December 30, 2005

Go Figure

Turning Torso in Malmö, Sweden

The Architect in His Own Words: Santiago Calatrava  

Following the opening of Santiago Calatrava's exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Contributing Editor, Hilary Lewis, sat down with the architect at his private residence in Manhattan.  Surrounded by sculptures and drawings of his own design, Calatrava spoke about the importance of housing, figurative art and new ideas in architecture for the 21st century.

HL:  Let’s start off by talking about your recent residential projects, your proposed building in Chicago, your housing block in Malmö, Sweden, Turning Torso, and the project in process in New York, 80 South Street

At what stage is the Chicago project? 

SC:  We are in the beginning.  We have produced a beautiful idea.  We are polishing it.  We are working on it.  I am very much interested in making a beautiful building in the wonderful city of Chicago. We have been doing all the physical studies, for stability and wind.   So we are trying to push ahead.

HL:  Is designing housing very different from designing other types of buildings?

SC:  I think if you look at the type of buildings I am doing now, most of them are public buildings – stations, bridges or museums, or, buildings dedicated to music.  What is important to me is that I approach each with curiosity and without prejudice.  For example, I started the Transit Station at Ground Zero without prejudging the program for a transit building.  The process is the same for housing projects. 

Among all the exercises an architect can do, the most intimate is housing.  Because in a house you sleep, you wash yourself, you are with your family.  It's the project where an architect can get closest to a person, so housing projects are extremely exciting.  They are also very challenging.  There are some great successes.  I think of housing projects by Frank Lloyd Wright and other great architects who have produced wonderful housing.

The quality of my client in Malmö was very high, one of the oldest developers in Europe with more than 125 years of developing.  Maybe 25% of the housing in Sweden has been built by them.  So I thought this would be a very good client with whom it would be easy to do something exceptional.

These are rental apartments.  A variety of units are included, from a studio of 600 square feet to an apartment of almost 2,000 square feet. Many different types of people and families can live there.  In housing like Malmö, there is something for everybody.   After one week, the developer had rented all of them, and today they have more than 300 people in waiting list.

We are in a very special moment; we are living the first years of the 21st century, a new century, brand-new. The 19th century, was very different from the 20th.  So will be this new period.  There is an ambience in the air, you know what I mean?  It’s a feeling, in my opinion, of optimism, of hope, but also of challenge.  You want to determine in what direction things will go.  This is the challenge of working on housing, and the apartment house in particular.  How do you give them a new look, completely new?

HL:  Interesting.  It's a tough challenge, though, because people tend to have a very fixed idea of what’s appropriate for housing, more so than they would, let’s say, for a library or other public buildings.

SC:  Also because housing is not only about the image that people get about you, but more important, it is the image you produce for yourself.

HL:  Are you influenced by living part-time in America?

SC:  The States are very much a country of our time.   In America, diversity is the norm. If there is something that fascinates me about the States and about New York in particular, it is that walking in the street you see our time.  You may or may not like it, but it is 100% what we are.  If you walk in European cities, you see testimonies to the past.  The buildings go back centuries; you can even find parts of the city from the Middle Ages.

It is necessary to create an architecture that delivers utility and also a sense of identity.  It is easier to get this in a single family house, because you can almost choose from a catalogue. You can live in a French castle from Burgundy or you can choose a classical home.

HL: Many American suburbs have streets that contain such examples -- all next to each other.

SC:  Well, many people find their identities this way, so it’s okay. But as soon as you go into an apartment block, it is more difficult to find identity for yourself, particularly in social housing.  Think of what some of the façades look like with air condition units outside.  The result is a building that looks extremely impersonal.

If you compare apartment blocks with small houses, where one is painted blue, the other painted red, the other with a porch, the other without a porch, you see how much people express themselves with houses, but they usually cannot in large apartment buildings.

HL:  So what can you do to give a personal connection to apartment dwellers?

SC:  You need to be able to say, “I live in this particular corner of this house, in this particular part.”  In 80 South Street, the inhabitants will be able to say, “I live in this cube, or in this other cube.”  The architecture makes it possible.

HL:  Yes, you'll be able to point and say, “That’s mine.”

SC:  Yes. “I am in this part of the building.” Which it is like saying, “In the city, I am living on this block between these two avenues.”

HL:  That's precisely the New York concept where neighborhoods are defined by specific blocks.

SC:  We are a growing population, so the problem of housing, our cities and the comfort of living are tremendous in architecture.  Not only in a wealthy society, like America, but also, in very poor areas of the world. 

So I think it is very important also for architects to look at and learn from cities like New York or Los Angeles, where big cities work, but also to solve problems in cities like Bombay or Calcutta, which are tremendous cities, enormous, with huge populations, and a lot of poverty.  An effort should be made to deliver hope and increase the comfort to all those people.  Our profession has inherited this challenge -- the problem of housing and living in all cities.

HL:  The building you did in Malmö is spectacular.  It would be spectacular anywhere. But was there something about the local conditions that influenced the design?

SC:  Yes.  We live in an era of globalization.  We build in steel here and we also build in steel in Malmö.  We build with concrete here and we also build almost with the same concrete in Malmö.  But the cultural circumstances are a bit different, so each one of the projects can be made for its place.  For example, Malmö used to have a tremendous icon – a product of the Industrial age – a great shipyard crane that had been dismantled.  So creating a very tall structure in this area made sense.  The people of Malmö were accustomed to recognizing the profile of their city with a tremendous crane -- very, very high and white.  In a way we are substituting – virtually -- in the mind of the people, this industrial sign with a living sign, a place where you not only can live but also work.  Part of the tower is reserved for offices.  It is mixed-use.

HL:  Let's speak about your project in New York.  When will 80 South Street be completed?

SC:  We want to start construction early in 2006.  I think it will take about two to three years until it is finished. 

One of the most outstanding cultural contributions of New York as a city is that it became a global piece of art through its skyline -- unbelievable.  Viewing it from Brooklyn or Queens, or flying over New York and into La Guardia, it is really something, a forest of skyscrapers, big and tall and ugly and beautiful, but all together they make a piece of art.  

HL:  Art is the basis for your architecture, isn't it?

SC:   I started in an art school.  All my life -- since I was a kid -- I wanted to be a painter or a sculptor.  And then I became an architect.  I like -- and love – architecture.  Later on I got even deeper into the material part of the architecture, engineering and such.  I received a PhD in the mechanics of structures.  Architecture synthesizes everything.

HL:  The “mother of all the arts.”

SC:  Exactly, “mother of all the arts.” And the secret is, in my opinion, that you can penetrate architecture -- enter it -- which you cannot do in sculpture.  Of course, in some sculpture you can, Alexander Calder, for example, or Henry Moore.

HL:  Or Richard Serra, perhaps?

SC:  Serra, the most.  In my opinion, Serra has the heart and soul of an architect.

Of course, without function, there is no architecture, you understand?  When you visit ruins, the feeling, the soul of the architecture is there, but no function. So you cannot say that ruins are architecture -- ruins are ruins.  But they have this enormous soul, and they touch us, and they move us.  So you get this kind of experience…you're penetrating a world that isn’t functional.  But still, these things have a presence.

HL:  An interesting aspect of your architecture is that you incorporate representation in your work.  Your buildings have anthropomorphic qualities.

SC:  The anthropomorphic is important.  I like to approach architecture like that.

Look at the work of an artist like Pablo Picasso.  All his life he was figurative.  Even when he was Cubist, he was still figurative.  He painted faces of people, still-life and birds, whatever.  It is unbelievable what he painted, very dramatic.

So my school -- my teachers, my idols -- has been artists from Cezanne to Picasso.  Look at Matisse.  The figurative -- the behavior of people or other living things -- is in his soul and has been the source of inspiration.

HL:  How does this factor into the design for 80 South Street?

SC:  Even these cubes [pointing to a sculpture that inspired 80 South Street] are an abstraction of the behavior of the human torso.  The structure came from my looking at my first child, Rafael, when he was a baby.  He had those cubes that little children play with.  I started making my first sculpture by using his cubes, but also by watching him and how he tried to stand -- how difficult it was for him to stand upright.  These things are deeply related to the human figure. The man is the measure of everything, or as Michelangelo used to say, “Architecture depends on the human body.” 

I believe that the human body is deeply, deeply, connected to the sense of a building, which first of all has to be functional.  I mean, it has to function.  It has to be related to the person for which you design.  It’s essential.  I can't help but think, “Why do we stand up?”  Because I see that in my child, it’s not easy to do.  To stand up, the child’s muscles must work to balance him.  So this idea is a basic idea. 

My work, first of all, is a personal interpretation.

Originally published in HOME Miami and HOME Fort Lauderdale in 2005. Text and image by Hilary Lewis.

Copyright 2014 Hilary Lewis. All rights reserved. Please see Authors Guild for more info on Lewis.