Claims run high for architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava--it has even been said that in the last decade or so he has transformed the urban landscape of Europe with his bridges, train stations, cultural buildings and communications towers.
In symbolic terms, this claim is not entirely far-fetched. Once you have seen one of his structures, you do not forget it. The neighborhoods they are built in and even whole cities seize upon these functional objects as icons of civic pride, for they are a rare combination of visual panache and elegant engineering.
The cosmopolitan Calatrava, 47, born in Valencia, Spain, maintains his headquarters in Zurich, with offices in Paris and in his hometown. As a youth, just out of secondary school, he seriously considered becoming an artist before deciding that architects could be artists, too.
Then, while completing his architecture degree in Valencia, Calatrava discovered that architects in the modern world rely a great deal on engineers to get certain things done. Shortly after graduation, he was off to Zurich and the renowned Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Albert Einstein's alma mater). There, he was awarded a degree in civil engineering and then a PhD in technical science, with a doctoral thesis titled "Concerning the Foldability of Space Frames."
The man was not destined to become a theoretician--he loved making things too much. Shortly after gaining his advanced degree in 1981, Calatrava opened a tiny office in Zurich, working on small architectural commissions and making sculptures that would be exhibited in the city's commercial galleries. The pattern thus was set--in Calatrava's mature work it is hard to separate the elements of art, architecture and engineering.
Calatrava's period of small projects--school roofs, bus stop shelters and the like--did not last long. By the end of the decade he already had designed a number of the projects that, when finished in the early '90s, would establish his professional identity and reputation.
The year 1992 was particularly important, for Calatrava had designed several major structures (and minor ones) in both Barcelona and Seville, sites of the Olympics and a world's fair, respectively. The world came and saw. Calatrava conquered.
In Barcelona, the communications tower designed by Calatrava atop Montjuic hill, site of the principal Olympic stadiums, was the most unforgettable architectural hit of the 1992 Games. An abstraction inspired by the form of a kneeling human bearing an arc with open arms, the 400-foot tower commanded a long field with humanistic grace and sci-fi excitement.
In Seville, the Alamillo Bridge, a suspension structure with the tautness of a giant stringed instrument, won many a heart, and the concrete Cartuja Viaduct seemed as if it were hurdling over the flat land. On the Expo '92 fairgrounds, Calatrava's Kuwaiti pavilion, its roof made of steel struts that unfolded like human fingers or flower petals, was a source of surprise and delight.
For all of their structural elegance and drama, Calatrava's structures do not always stand proud and free. Many of his most lyrically engineered pieces--a railroad station in Zurich, for example, or a towering canopy in downtown Toronto--successfully engage historical context and local conditions.
CAPTION: Calatrava's design for the Lyon-Satolas Airport railway station in France: A knack for structural elegance and drama.