Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Building a perception of invisible forces
One man overtly unmoved by stasis as a compositional regime is legendary Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava. Subject of an SBS doco, Calatrava is celebrated for his winged and swooping forms. It’s not sculpture, although he does that too, for fun, in the garden of his Zurich villa and is inclined to think of his buildings as habitable artworks (what architect doesn’t?). Calatrava’s buildings are mostly massive infrastructure-type projects bridges, airports, railway stations throughout Europe and America.
He is interested in change. Not motion per se, but the transition between motion and stasis. “I’ve never been interested in pure movement,” says Calatrava, “or pure stability, but in the unstable. And so I move between the two disciplines and explore the interface between them. I have found this to be very productive.” Run-of-the-mill, coming from an artist, but an engineer?
Then again Calatrava, who keeps a skeleton in the living room to let his children “know themselves better” and watercolours sketch after sketch of human form-in-motion studies as a means of structural design, is no ordinary engineer. Having studied architecture in Valencia, he produced his first sculpture as an engineering student in Zurich, suspending half a dozen floodlit swimmers and 20 tonnes of water in plastic wrapping inside a slender cable net.
It’s all about bodies; our bodies as analogues of the rest, especially buildings, and the forces that condition them. The defining insight from studying architecture, recollects Calatrava with Corbusian overtones, was the new perception of mundane objects tree, lintel, door in terms of one’s own body. His engineering studies, specialising in foldable space-frames, extended this perception to accommodate force. Even now, at 51, he is suddenly awestruck by the strength, movement and expressive capacity of, say, the human arm.
Forces, the “products of mass and acceleration”, are invisible but without them our lives would be unrecognisable and even unlivable.
“We must see these forces as paralysed movements,” says Calatrava, “rigid, frozen movements … it’s important to treat those forces as a material you can work with, which you can guide and direct, which can be controlled and can be conducted gently into the Earth”.
And control is of the essence. Calatrava’s remarkable forms, however expressionistic, are shaped by geometry and structure; about as far from will or whimsy as can be. Many of his best-known works like the French TGV airport and rail station at Satolas-Lyons and Bilbao’s Sondica airport are motion in freeze-frame. Lately, though, Calatrava has begun to flirt more boldly with “the idea that a building can change, like a blossom or a tree, from season to season or from hour to hour”.
His Milwaukee Art Museum, winner of Times Best Design of the Year award for 2001, has a ribbed roof that unfurls from cone to condor-position, poised for prey. Fanciful it may be; expensive, unnecessary. But it has sure got the edge on a concrete office building.
Santiago Calatrava’s Travels screens Sunday on SBS at 9.35pm.