Sunday 17 May 2009

Curves of steel

PROFILE SANTIAGO CALATRAVA: IS IT A harp? Is it a sail? No, it’s a bridge. And, having battled high winds to cross seas and head up the Liffey to its final resting place, the Beckett Bridge’s arrival this week means that Dublin’s docklands is finally landing some of the international starchitect-designed structures it has been fishing for, writes EMMA CULLINAN

This is just the start for the city. The new bridge will be followed by an undulating Future Systems-designed Luas bridge; a lean-to conference centre by Irish-born, US-based architect Kevin Roche; and a bendy, deconstructed theatre by Daniel Libeskind. And maybe, one day, we will have a U2 tower.

The curves in these designs were made possible the day that architects began to drop their pencils, Rotrings and rulers, and logged on to computers in order to bend buildings into the type of blobby shapes that have defined early noughties structures.

The designer of Dublin’s Beckett Bridge, Spanish engineer and architect Santiago Calatrava, might protest at the computer imagery, because he is also a painter and sculptor. “I see architecture as an art. Architecture and sculpture are two rivers in which the same water flows,” Calatrava once said. Now we have two of his sculptural, architectural bridges under which the Liffey flows: Calatrava also designed the James Joyce bridge, which sits on the west side of Dublin city centre.

We saw the artist at work early in 2008 when he came to Dublin to launch the Chicago Spire, the tallest residential building in the world. He designed this for Irishman Garrett Kelleher of Shelbourne Development. Before his audience in a marquee in Fitzwilliam Square, he drew its shell-like form on the big screen, lest we fail to recognise the symbolism behind the design. This was architecture as showmanship.

He has since filed a lien (a legal claim to part of the property) against the developer, alleging unpaid fees of $11.3 million (€8.3m). He also went to court citing violation of copyright when another architect proposed to adapt his steel-and-glass footbridge in the Spanish city of Bilbao to enable a new building project nearby.

This bridge was near Frank Gehry’s sparkling, undulating art gallery in Bilbao, which set the international trend for “iconic” blobby buildings. Calatrava has built many bridges since then, and has achieved much in his 58 years, especially since he came to architecture relatively late, having first studied architecture and then engineering.

His undoubted talent has been combined with some luck. In 1992 he created the Montjuic Communications tower for the Barcelona Olympics, which enjoyed a lot of small-screen time. He got into bridge design when they were again seen as real architecture, after years in the “functional infrastructure” category. He was ahead of the curve when architectural shapes went into flexi-time.

CALATRAVA WAS born in Valencia, Spain in 1951 and studied drawing and painting from the age of eight before going to architecture college. After getting to grips with aesthetics, he wanted to do the math, and studied civil engineering in Zurich. He met his wife, Robertina Marangoni, there and stayed in the Swiss city while she completed her law course. The couple’s three sons and daughter are pursuing careers in either art, architecture, engineering and law.

While there, in 1982, Calatrava won a competition to design a station, which resulted in his setting up his first office in Zurich. He opened another office in Paris in 1989 when he was commissioned to design Lyon Airport Station. A third office was added in Valencia when he was called home by his native city to design a vast arts and sciences complex (beginning in the late 1990s), made up of museums, galleries and an opera house. This was followed by an office in New York, when he was commissioned to design a station for the Ground Zero site.

This New York design was unveiled recently – after years of design and budget conversations – with Calatrava saying that it was inspired by “a bird being released by a child’s hand”.

Nature has been a huge influence on his design, with people, animals, plants and shells all finding a symbolic place in Calatrava structures (and eco issues are so very now). In his building for the Valencia City of Arts and Sciences, there are structures that look like large dinosaur skeletons, topped with bird beaks, and giant eyes.

Calatrava’s Turning Torso tower in Malmö, Sweden (finished in 2004), is inspired by a male body, and the Barcelona communications tower is based on a human kneeling and making an offering, although the more literal-minded saw it as someone throwing a javelin.

Such zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, botanical and marine shapes work very well because nature both resonates with humans and they also give buildings a storyline.

MANY SUCCESSFUL architects have learned that if a building comes with a simple story, it helps to sell it. As luck would have it, many of the starchitects who are invited to Irish shores are well versed in our history and have a great knowledge of James Joyce. Go and listen to any visiting architect and you can play count-the-minutes until they mention Ulysses. Then you can take bets on which bits of Celtic or Viking history have influenced their design. Foster and Partners have a scheme in Greystones whose layout is inspired by Celtic swirls, while Libeskind’s theatre has incorporated Viking ship imagery.

Calatrava knows the city of Joyce: he used to frequent the same restaurant that Joyce did in Zurich and sat in the same chair as the writer.

Tim Brick, executive manager (engineering) at Dublin City Council, first met Calatrava 12 years ago when he went to Zurich to discuss the Blackhall Place bridge (later named the James Joyce bridge) with him: “He was extremely affable and had an engaging personality right from the beginning of our work together which came as a bit of a surprise because you would imagine someone who is so well known and internationally famous to be austere and distant. He is a very entertaining person; very erudite and an excellent raconteur.”

“He is extraordinarily passionate about his art and work, and very, very committed. He has an interest in Joyce and was very taken by the fact that the bridge at Blackhall Place was directly in front of the building in which Joyce’s story of The Dead is set. It really intrigued him that it was Joyce’s aunt’s house,” says Brick.

Calatrava’s brushes with Ireland date back a long time. He advised on the design of the opening wall of the Ark Building in Temple Bar, by Shane O’Toole and Michael Kelly, in the early 1990s and he came to Ireland 14 years ago to hear a lecture in memory of the great Irish engineer Peter Rice, who worked on the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre.

It’s no wonder that Calatrava admires Rice, as he was another engineer who used structural mathematics to support beauty and innovation. The title of an exhibition of Calatrava’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Sculpture into Architecture , sums up his approach, and Calatrava often talks about combining maths and science with art and emotion.

“He gave a bravura performance at the public inquiry for the Samuel Beckett Bridge that was part of the planning process,” says Brick. “Despite the fact that there were a number of people objecting, and that he was dealing in a foreign language, had never been at a public enquiry in Ireland and was somewhat nervous, he gave a stunning performance. He got a standing ovation which I have never seen at a public enquiry in my life.”

ALTHOUGH Calatrava’s staff are very protective of him, making him appear untouchable, once you do get through to him he comes across as kind and genial and, when I talk to him on the phone to New York, we discuss art, architecture and Ireland but the best chat we have is parent-to-parent, comparing notes on daughters who want to study fashion design and architecture.

Inevitably, with such a large workload, many structures coming from the Calatrava offices look similar to previous work, but then a signature style is inevitable in these circumstances. The James Joyce bridge, on the west side of Dublin, hasn’t really caused the kind of excitement that was probably expected of it when it arrived in 2003. Despite the elegance of much of Calatrava’s work, this looks like it would be happier stretched out over a much wider river.

Creating such soaring elegance above ground can also mean some heavy work behind the scenes. The Beckett Bridge swings open on a pivot that descends into the water and there is talk in Dublin engineering circles of large amounts of lead being hidden on the short side of the bridge to counterbalance the large structure on the other side.

This is not the first harp bridge Calatrava has designed; there’s one in the Netherlands too, but such allegorical design explanations help the public to understand the structures in their midst. Why would architects want to blind people with talk of “a folded, wrapping plane pierced with contrapuntal fenestration offering varying levels of opacity and transparency”, when they can explain their buildings as a rabbit skeleton, a bird of paradise or an upended Newgrange?

Who is he? Spanish-born architect and engineer who made his name with sculptural bridges and zoomorphic buildings.

Why is he in the news? He designed the Samuel Beckett bridge that this week sailed up the Liffey from The Netherlands.

Most appealing trait Making functional structures into something special.

Least appealing trait Sometimes the form is at the expense of function.

Least likely to say “Who cares what it looks like, just make sure it stands up.”

Most likely to say “The Sirens chapter of Ulysses inspired the harp design while I was sitting in Dún Aonghasa contemplating the history of the Celts.”

Irish Times

No comments: