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The Visionary Behind The Spanish Architect Santiago Calatrava

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1707 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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Intuitive vision that lures experienced and studied phenomena greatly enriches human endeavor, just as much as structural theory and geometry have the ability to inspire monumental works of architecture. Further down the line, the visionary behind the Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava shall be unveiled, on the basis of the aforesaid statement.

The Sculptor

Calatrava’s early interest in art and the aesthetic sense that drew him to a small book on Le Corbusier, would remain another constant factor in his work, and one of the things that sets him apart in the world of contemporary architecture. Calatrava evolved his art, and his sculpture into architecture. Time and time again, his work leaves architecture critics perplexed because of his tremendous ability to translate his sculptures into real structures, into architecture. He never fails to generate a great deal of mystery and curiosity in his works.

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Calatrava goes so far as to even suggest that his art (sculpture) must be considered as a source of ideas for architecture. Julio Gonzalez explains the Architecture-Sculpture equation. “Architecture and sculpture are two rivers in which the same water flows. Imagine that sculpture is unfettered plasticity, while architecture is plasticity that must submit to function, and to the obvious notion of human scale (through function). Where sculpture ignores function, unbowed by mundane questions of use, it is superior to architecture as pure expression. But through its rapport with human scale and the environment through its penetrability and interiority architecture dominates sculpture in these specific areas.” (Julio Gonzalez Dessiner dans l’espace, Skira, Kunstmuseum, Bern, 1997)

In 1914, in his book Les Cathédrales de France, sculptor Auguste Rodin wrote, ‘The sculptor attains great expression only when he gives all his attention to the harmonic play of light and shadow, just as the architect does.’ The fact that one of the most famous phrases of modern architecture was inspired not by an architect but by a sculptor underlines the significance of art.

The Engineer

It is not enough to be an engineer. We are not allowed to confine ourselves within our own professions, but must live in full view of the entire scene of life, which is always total. The supreme art of living is a consummation gained by no single calling and no single science; it is the yield of all occupations and all sciences, and many things besides.

-José Ortega y Gasset,

“Man the Technician”

Calatrava’s expressive use of technology and inventive form would be impossible without an awareness that goes beyond architecture and engineering. Music, painting and the natural sciences are as vital to his work as any other calculation. His work becomes and intertwinement of elastic expression and structural revelation, producing results that possibly can be best described as a synthesis of aesthetics and structural physics. (Anthony C. Webster “Utility, Technology and Expression,” The Architectural Review 191, no.1149, November 1992: 71)

Calatrava’s design process reflects his eclectic education. He began as an art student, then went on to earn a degree in architecture, from Escuela Technica Superior de Arquitectura de Valencia, and then finally a doctorate of Technical Science from the Eidgenosische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, all in his birthplace Valencia.

He spent his time making and then developing numerous sketches. His sketches emphasize his preference for resolving a design in section, which for him reveals not only the strength of the building but also its structural beauty. Often, his sketches are followed by scale models, or what he generally refers to as “toys and games.” (Santiago Calatrava, “The synthetic Power of Games and Metaphor.” In Bridging the Gap: Rethinking the Relationship of an Architect and Engineer. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, Building Arts Forum/New York, 1991, p. 173). Used as experiments and primarily inspirational tools for resolving technical problems such as dynamics or tension, they are also seen as sculptures that borrow the language of Engineering. They are creative statements about structural force.

Calatrava’s comprehension of technical information and science is what grants his work the starting point, that is paralleled to Leonardo Da Vinci’s own interconnected scientific and artistic connections. Just as Da Vinci made use of his art and science background, translating human and animal movement into mechanical movement and added depth and the third dimension in his paintings; similarly, Calatrava’s fantastic educational knowledge in engineering as well as architecture, enables him to translate his sculptural work (which depicts motion) into crystallized movement in his architectural work.

Movement has always fascinated Calatrava, and for parts of his structures, it has been a source of evolution and inspiration. Even in his engineering thesis of foldable space frames, he investigated movement as an inherent part of architecture. His doctoral thesis, ‘On the Foldability of Frames’ had to do with the fact that a geometric figure can be reduced from three dimensions to two, and ultimately just one. A polyhedron can be collapsed, making it a single planar surface. Another transformation can further reduce it to a single line, a single dimension.

He thus concluded that any building is not just a visual image, consisting of different volumes and textured surfaces, but a dynamic object

Although, it is very noticeable from his works and he himself has also stated that nature is his structural inspiration, it is also seen that he doesn’t imitate any particular organic form. Instead, he closely observes the strong visual movement in natural objects that derives from the fact that their shapes are the traces of the physical forces that created them. His structures have the same dynamic quality emphasized in Rudolf Arnheim’s explanation of nature. It is “alive to our eyes partly because its shapes are fossils of the events that gave rise to them.” (Rudolf Arheim, Art and visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969, p.351)

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The Essence of Architecture

The fact that some are uncomfortable with the multiple forms of expression chosen by Santiago Calatrava is probably the best indication that is he onto something important. Joseph Seymour , the former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and new Jersey said, “We think he is the Da Vinci of our time. He combines light and air and structural elegance with strength.”

His architecture captivates the imagination, showing the potential of sculptural form and dynamic structure, and what it can accomplish. His vision elevates the human spirit by creating environments in which we live, play and work.

He does not seem disturbed by the coexisting forms of art, architecture and engineering in his mind and thought. With all of his combined interests, he is able to amaze everyone with his phenomenal designs each time. He develops forms that are anonymous, yet universal.

Turning Torso, Sweden

“In sculpture, I have used spheres, and cubes and simple forms often related to my knowledge of engineering. I must admit that I greatly admire the liberty of a Frank Gehry, or Frank Stella as a sculptor. There is a joy and a liberty in Stella’s work that is not present in my sculpture, which is always based in the rough business of mathematics.” (Interview with Santiago Calatrava, Zurich, February 22, 2006)

Ernsting’s Warehouse, Germany

It has been made clear through Calatrava’s Ernsting’s Warehouse, in Coesfeld Germany (1983-85), that architecture is not static. The warehouse doors continue the aluminium wall surface when closed, but when open, the façade is pierced and set in motion and the doors are transformed into a beautiful scalloped canopy.

Bac De Roda Bridge, Barcelona

Like many 20th Century engineers, Calatrava considers concrete to be the most noble construction material. The Spanish word for concrete, hormigon, from the word meaning ‘form,’ describes most directly the unique quality of concrete- It’s ability to take any form or shape. Of course, Calatrava has his favorites, but doesn’t limit himself to concrete. The marvelous dialogue he establishes between concrete and steel, for example and the detailing of these connections reveal a great deal of his ideas on structural composition. In the Bac De Roda- Felipe II Bridge (1984-1987) in Barcelona, the arches are transformed from steel into concrete, as they majestically bend to meet the earth. Concrete abutments are anchored firmly into the ground, while steel , because of it’s obvious lightness compared to concrete, soars over the roadway.

Stadelhofen Station, Zurich

The three pronged steel columns seem to bite into the glass canopy and concrete promenade to ensure support and grip. These junctures embody Calatrava’s fascination with the way load are carried to the ground.


His work is an inspiration to numerous architects across the globe not only because it counteracts the thrusts of arches, and domes of massive stone construction, but because it also conveys structural clarity and rhythmic qualities.

Calatrava’s work can captivate, communicate, and inspire though a visual process. We sense a familiarity with it that is often definable yet not attributable to a single source. At a time when specialization in architecture is increasing, Santiago Calatrava has the ability to combine the somewhat contradicting disciplines of architecture and engineering, with his very own creative vision. It is the vision that has the capability to rejuvenate not just the built environment but ultimately the very spirit of building itself.


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