The dynamic architecture of Santiago Calatrava is defined by spires, sails and wings. Spiked bridges call to mind the elongated neck of an egret. An opera house on a remote vacation island mimics a wave crashing to shore. A celebrated expansion of the Milwaukee Museum of Art resembles a giant bird taking flight.
Next week, billions of television viewers will catch glimpses of Calatrava's newest work, a soaring confection of sea-blue polycarbonate and steel to shade the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Design renderings have suggested a futuristic insect. But the definitive iconic image will come from the camera of Washington architectural photographer Alan Karchmer.
Karchmer has been given the enviable task of creating an archival record of Calatrava's finished works. The 4-by-5-inch views he frames in an Arca Swiss camera will appear in books and magazines, as well as during the architect's lectures. Karchmer's lens will become the world's window on a remarkable design phenomenon.
Calatrava is both architect and engineer. Over two decades from an office in Zurich, he has crafted a reputation for elegantly expressive bridges, railway stations, cultural complexes and even a winery in his native Spain. Still to come is an airy, winged glass-and-steel commuter train terminal at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. A design for a symphony hall in Atlanta is in the works. A residential tower of cantilevered cubes has been proposed for Manhattan.
The romantically named Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay opened July 4 in Redding, Calif. It is Calatrava's second completed work in this country, after the Milwaukee museum. (The bridge commission came first, but took 10 years and $23.5 million to complete.) Calatrava's design is the gateway to the city's new river park and museum, which has a notable collection of Ansel Adams photographs.
Last week, Karchmer and his wife, Sandra Benedum, braved 108-degree heat in the northern California woods to capture the steely white brilliance of the bridge. The dominant structure is a mast 217 feet tall, which anchors cables supporting a 700-foot span over the Sacramento River. The walkway is made of translucent glass to cast minimal shadow on a prized salmon run. The spire acts as a fairly precise sundial on the day of the summer solstice, its shadow moving a foot or so a minute. Earlier in the summer, Karchmer headed for the Netherlands to document three delicate canal bridges, each with a spindle and cables inspired by musical instruments. After the completion last year of the Auditorio de Tenerife, the photographer spent a week in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, striving to convey the drama of Calatrava's sculptural concrete. From a distance, the structure resembles a monumental dollop of meringue. In Karchmer's signature shot, a stormy sky hints at offshore winds that appear to have blown the building into its distinctive shape.
"Some force takes over," he says. "It's like a dance. You discover a vignette of the experience, or a part of these structures that you want to distill into a photograph."
Karchmer, who has a master's degree in architecture, says he "bonded" with Calatrava's work more than a decade ago. The architect returned the favor with a series of commissions after seeing Karchmer's photographs of the Milwaukee museum expansion, a project hailed by some critics as the best design of 2001. The series on Karchmer's Web site, alankarchmer.com, shows a swirl of a structure topped by a sun shade, which opens and closes like an animated Winged Victory at the edge of Lake Michigan.
Karchmer claims no building as a favorite but expresses admiration for Calatrava's "pure iconic form." With each project, he says, "what I am coming to appreciate is the individuality."
For the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Calatrava has undertaken a major redesign and upgrade of an existing sports complex. Completed projects include a glass cover over the Velodrome, a tower to hold the Olympic flame, a steel-and-concrete curtain to serve as a giant projection screen, a spectacular arcing covered passageway and an agora for gatherings in front of the stadium. The stadium's dazzlingly complex roof proved to be a heart-stopper for organizers. Only in June were the two 9,000-ton leaf-shaped sections slid slowly into place. Yesterday, a New York spokeswoman for Calatrava said that landscaping of the complex has yet to be finished, but no construction "cliffhangers" remain among the architect's assigned projects.
For Karchmer, there was no possibility of formal photography of the stadium before the Games. and there will be too much commotion during them. So he has scheduled a shoot in October. He will be photographing a structure that may be as important to the image of modern Athens as the Parthenon is to its history. But lofty comparisons do not bother him.
Calatrava's buildings "have a presence," Karchmer says. "You know they're something special. I'll take you as close as I can."