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Santiago Calatrava

When buildings move

I've never been a big fan of Santiago Calatrava. His dynamic projects are sometimes beautiful, but most of the time they are egregiously expensive and now they are all starting to look alike. And although it's cool to see parts of buildings move, here in San Antonio we move entire buildings. I happened to see one this morning on my way into work. 

Although I will always think of it as the old tilting Liberty Bar (even though that particular establishment moved out in 2010), the 1891 Boehler House is currently undergoing an extensive restoration that includes replacing its foundation. How do you replace the foundation of a 120-year-old building? Apparently you put it on rails, move it to an adjacent parking lot and then move it back.

We've been doing this sort of thing here for a long time. Eat your heart out, Calatrava.

Poor Calatrava

image courtesy the author

Santiago Calatrava buildings make for exquisitely beautiful photographs. The purity of the white forms contrasted against the blue of the sky is stunning and his expressively approach to structure is nothing if not sexy.  There for a while it seemed like every major city was clamoring to get a piece of the action.  Dallas even ordered three of his bridges to prove how awesome it is (so far, they’ve only managed to build one of them).

But a recent New York Times article paints a rather unflattering picture of Calatrava’s operation from a service standpoint.  Although his projects may be beautiful they are egregiously expensive, often costing many times more than what their original budget allowed while containing technical flaws that later required expensive remedies.

I do not doubt the truth of this reporting – stories of this sort of thing have accompanied the handful of Calatrava projects I’ve experienced in person.  My take is the Calatrava is a compelling teller of fantastical tales.  His story is that if we rationally express structure and function, it will look like his pristine and futuristic forms.

But reality is usually a whole lot more messy than his stories would lead us to believe and one’s suspension of disbelief is broken whenever the “purity” of his approach collides with the reality of a building code or life-safety requirement.

Don’t get me wrong, Clatrava does what he does remarkably well, but it comes at a cost.  So long as clients are willing to pay that price, I see no issue with what he does.  But to the extent that he propogates the impression that architects design expensive pretty things of only limited relevance, it could be argued that Calatrava hurts the profession.