As I slid into the back seat of a taxi in Valencia, Spain, earlier this year, I didn’t know how I was going to direct the driver to my destination. I speak no Spanish. But when I formed my palms into a sphere, the driver nodded, then sped off to the City of Arts and Sciences, the complex that includes not one, but two huge, domed buildings by Santiago Calatrava—buildings that are, like many of Calatrava’s extravagantly expressive structures, more easily described with gestures than with words.
The buildings that form the complex—the domed opera house and planetarium, plus a vast science museum and a conference center—are stunning white-on-white confections, exemplars of a style that has made Calatrava one of the best-known and wealthiest architects ever. Still, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that he has given Valencia, where he grew up, a kind of ghost town. Only one of the buildings on the 85-acre site, the science museum, was open on a recent afternoon; visitors were scarce and much of the vast interior was inaccessible—the “residual spaces” beneath Calatrava’s eccentrically shaped roofs.
Given the prominence of the nearly empty buildings, at a time of austerity in Spain, Calatrava has become an easy target; he is blamed for bankrupting the local government, the subject of front-page articles around the world. And when he speaks (as he did with me last year), he tends to make things worse, describing his 90-million-Euro fee for designing the Valencia complex as “very modest” and the charges against him as “a political maneuver by the communists.”
In fact, the costs are outrageous, and the technical problems (like a tiled roof that has been dripping tiles), inexcusable. But despite all that, I find the buildings thrilling. Walking around the Cite, I wanted to see every one of them from every angle. The organic, almost skeletal forms, in many cases reach skyward like the vaults of Gothic cathedrals, but streamlined and rendered in the whitest white, are awe-inspiring. My head tells me one thing, but my heart tells me another.
Over the years, I have visited dozens of Calatrava buildings, from a bridge in Calgary to an opera house in Tenerife, and they have affected me the way Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the TWA Terminal at JFK have affected me: Each is a utilitarian structure raised to the level of art. There’s a reason Herbert Muschamp, the late New York Times architecture critic, hailed Calatrava as our “leading poet of transportation architecture.” Poet! True, Calatrava’s work has precedents. Among those he has quoted are the Swiss bridge designer Robert Maillart; the American architect Eero Saarinen; the Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki; the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi (whose experiments in structure are almost exact precursors of Calatrava’s); and the Italian polymath Pier Luigi Nervi. (He is also known for recycling his own designs.)
Meanwhile, among engineers, the consensus is that Calatrava’s structures aren’t “elegant” because they use more steel and concrete (sometimes far more) than is necessary. That’s surely true, but what if his steel and concrete provide not just support, but inspiration?…