume. Understand?

This is most easily done in buildings that don't have very complex structures in terms of function. For example, if we are thinking of a bridge, which is a simple link, or a station. When I work on projects with more complex structures I subdivide the objects in two parts. One we could call a container, in which many things can happen, and another will be a single part. This technique, this method of approach, was used at the stations in Lyon and in Lisbon.

AR: In Lisbon?

CALATRAVA: And in Milwaukee also. You design a part of the building that is much more the "idea" part than the rest of the building, because the rest of the building in all its complexity needs a certain operational understanding of the development of the architecture, in terms of economics, in terms of the structure, in terms of modulation and division.

Very briefly, I don't believe very much in causality. As an architect I think you have to control your ideas and your shapes, which should emerge very much from a rational effort. For this it is necessary to create a theoretical background or a background of research. In my work this research is based on morphology, that I do through sculpture.

AR: Your research involves what we call art. Do you use sketching as a method of seeing?

CALATRAVA: The sketch is the instrument that helps me materialize the ideas at another level. And the most abstract way to do studies of morphology probably is sculpture. One draws the human body to understand the movement, the gesture. The place, the landscape, the human landscape, and topography are important for me. These will inspire or bring the essence [to a project]. Then, also the analysis of the functional program is important. You can channel all the impulses of free thinking, free feeling, shape, form, the natural [flow], and this goes from the sketches and the human body into the sculptures.

AR: You present a very different point of view from our contemporary model, which seems to be much more pragmatic, more programmed, as if we're trying to understand everything. At some point you're doing more than that--you are synthesizing, you are taking abstract ideas, and you're taking the programmatic rational ideas, and you're making something more than an object of pure reason.

Contemporary architecture often lacks this level of synthesis. You're bringing another, very human gift to design that isn't often done. Do you understand yourself as unusual in that sense?

CALATRAVA: I think the problem of architecture has been related to as a model of linguistics or a model of vocabularies. How to overcome the dryness of the pure function of analysis? Let's say, for example, my approach to the material part of architecture may be to remember the works of engineers of the twentieth century, or my approach to certain formal aspects may even recall my icons of architecture, like Gaudi. I project myself, I project my dreams, my knowledge, my personal work of research.

And if there is a value in my work, it has to be given to this research. Because this is what makes the work different from what it would be if I just reacted to the standards of belonging to a school. You cannot have the ambition as a single person to create a new school. I never had this ambition. So I went through the architecture trying to implement one, two, or three things, differently.

I have more than the paradigm of an architect, I have the paradigm of a painter. One example of a painter is Cezanne, who spent all his life just trying, he said, to make a little progress. I too am making little progressions. You understand what I mean. (Chuckles) I like his personality very much. He completed his life only painting outdoors, taking the natural as the real model. Many architects have built like that. I think Cezanne is so splendid and so [misunderstood]. Only a few people understood his work, which was so important for the next generation.

For myself, I venerate the human body, which I keep drawing and drawing and drawing. It's not the same as someone who wants to be a musician and who then exercises on harmony for years, do you know what I mean?

I think it is much easier to read the purity of form in drawing and in sculpture than to read it in the buildings themselves. [When I design] I pay respect to previous generations and I solve many of the problems in the styles that were solved before. I recognize that I want very much to get completely into new things, but it is almost impossible.

 

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