Santiago Calatrava studied art and architecture in Valencia and pursued a degree in civil engineering at Zurich’s Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH, or Federal Institute of Technology). After graduation, he worked at the ETH’s Institute for Building Statics and Construction and Institute for Plane Statics and Light Construction. In professional practice for just 20 years, he currently has offices in Paris, Zurich, and Valencia, where he works on a number of large-scale architectural projects, on establishing his work as a standard by which later engineering design will be measured, and on winning countless awards including the 1992 Gold Medal of the Institute of Structural Engineers and the 1987 Auguste Perret UIA Prize.
Although Calatrava’s work might be best characterized by the futuristic forms of his famous bridge designs, his oeuvre spreads far beyond the engineering wonders he has built. The architect has written that his motto is “Nature is both mother and teacher,” and this philosophy is reflected clearly in the manipulation of seemingly unnatural materials like concrete that has dominated some of his stronger work. Nearly all of Calatrava’s projects tackle complicated technical issues and are resolved in surprisingly elegant ways. Often inspired by nature, the organic forms that are his solutions leap to new technical heights in a synthesis of light, material, and form.
His most recognizable bridge design might be the Alamillo Bridge (1987–92) in Seville, Spain, spanning 820 feet (250 meters) over the Guadalquivir River. Originally proposed as a twin bridge with a connecting viaduct, the design would cross the river in two locations, approximately 1 mile (1.5 kilometers) apart. The twin bridges were designed so that their tall, inclined masts would reach toward each other, forming an implied triangle that had its apex far above the site. This scheme was ultimately abandoned and adjusted to a single bridge and viaduct, but the inclined mast was retained. The extraordinary weight of the mast (steel filled with concrete) angling back at 58 degrees was enough to support the roadbed without the need for counter-stay cables. This was a first in bridge design, and is a stunning sight. The 1640-foot (500 meter) viaduct served as an entrance gateway for Expo ’92 in Seville, for which Calatrava also designed the Kuwait Pavilion. Typical of Calatrava’s other works, this bridge was designed to seamlessly accommodate pedestrian traffic and connect with motor roads.
The Stadelhofen Station in Zurich presented Calatrava with a unique chance to make a mark on a city. The site the station was to occupy was challenging in that it varied greatly in elevation from end to end and was curved along its length. Other proposals for the station involved roofing over the area and hiding the bulk of the building underground. However, Calatrava saw this as an opportunity to show off the imperfections of the site. The station he designed is left open to reveal the entire workings of the structure to the viewer. Conceived as a collection of bridges, the project took full advantage of the dynamic qualities of the site
Since the early years of the 21st century, Calatrava’s work has become visible in the United States after years of almost exclusively European building. In 2002 his first American bridge was realized at the Turtle Bay Exploration Center in Redding, California, linking different sides of the park with the Sacramento River Trail System. The glass span and decking evoke weightlessness and contribute to a seamless integration into the site. The bridge’s north-leaning mast doubles as a sundial.
The architect’s largest United States commission to date will be the Oakland Cathedral (Oakland, California). Begun in November of 2000, Calatrava’s design (not yet completed) will have movable glass-and-steel sections evocative of a pair of praying hands with the capability of opening skyward. Calatrava’s other notable American commission—and the first to be completed in the States—was the Milwaukee Art Museum expansion (May 2001). The ingenious riverfront concrete and steel structure is topped with glass “fins” that open and close depending on exterior light; the architect has likened its movement to a bird in flight. A pedestrian bridge links the city to the museum and the landscaped shore of Lake Michigan. In the Milwaukee Museum building, Calatrava’s affinity for Finnish-born Eero Saarinen’s work (namely the curvilinear TWA [Trans World Airline] terminal at John F.Kennedy Airport) as an Expressionist modernist aesthetic is clear.