Jan 212014


Santiago Calatrava (b. 1951 in Valencia) seems to be constantly in the news at the moment – unfortunately, not always for the best of reasons.  Indeed, his reputation as possibly Spain’s greatest architect may be under threat.  This is due to a series of problems relating to the quality of construction of some of his projects, together with disgruntlement about significant cost over runs on his projects.  

Of course, Calatrava’s designs are often quite fantastic and few people would deny that his projects are instantly recognisable and are utterly startling in their design.  Often they look like delicate (but massive!), soaring sculptures that can take your breath away.  A good example are the buildings within the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia City, Spain, which seems to be a benchmark for the very best and worst of what Calatrava can do.



The City of Arts and Sciences is a gigantic complex designed by Calatrava that covers some 86 acres of land within the bed of the (diverted) River Turia, which used to flow straight through Valencia City on its way to the sea.  Now, there is a range of buildings and grounds designed by Calatrava that are quite simply awe inspiring.  They include L’Hemisferic (an Imax cinema, planetarium and Laserium), El Museu de les Ciencies Pincipe Felipe (a science museum), L’Umbracle (an area of gardens), l’Oceanografic (a huge aquarium), El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia (an opera house) and El Pont de l’Assut de l’Or (a suspension bridge) and L’Agora (a covered plaza for staging events).

So (justifiably) impressive is the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia that by 2010 it had become the top tourist attraction in Spain.  This is very impressive indeed, given that the whole project was only really finished a couple of years ago (having been started in 1996).  Equally, Spain is not short of world standard tourist attractions (such as the Alhambra, the Prado museum in Madrid, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona etc.) and is second only to Italy for World Heritage Sites.



The trouble is that the City of Arts and Sciences has echoed other projects that Santiago Calatrava has designed, where there have been a massive overrun on costs.  The City of Arts and Sciences project went almost three times over budget, which has enraged many Spaniards – now suffering their worst economic recession in living memory.  Angering them even more has been the fact that Calatrava was paid some 94 million Euros for his work on the City of Arts and Sciences project.  To many Spaniards this was an obscene amount.

However, worse has come and is related to faults to some of the City of Arts and Sciences buildings.  This came to a head recently when parts of the fascia of the opera house started to peel off.  The opera house has had to be closed temporarily and relatively major works will be required to rectify the problem (probably due to differential movement between the structure and the fascia – when suffering temperature changes).



The sad thing is that what has occurred to Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences has also happened to a host of other Calatrava projects, both within Spain and internationally.  Amongst other problem projects, he is facing criticism or litigation over a foot bridge in Venice, the Domecq winery in Añava, a conference centre in Oviedo and, notoriously, a bridge in Burgos which has proved to be an accident black spot for its pedestrians.  Meanwhile, the PATH railway station in New York at Ground Zero is six years overdue and has seen its cost double.

The problem is that Santiago Calatrava seems to prioritise a unique design over functionality, so that some of his projects look terrific but do not really work as intended.  This is strange, given that Calatrava is qualified both as an architect and as an engineer, with the latter profession being notable for its practicality.



Of course, great designers and artists are rarely tethered to reality quite like the normal person in the street (or others in their profession or art) – which is what often gives them their individual and ground breaking styles.  Calatrava seems to fit the mold in this regard and this is probably what makes him so notable (even if his clients are sometimes less than pleased about the unexpected costs involved and any subjugation of functionality over design).

Certainly, Spanish rage over the amount of money received by Calatrava for the City of Arts and Sciences and its huge cost overrun is understandable.  However, it is hard to believe that the contracting process for the work was undertaken properly.  If it had been then the cost overruns should have been minimal (or minimised) by correctly drawn contracts and proper analysis of the proposed designs.  This begs the question of whether clients contracting Calatrava have the ability to properly supervise him and the projects that they want completing.  Or perhaps contracting clients are simply overawed by working with Calatrava and his team?

Certainly, the Valencia Region in Spain is hardly noted for its probity or wisdom, when it comes to spending money, as epitomized by many projects – not the least of which was the farcical building of Castellon international airport (yet to receive a single airplane!). 



Equally, during Spain’s boom, money was no object and no consideration was ever given to the possibility of an economic crisis.  In this regard, the City of Arts and Sciences merely reflected Spain’s new found confidence and power, as one of the greatest economies in the world.  This may have been short lived but is wonderfully illustrated by the City of Arts and Sciences.  Indeed, Calatrava’s designs exactly captured Spain’s mentality (of the time) – that Spain was a First World nation advancing boldly into the 21st Century. 

In any event, few Spaniards could possibly oppose Calatrava’s current position as Spain’s greatest architect and one who will almost certainly have the longest legacy.  Gaudi may be a competitor but it is difficult to imagine his designs being replicated today or in 100 years’ time – whereas designs based upon Calatrava’s work will probably be mimicked, throughout the world, into the next century and well beyond. 

Daring, striking and ultra-modern, Calatrava’s designs epitomise the future and almost invariably have the capacity to raise the very soul of anyone seeing them.  This, surely, is a sign that Calatrava is not just Spain’s greatest architect but a world class architect and someone who is making a positive difference to our lives aesthetically (even if the price tag is often very high!).

Spains greatest ballerina (Tamara Rojo)

Romantic music (Pablo Alborán)

Surrealist art (Joan Miró)

Superb guitarist (Paco de Lucía)

Military hero (El Cid)

Great Spanish rock music (Fito &Fitipaldis)

Flamenco (understanding duende)

Horse riding in Spain (Andalusians)

Spains’ greatest composer (Joaquín Rodrigo)

Stunning building (Alhambra)

Wild life in Spain (the lynx)

Nick Snelling

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  3 Responses to “Santiago Calatrava, Spain’s greatest architect?”

  1. Really interesting article Nick. There’s also the fact that Calatrava pays no tax on his earnings in Spain,since he runs his business from Switzerland. I’m not quite sure what my view is – I like the City of Arts and Sciences, but I’ve also experienced some of the design flaws. The bridge in Bilbao near the Guggenheim becomes treacherously slippy when it rains, which is much of the time in Bilbao! On the whole, I envy Spain for its innovative architecture though. Outside London, we don’t really have that confidence so much in the UK. There’s much more emphasis on preserving the past, whereas Spain has jaw-droppingly beautiful historic buildings but also stunning contemporary showpieces everywhere. Shame about the crumbling Calatravas though – it’s almost a visual metaphor for the country’s economy in recent years. In spite of all that, Valencia is high on my list of potential cities to move to eventually. It was one of those ‘love at first sight’ places.

  2. Elaine, I think you echo my thoughts completely, whether about Calatrava, the cavalier attitude to old buildings in Spain or the stunning nature of Valencia City. However, on the whole, if one can move away from money and functionality (a sore point with some of Calatrava’s designs)!), I rather think that Calatrava has improved our lives with his designs.

  3. Elaine is right about the architectural state of UK, too. Far too much emphasis of preserving every last brick and stone suspected of having the merest whiff of ‘heritage’. The Tamar valley upstream from Cargreen, past Cothele House [NT] and Calstock is, according to a planning officer l spoke to at the time of selling my boatyard “No change will be permitted in that valley. It is set in aspic.”

    A typical response to any proposal that brings change rather than sets the past in concrete [pun intended..] The colossal irony is that the person doing his job 30 years earlier had fought tooth and nail to prevent the boatyard being established! Now it was ‘ a local amenity’ – but was not allowed to expand of change in any way. Nuts

    And ‘love at first sight’ with VLC Me too. What is about VLC that does this? How long have you got? The C of A & S got me all gingered up when l first saw it. About the first shot l did, of the opera house, went straight to the top of the ‘Photo of the Month’ chart of London’s premier professional photography hardware supplier. I am itching to get back to do more, especially night shots. I’ve even bought hardware just for this very project. I’m hooked!

    But other aspects of Spain have held me back from making the move. Politicians of every level seem to regard their own people as suckers and with contempt and foreigners as milch-cows to be squeezed dry.

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