ART PRECEDES SCIENCE. Santiago Calatrava is a visionary architect, a structural engineer, a sculptor, and a painter based in Switzerland. In his architecture he has merged advanced engineering solutions with dramatic visual statements.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Santiago Calatrava, you are from Valencia in Spain where you studied to become an architect. Why did you then go to engineering school in Zürich, Switzerland? 

My career has largely come about through different circumstances. I grew up in Valencia and, because my family was related to the director, was able to attend an art school when I was eight years old. By 16, I wanted to enter the School of Beaux Arts in Paris. But the year was 1968, and Paris was overrun with school protests, which did not elude mine. So I was forced back to Valencia and the local art school and the polytechnic. After six rigorous years of education, I earned a degree in architecture and urban planning. Yet, I was of a required age to do military service in Spain, which went against my most essential beliefs, for we were living in a dictatorial system. I knew that I had to leave my home country. Throughout my time studying architecture and urban planning, I had spent summer vacations visiting other European countries and Switzerland had always remained in my mind as a significant place. So much so that, eventually, I was convinced that the Polytechnikum in Zürich would be a great incubator to study engineering. I moved there to pursue those studies as far as I could.  

Why did you decide to be an architect and engineer rather than an artist? 

It was a conversion. I was in Paris throughout the summer of ‘68, working a couple of hours each day in a non-profit organization on La Rue Chanoinesse, just around the corner from Notre-Dame Cathedral. I often visited Notre-Dame, and it was then that I witnessed the beauty of the space as you entered; the sun was shining through enormous stained glass windows, and dust was rolling in the rays of light. This experience opened my eyes to the undeniable fact that architecture, like painting and sculpting, is an art. What I came to understand was that as an artform, architecture was bonded by the exact knowledge of technology or material properties, and the beauty of this cathedral was, for me, the pure essence of the craft; the alpha and omega. Engineering, I discovered, was essential to gain more receptivity about structural and material behavior. So, for me, it’s a symbiosis; together with painting and sculpting, the world of mathematics and mechanics is one that I love and am perpetually invigorated by.

A building is not something static and rigid which changes only through the shadows when the sun is turning around it, but it can also change like a flower.

Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava: Reggio Emilia AV Mediopadana is a high speed railway station in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Santiago Calatrava, did the Swiss engineer Robert Maillart influence you?  

I knew about Maillart before I entered the Polytechnic. Even his most insignificant bridges have something charming and delicate in them. Several, like the Tavanasa and Salginatobel bridges (both in Switzerland), are heroic gestures. Situated in the middle of dramatic mountains, they were built to allow farmers to pass through. Indeed, their beauty is in conjunction with the landscape. 

Your work is mainly bridges and railroad stations, and among many others you did Mediopadana Station in Reggio EmiliaZürich Stadelhofen, the Lisbon Oriente Station; you did Bac de Roda Bridge in Barcelona – which is known locally as Pont de Calatrava – the Lusitania Bridge in Mérida, the Puente del Alamillo of the Seville Expo. Why all these stations and bridges?  

As I said, in my case circumstance play an important role. I met my wife as a student in Switzerland and decided to start a life there. But I didn’t have any connections or knowledge of people who would commission me to design a house or condominiums. So I was forced to win bids from public competitions. Together with a colleague, I was fortunate to win the competition for a railway station in Zürich, resulting in my first station. What makes railway stations significant is that they are functional, but can be beautiful too. They take years to be completed because so much goes into the work. Looking back at all of the stations I have done, each one is different from the next because they have been adapted to the local circumstances. Even if you are working in a very constrained field of functional and technical limitations when designing a station, there still remains a freedom to express yourself. 

And also with bridges? 

Bridges are very rarely private commissions. Once you design a bridge and it is well received, you will eventually get rewarded through more commissions for designing other bridges. The statical composition of a bridge is very limited. Either they are a beam, an arc, a cable-stayed, a suspension, or a tubular bridge. There are only a few models, but the variety of the circumstances, the length, the landscape, these provide the architect with a level of freedom. After so many years, I have learned that I take great joy from designing a bridge.  

How do you conceive the shapes of your stations and bridges?  

The Second World War destroyed major bridges and railway stations throughout Central Europe. As a result, they were quickly rebuilt after the war ended. In a similar manner in the 1950s, there was a demand to create and upgrade housing. This need to build quickly introduced a kind of doctrine of pure functionalism. In terms of bridges and railway stations, the results that emerged in the 50s and 60s had nothing to do with the designs of previous bridges or stations. Look, for example, at London’s Victoria Station or St. Pancras, or New York’s extraordinary Grand Central or original Penn Station. The same thing happened with bridges. Suddenly, the best bridge was the cheapest, one that simply could lead from one point to another. This attitude towards bridges ran counter to such designs as the Tower Bridge in London or almost every bridge in Paris, which, in my opinion, are truly the face of the city. This led me to begin designing bridges using steel, which was very uncommon at the time as most bridges were almost exclusively being made in concrete. In designing bridges, I pushed myself to find a new vocabulary, which manifested in combing concrete and steel, as seen in the Alamillo bridge in Seville, with the gravity of the pylons. Or the Lusitania Bridge in Merida, with the big arch in the center. Or even with the bridge in Barcelona, in which there’s a double arch, with one of them inclined. In conceiving new bridges and railway stations, it was fundamental for me to work within a new vocabulary. Everything grew and evolved from this lexicon.

The sensation of entering, and the whole event of mass, of pillars, of stone, and all the space surrounding you and becoming your immediate environment exists in architecture.

Santiago Calatrava, what do you aim to achieve with stations and bridges?  

When designing a station, I take pride in creating large spaces for the public to enjoy. If you consider the most fantastic cultural buildings of our time, such as the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, or the British Museum, they receive 10 or 12 million visitors per year. But a station, such as the Oculus in New York, can easily receive up to 100 million people each year who commute to and from work, and pass through the same station each day. Whatever beautiful design you create in a railway station is in homage to them. Sadly, many of those people do not have the possibility of visiting the Louvre or the British Museum, so a station is a remarkable place to make a genuine effort to inspire. While working within the economic limits, a well-designed station provides the public a sense of beauty in their everyday life. It is my aim that they see and take pride in this beauty, because it is for them to enjoy. 

When building a bridge safety is very important. How do you combine the technical with the beauty?  

As an engineer it is necessary to be very prudent and take a very cautious approach to what you are doing. But on the other side of the equation, you can also work in a daring way. That is one of the beautiful parts of engineering. Many of my bridges are of a medium or even short length, but they appear audacious and elegant, almost as if they’re defying gravity.

Around the 90s you started adding movable aspects to your work, more or less like the wings of a bird, for example the Kuwaiti Pavilion in Seville in Expo92, the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, or the Oculus at the World Trade Centre in New York. What’s the point?  

A quote that transcends time is that “art precedes science”. You can see this, for example, when studying the Impressionists from Monet to Sisley. They were painting in a way that was related to natural light and the effects of the light within nature and objects. Their artistic instinct towards light as the subject of their painting was happening before the revolutionary thesis of Albert Einstein, which later brought him the Nobel Prize on the physical nature of light. The idea of movement, speed, and dynamism in the art was already present in Italy’s Futurist movement in the early 20th century. Also Alexander Calder, the great American sculptor, and his mobiles, created with the idea of introducing elements which through natural or mechanical forces could change shape.

My PhD in Zürich involved folding complex spherical polyhedra into a line. The transformations from three dimensional shapes into a one-dimensional event fascinated me. It is possible, in my opinion, to make the shapes transformable. A building is not something static and rigid which changes only through the shadows when the sun is turning around it, but it can also change like a flower. My Ph.D. thesis was titled “Natura mater et magistra.” What I was dreaming of is done every day by flowers that open during the day when the sun is there, or sunflowers as they follow the arc of the sun. It is done even by leaves, by branches, by our own body, when we are opening our hands or opening our arms. There is a whole poetic version of that which opens in the moment you introduce a dynamic shape in architecture. The first time I did something movable in a building was by introducing gates. It was in a warehouse in northern Germany, and the client permitted us to use doors that open and change shape. It was very well received at the time, and they are still working to this day.  

As a sculptor you are inspired by Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin or Frank Stella and in architecture the building has to be nice to look at from the inside and the outside, but at the same time everything has to function.  

Another sculptor whom I truly admire is Henry Moore. In a compendium of his notes about sculpture, there was a passage in which he compared sculpture to architecture. He explained that the sculptor works with material and has the freedom to express himself and is only bounded by the natural laws of the material he’s working with. Otherwise he’s free. Later, he said of architects that, different from a sculptor, they are bound by the laws of utility and functionality related to the use of the building. It’s a severe limitation. But, importantly, he included that one point at which architecture is superior to a sculpture is the human scale. Unlike a sculpture, you can penetrate the building and it can enclose you. You experience this by entering a cathedral. The sensation of entering, and the whole event of mass, of pillars, of stone, and all the space surrounding you and becoming your immediate environment exists in architecture. Rodin had enormous respect for architecture and visited many cathedrals in France, doing a series of notes about his experience. He spoke about architecture as the harmonious game of plans and volumes under the light. Even the last generation of great sculptors, Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet, and Chillida completed sculptures so big you can almost penetrate them. Perhaps they were blurring the lines between sculpture and architecture. (Or perhaps they wanted to be architects!)

Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava: The City of Arts and Sciences is a cultural and architectural complex in the city of Valencia, Spain.

Santiago Calatrava

The Quadracci Pavilion is the iconic sculptural addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Santiago Calatrava.

Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava: Turning Torso is a neo-futurist residential skyscraper built in Malmö, Sweden in 2005. It was the tallest building in the Nordic region until September 2022.

Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava’s vast ribbed structure soars over the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York.

Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava’s Innovation, Science and Technology Building, opened in 2014, the first building for Florida Polytechnic University’s new campus in Lakeland, Florida.

Santiago Calatrava

The Santiago Calatrava designed St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at the World Trade Center site in New York.

Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava’s Peace Bridge is a bridge that accommodates people walking and cycling across the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

More than 40 years of exercising this profession have shown that my career has been an extension of the emotion that I experienced entering Notre-Dame the day I decided to become an architect.

Santiago Calatrava, as a writer I know that if my novel is not clear and properly constructed readers will not read it. It’s not just a question of words and imagination.  

A novel written by Victor Hugo saved Notre-Dame from getting demolished. At that time, after the French Revolution and the subsequent revolutions in Paris, Notre-Dame was in danger of being razed and was physically in bad shape because nobody was paying any money to restore the cathedral. Victor Hugo effectively saved Notre-Dame by writing one of the most beautiful and moving books in architectural literature. He wrote, “The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.” 

What is the fascination of architecture? 

On one side, architecture is bounded by functionality. You have to think and conform to all that is practical. This appears as a limitation but even in the humblest cases, such as railway stations or bridges, you can achieve something beautiful, something that is harmoniously integrated in its surroundings and that provides people satisfaction.

Without the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, Brooklyn would not be the vibrant borough it is today. It is an enormous monument that not only represents New York, but when the American flag is put on top of the pylons, it represents all of America. This is the sheer power that these types of constructions have, and it is very important to try and catch this symbolic force that architecture can provide. I believe that at its best, architecture stays in our minds and hearts as the signs and symbols of cities, and of communities. 

You wanted to build the tallest building in the world in Chicago. Why was this project not achieved?  

The best projects most often do not happen. You need to go into the world with a lot of humbleness. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. But you also have to remain optimistic and look forward. 

Are modern buildings going to last? 

Vitruvius, the Roman architect and engineer has given three qualities to architecture: functionality, stability, and beauty. But stability in Roman times was also measured by durability. The Romans were building for our time today, but also for all the generations that came before us. You can see this in the Pantheon in Rome. Close to my Lusitania bridge in Merida there is a Roman bridge that is still in use today. This is incredible. Their concept was that buildings should survive and remain for generations to come. The concept today is very different. Some buildings of temporary use, like La Tour Eiffel which was intended for Paris’s World Expo in 1889, was preserved and kept through constant maintenance, and the result is that, over a century later, it is still there and in constant use.

Certain people, however, will tell you the life of a building is bound to the mortgage, and after they get their invested money back the building can be demolished. It’s easy to see how this attitude is completely different from that of the Romans, or the Parisians with their magnificent steel tower. Can you imagine Paris without its Eiffel Tower? It has come to represent not only the city, but even the entire country of France. 

Is it frustrating to do something that is bult only to last for a moment?  

I’ll begin simply by saying yes. But your question has opened my mind to the issue of maintenance. It’s a fact that some authorities refuse to pay attention to maintenance and will not pay a cent for it, but building architecture requires a degree of maintenance. It is more than a necessity, it is an imperative. If you neglect it, you will incur damages. It is important to realize that buildings often go on for generations after us, and the way we designed and maintained these buildings will say a lot about us to future generations. The aesthetic sense is fundamental, because it will be judged by the coming generations as a heritage of our time. 

We see this very much in suburban areas today? 

Yes, indeed. If you go to the suburban areas of many European cities, the buildings that were built during the 50s and 60s were built for mainly functional purposes. In other words, to give a minimal comfort to a family. This was necessary because people were coming from the country to the cities in the millions, but today those suburban areas are very problematic. People do not want to live there, and the attitude of the young generation is not at all positive because they are living in an environment that was conceived without any aesthetic principals, which severely limits their hopes and aspirations. This is proof that architecture survives us as a future heritage for generations to come, good or otherwise. 

You make museums, opera houses, stations, churches, public buildings with different uses, but what about houses?  

To build houses you need a private person commissioning you. When I started, I knew very few people who were able to request for me to build a house. I have done some apartments, for example in Malmö, and also master plans for housing areas. In general, I believe that houses are among the noblest things that an architect can do because it is there that architecture takes body. In our houses we live, educate our children, experience joy, and suffer. Nowhere else do all these experiences happen under the same roof. A house should give us a sense of intimacy, pride, and comfort, but also an identity. I am sure the first person who thought of building a house to protect them from the cold and the wind was trying to create a cocoon. The first gesture related to architecture was to build something like a house. I never built a house ex novo, not even for myself. I’m still dreaming of doing that.  

Is your architectural legacy recognizable such that people can say, “This is Calatrava”?  

I cannot speak about myself in these terms. The work of an architect or an engineer fills you with humbleness. I will give you an example: hundreds of people were necessary to build the PATH station in New York. This building was a result not only of the work, but also of the emotion of all those people who were working, providing the steel, mounting it, welding it, painting it, all that made it possible. Because you need so many people around you to fulfil these tasks, you feel like just one of many. It fills you with pride, but it also shows your limitation, and you are also grateful that you were handed the opportunity to be involved in such an endeavor. More than 40 years of exercising this profession have shown that my career has been an extension of the emotion that I experienced entering Notre-Dame the day I decided to become an architect. That satisfies me, even to this day.  

I am personally grateful to you because when I travel by train between Rome and Milan via Reggio Emilia my attention is always drawn to the Calatrava bridges and Calatrava station.  

Reggio Emilia is a very special place in that it is close to cities like Bologna, Parma, and Mantova. There you feel the ancient cultural roots of this part of the world. The project for Reggio Emilia was only possible because the citizens decided to hire me to build the bridges and station, so their city could deliver a welcoming message to those entering or passing by. I have arrived at the conclusion that there is no good building without a good client, and Reggio Emilia is certainly a proof of it.

Thank you Santiago Calatrava.