A man with a span

When Santiago Calatrava first appeared on the scene in the 1980s, his work was a revelation. Here was an architect/engineer building infrastructure that seemed, to me as a British architecture student, almost impossibly exotic. Theatrical bridges, sinuous stations and organic concrete structures held echoes of Latin American modernism and perhaps even a hint of Gaudí, but seemed like something new, branching out of one of the forgotten tributaries of 20th-century architecture, the European expressionism that was quickly crushed by the mass-produced boxes of functionalism.

It’s hard to believe now that the style once looked refreshing. Calatrava’s structural acrobatics have become the default style of contemporary blockbuster architecture. Skeletal roofs, eccentric bridges, sculptural concrete and complex networks of gothic steel have come close to cliché. You could argue that even the big names of minimal moderne, Norman Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw, Chris Wilkinson and others, have been heavily influenced by the Spanish architect’s oeuvre – even if they might never admit it.

Despite this influence and ubiquity, something went seriously wrong at the source. Calatrava’s massive City of Arts and Sciences in his native city, Valencia, is a landscape of the existential emptiness of the abandoned expo, a vast conference and arts complex that looks like Europe’s Brasília. Some of its buildings are individually fine but, in this quantity and at this scale, the €1.1bn project seems a symbol of Spain’s spendthrift boom.

Calatrava now has a major exhibition opening at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the museum’s first show dedicated to a contemporary architect. So perhaps it’s time to look again at his oeuvre.

‘Around Cyclade’ (2006)

The exhibition is intended to show the architect’s range, not just in architecture and engineering but in painting, sculpture, ceramics and kinetic works. It clearly aims to be a portrait of a renaissance man, a designer able to turn his hand to almost any medium. The emphasis is on movement, on the manner in which Calatrava has striven to express motion in the static structures he builds, through the expression of forces, the graphic illustration of tension and compression, themes which appear as much in his painting and sculpture as they do in his architecture.

I went to see the architect at his Zurich home, a gorgeous early 20th-century villa a few steps away from the lake. The garden is full of Calatrava’s abstract, meticulously engineered sculptures. His house is fuller still. It looks like a shrine to his own work.

Calatrava himself is crisply dressed, relaxed and charming. Unusually for an architect, he is also an engineer – he came to Zurich to study for an engineering doctorate. Does his combination of professions make him see architecture differently?

“In my first buildings, like the Stadelhofen Station here in Zurich [1984], you see the engineering background,” he replies. “Engineering came first but now, after 30 years, I don’t see any difference between architecture and engineering. If you look at Brunel’s [Clifton Suspension] bridge in Bristol you could ask, ‘Is that architecture or engineering?’ The details are architecture but the solution is engineering.”

The Stadelhofen Station is still a wonder, its sci-fi modernity a harbinger of Zaha Hadid’s best buildings or Foster’s Canary Wharf Tube station. “I learnt everything I know about stations from that building,” he says. “A first building is like a first novel, it is always autobiographical.”

But it was with bridges that Calatrava made his name, and he changed bridge-building for ever. Twentieth-century bridges had become unobtrusive and economical, a long way from the self-conscious landmarks of the previous century. “Think of Tower Bridge,” Calatrava says. “It is formally very powerful but it is also something beautiful, which can move you.” He has built bridges in Dallas and Buenos Aires, in Jerusalem, Venice, Dublin and throughout Spain, and each has been conceived as a way of redefining the city through its infrastructure.

“In my opinion, as an engineer,” he says, “a bridge is the most difficult thing you can do. You are not working in the direction of gravity but against it – so the problem opposes the solution. The same wind problems you have in a skyscraper are there in the bridge too, so it’s technically very demanding. Then there might be a moment where you can add an ‘art value’ [he gesticulates wavy quotation marks] through trying to articulate the forces in the form. But ultimately it is a bridge and clients aren’t prepared to pay double to make it beautiful.”

A view of the Puente del Alamillo in Seville

He takes my notebook from me and draws a sketch instantly recognisable as his Puente del Alamillo (1992) in Seville. “There are only a few ways of making a bridge,” he says. “Like this” – and he rapidly draws the bridge with cable stays counteracting the forces on both sides. “Or you can take these cable stays away.” He draws it again without the cables on one side. “The absence of that one thing – that is what makes it tremendous.”

Then we do a tour of the house to look at the artworks, which are mostly his. There is always something a little unnerving about architects presenting themselves as artists. Fine designers don’t necessarily make excellent art and Calatrava’s works are strangely conservative, ranging between post-impressionism and op art. There are Matisse-ish paintings and Picasso-esque drawings. Bulls’ horns feature heavily in stylised, dynamic ceramic decoration while painted figures strain and twist in a manner that suggests the structural dynamics of bridges and buildings. The house is emptier than usual, he explains, as some of the biggest works are already with the Hermitage for the show.

He begins turning kinetic sculptures on at the sockets, and strange columns begin to undulate and to create waves across their complex forms, making a background buzz like a barber’s hair-clipper. One piece, a wall-hung machine in which a series of struts pivots and moves to resemble the blinking of an eye, reminds me of how new Calatrava’s forms looked in the 1980s, where he used a similar mechanism on a warehouse door in Germany, an exquisite piece of art in industry.

One of the curious things about the sculptures is that many are recognisable as architecture. There are the suspended blocks of Turning Torso tower in Malmö, the kinetic sculpture of the Technion Obelisk in Haifa and sculptures recalling the self-consciously iconic roof of the opera house in Santa Cruz, Tenerife. But when these sculptures are blown up there seems to be something wrong. They look like skyline one-liners. They lack context or meaning. When I prod the architect about Valencia, he shifts slightly uncomfortably. I can feel a long answer coming.

“My personal involvement in the regeneration of Valencia [has] taken up more than 20 years of my life,” he tells me. “The Valencia Opera House is today directed by the maestros Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta, which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. One shouldn’t forget that these were some of the poorest sectors of the city and are now some of the most desirable, drawing investment into the city over the same period around 10 times that invested in the City of Arts and Sciences.”

Calatrava’s current project is another blockbuster, the rebuilding of Ground Zero’s underworld in New York to create a $3.2bn transport interchange. “It’s taken nine years on site already,” he says “but it’ll be 12 years altogether because of the magnitude of the project. There’s the relationship to Ground Zero, the access to the memorial and its symbolic significance. This is a public space which will be used by 300,000 people every day.”

Perhaps the big, bony canopy at Ground Zero is just what the luckless site needs, a real piece of public infrastructure, a 21st-century equivalent of the great decorated sheds of the 19th-century stations and a landmark to indicate the presence of an unimaginably complex subterranean network of function, movement and memory. In recent years Calatrava has faced criticism for expensive buildings and for bridges that appeared to put aesthetics before function – notably Venice’s Ponte della Costituzione, which is being retrofitted to make it accessible. But at his best he is still capable of creating awesome structures – as the Hermitage show confirms. It is, perhaps, hardly fair to blame him for inspiring the ambitions of those less able.

‘Santiago Calatrava: The Quest for Movement’, June 27-September 30, www.hermitagemuseum.org

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.