Risky Business

Will Santiago Calatrava’s high-design style work at Ground Zero?

Click here for a slide show of Calatrava’s work.

Santiago Calatrava, the 52-year-old Spaniard picked earlier this month to design a big new train and subway station at the World Trade Center site, is a singular figure in the design world: a remarkably inventive architect who’s also a civil engineer and a sculptor. But is he a good fit for Ground Zero?

Milwaukee Art Museum atrium

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question. Over the last three years, I’ve gone to see a handful of Calatrava’s buildings and other projects, including his extension to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which opened two years ago on the edge of Lake Michigan; his huge and still unfinished City of Arts and Sciences complex in his hometown of Valencia, which includes a planetarium, an IMAX theater, a science museum, and an opera house; and his canted pedestrian bridge across the Nervion River in Bilbao.

Alamillo bridge, Seville

Considering that Calatrava has more than 50 bridges and public buildings to his credit—a huge number for an architect his age—the ones I’ve seen make up just a sliver of his total output. But they do span the range of his commissions, from infrastructure to high culture. And having walked through (or over) them, it seems to me that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in selecting Calatrava, has made a choice that is both obvious and more than a little risky.

Lyon’s airy new terminus

Why obvious? Because no architect in the world can match Calatrava’s talent for investing complex transportation projects, which are often pretty bland architecturally, with the kind of eye-catching, high-design appeal the public is expecting at Ground Zero. Part of this has simply to do with experience: He got his first train station commission, from the city of Zurich, when he was just 32, and has gone on to design stations for Lisbon, Lyon, and the Belgian city of Liège. But more than any other designer of his generation, Calatrava has consistently made infrastructure beautiful. His buildings are rigorously conceived and meticulously executed but also playful, airy, and imaginative—a perfect combination of right and left brain.

The ocular Valencia planetarium

Why risky? Because Calatrava’s work has a personality—a pristine, sometimes aloof perfectionism—that seems an odd fit for the constricted and politically charged Ground Zero site, where compromise and rolling with the punches are among the chief job requirements. While the list of artists who have influenced Calatrava’s work is a long one—it includes everyone from architects Eero Saarinen and Antonio Gaudi to filmmaker Luis Buñuel—his projects are consistently disdainful, in true modernist style, of architectural context. In other words, they borrow from a whole range of creative work but not from the buildings around them.

The Milwaukee Museum insitu

Indeed, you could even say that Calatrava’s skeletal designs, which are often pure white and involve gigantic moving parts, manufacture their own context. Most pictures of his finished work—even the museum extension in Milwaukee, which attaches not only to a 1957 design by Saarinen, but also to a 1975 addition by Wisconsin firm Kahler Slater—push surrounding buildings to the extreme edge of the frame (if the buildings can be seen at all). Renderings of another U.S. project, a cathedral in Oakland that now seems sadly to be on hold, show the same desire for solitude and room to stretch and breathe.

Though Calatrava earned a degree in civil engineering in 1979, he carries himself like an artist or an urbane professor of architectural history. He speaks seven languages and has been awarded a dozen honorary doctorates. He produces his fluid, elegant designs by hand and still works out of his Zurich villa, in what Rowan Moore, writing in Metropolis, called, “an atmosphere of deep serenity.” Another critic calls him “monkish.” All in all, he’s hardly the kind of architect who seems well-suited for the horse-trading and bare-knuckle power plays that have so far been a central part of the downtown rebuilding process.

But nobody ever said that bringing unusually talented architects into the WTC mix was going to be simple. It’s certainly true that the huge job—the budget for the station has been pegged at $2 billion, and some are already calling it a Grand Central for Ground Zero—will be a tough test for Calatrava, who will join forces with two large engineering firms to complete it. He’ll have to adjust his work to a tight, contested urban context and practice a kind of deference that he’s not used to—deference to Daniel Libeskind and other architects, to politicians, to a complex site plan, to the families of the 9/11 victims.

But the reverse may also be true: Calatrava’s participation could very well provide a useful measure of architectural integrity downtown. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard a lot of suspiciously optimistic reports from the New York Times and elsewhere that a new cooperative spirit has emerged among Libeskind, Larry Silverstein (the WTC leaseholder), the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the Port Authority. According to these stories—the New York Times put its version on Page One with the headline, “Trade Center Arguments Fade, And a Single Vision Is Emerging”—Libeskind’s master plan remains basically uncorrupted.

That news seems to be built more of spin than substance. But maybe the arrival of Calatrava will provide a fresh method of keeping the various players honest. His architecture seems likely to show the effects of misguided tampering a lot more clearly than that of Libeskind or Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s David Childs, the master designer of sleek corporate towers who has also joined the WTC rebuilding team.

By this I don’t mean that Calatrava’s work is fragile. I mean that it’s almost always stripped down to its basics, with its precise structural and architectural logic on full display. In other words, if Calatrava’s first New York building is compromised by some inane political deal cooked up in Silverstein’s office, or George Pataki’s, it’ll be the architecture itself that lets us know.

Correction, Aug. 25, 2003: Due to an editorial mistake this article originally featured an image of the Barqueta Bridge in Seville, which was not designed by Santiago Calatrava. In fact, Calatrava designed the nearby Alamillo Bridge.