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American Architects Honor A Man of Grand Designs

After completing his architectural training in Valencia, including a graduate degree in urban planning, Calatrava left Spain the year Franco died to study civil engineering at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. He received his PhD in 1979. The result of his study was no ordinary, knock-it-out PhD thesis.

Rather, it was an innovative investigation, titled "On the Foldability of Space Frames." Calatrava's work followed up systematically on NASA research and other studies of complex, three-dimensional structures that could, in the taut description of Alexander Tzonis, a professor of architectural theory, "change from one shape into another without changing the way the pieces were joined together."


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


Tzonis persuasively argues, in the just published "Santiago Calatrava: The Complete Works" (Rizzoli, $75), that "Calatrava's analytical study was carried out in deliberate preparation for his subsequent creative work, part of his lifelong 'patient research,' as Le Corbusier once put it."

That is to say, buildings are normally stable. Calatrava decided to make them move. Specifically, then, the transformation of the white painted steel pavilion that is part of Calatrava's 2001 expansion of the Milwaukee Art Museum was due, in no small measure, to the analytical work the young student engineer did 20 years before. The building, with its conical roof, faces Lake Michigan. Gradually, within a few minutes, its 72 white-painted steel fins can rise with rhythmic precision to become two magnificent wings, poised as if for flight over the immense body of water.

The transformation is magical, spirit-lifting. Something similar is hoped for, or perhaps even expected of, the architect's winged 2003 design for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub near Ground Zero in New York.

Whether they move or stand still, Calatrava's buildings and bridges always are designed to elicit emotional reactions, to move the people who see them and use them. Thus, his designs can surprise a viewer with subtle references to the human body: The supporting structures of a Zurich train station he designed resemble the stretch of a human hand. Or they can astonish with references to creatures a viewer can't readily identify: With its long swooping beak and movable wings, the design of the Atlanta Symphony Center, unveiled this week, appears to fall in this surrealistic category. (As did his 1999 submission to the competition for an addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.)

Calatrava's buildings and bridges are always unusual in their combinations of architecture, engineering and artistic imagination. They're always unforgettable, too.

I remember my first encounter, in 1992, as if it happened two minutes ago: The sublime Alamillo Bridge in Seville, spanning the Guadalquivir River with the grace of a heavenly stringed instrument. I knew right away I was in the presence of a powerful new design force. That same day I learned its name: Santiago Calatrava.


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