Tuesday, Jun. 08, 2004

The Poet of Glass and Steel

Santiago Calatrava
Santiago Calatrava can't drive. Whereas this would be surprising for almost anybody over the age of, say, 16, it's a much bigger surprise when you consider that the Spanish-born Calatrava has revolutionized the design of the places we move through and along. In the scores of bridges, airports and train stations the architect has designed throughout Europe and more recently in the U.S., Calatrava has brought to the world of travel an incomparable high-tech lyricism. His structures speak plainly of engineering, of struts and cables, white concrete pylons and keen-edged glass louvers. But at the same time they suggest unmistakably the pliant forms of nature — an eye, a torso, a bird in flight— that inspire him.

As a boy Calatrava wanted to be a sculptor, but an early encounter with the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe sent him down the path of architecture (art is still his avocation — his Manhattan town house and his villa outside Zurich are filled with his abstract steel sculpture). Shortly after finishing his architecture studies he won a design competition for a train station in Zurich, and because he had taken the unusual step of getting a second degree in engineering, he soon found himself being sought out to design bridges throughout Europe, a job that ordinarily falls to engineers and rarely to architects. His bridges are unusual for having asymmetrical flourishes, canted curves that slant against the water or — as in his first American span, a $23.5 million glass-and-steel footbridge in Redding, Calif., that opens next month — a long, slender tail fin at one end that operates as a sundial. "Asymmetry allows you to explore," he says. "You can emphasize things having to do with the position of the city against the water or the curvature of the stream."

Calatrava has brought this vocabulary, both rational and anatomical, to other kinds of public building as well, including the tidal wave of his new opera house in Tenerife, Spain, and his addition to Wisconsin's Milwaukee Museum of Art, a structure that culminates in the rising arc of a sunscreen that opens and closes like the wings of a bird. But recently he unveiled another train station that is sure to become one of his best-remembered structures, not only for its airborne exuberance but also for the location where it brings that feeling to bear — at ground zero in New York City. Calatrava was chosen last year to design the $2 billion new terminal there for the PATH commuter line that connects Manhattan with New Jersey. The design he unveiled in January is an angular palisade of white ribs with an upward thrust that he says was inspired by the idea of a child releasing a bird into the air. If ever there was a place that needed a building that lifted the spirit, it's that place. Now it may get one.