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American Architects Honor A Man of Grand Designs

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page C01

Santiago Calatrava defies classification.

He is an architect who has transformed our awareness of engineering, giving memorable form to its functions of making structures stable and holding them up.

The reverse is also true. Calatrava is an engineer who has greatly intensified our recognition of architecture's ability to astound us, please us and make us think.

Santiago Calatrava's expansion of the Milwaukee Art Museum has moving parts that resemble wings. (Alan Karchmer -- Esto)

As an artist -- the least known facet of his work -- he has produced thousands of watercolor and pencil sketches and dozens of sculptures that foretell (and help to explain) his remarkable bridges and buildings.

In other words, the 53-year-old Spaniard compellingly deserves the award he received yesterday at the National Building Museum from the American Institute of Architects. Calatrava is the 61st recipient of the institution's highest honor, its Gold Medal.

Even at his age, Calatrava still deserves to be called a phenom. After all, at 53 most architects with strong personal visions are just beginning to make their presence felt. But Calatrava has accomplished so much in so short a period of time it is hard to comprehend.

He has designed opera houses, museums, stadiums, civic centers, train stations, airports and other types of buildings throughout Europe and in the United States. And bridges. With Calatrava, you cannot forget bridges.

Since 1987, when the first one appeared in Barcelona, Calatrava has designed and built about 40 bridges. More than two bridges a year is a lot even for an ambitious state highway department. For a single artist-architect-engineer, it is a prodigious number, because with Calatrava we are not talking about bridges whose designs have been stamped out according to bureaucratic regulations governing safety, traffic volume and structural strength.

With Calatrava, we're talking about vision, beauty and civic character. There may be certain families of Calatrava bridges -- single-arched or double-arched schemes, or bridges with tilted arches, or single-masted suspension spans. And all Calatrava bridges are elegant in the way they display the mathematical certitudes of their engineering -- their "statics," as he would say.

But in crucial ways every single Calatrava bridge is different from every other one. Each is designed to fit its particular surroundings, with curving roadways or raised sidewalks to match existing streets, or formal (and functional) flourishes to complement nearby hills or buildings or railroad tracks. Then, too, almost every Calatrava bridge I have seen in person or in photographs also has been designed to stand out from its surroundings, to celebrate the fact of connecting one place to another and to dramatize the act of human movement back and forth.

That he can pull off this seemingly contradictory feat of fitting in and standing out at the same time is a testament, I think, not only to Calatrava's extraordinary visual acuity but also to the complexity of his vision. He has the intellect and the talent to resolve differences, and he has the confidence -- rare in our age -- that beauty is its own reward.

"If you go through the history of bridges," Calatrava said in a recent telephone interview, "you will discover that the beauty of a bridge will emerge over time not only from the statics, but also from other attributes, from the way the bridge helps to integrate a city, the way it celebrates the act of crossing, the way it contributes to the proudness of the people in a city. You can go beyond the statical system."

"Going beyond" would be an apt description of Calatrava's whole career. And, at a fairly early age, he planned it that way.

Calatrava is one of that exceptional generation of Spanish intellectuals, artists, planners and architects who were energized by the loosening of the reins of censorship in the later years of the Franco dictatorship, and who, after Franco died in 1975, emerged ready to transform Spain's cities and towns. For Calatrava, however, the territory immediately expanded beyond his native land.

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