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Thursday, May 29, 2008

The architecture of Santiago Calatrava

A few weeks ago I visited Chicago for the first time, and loved its variety of architecture and the ease of viewing the city from its branching river. (You can take an excellent boat tour with an architecture historian.)

Apparently the big story in Chicago architecture now is Santiago Calatrava's Chicago Spire, which will be North America's tallest building at 150 floors -- almost all of them residential.

The design follows most closely Calatrava's "Turning Torso" tower in Malmo, Sweden, so-called because he based it on his abstract sculptures of twisting male torsos. (Read the always-excellent architecture critic Paul Goldberger's piece on the building.)

The sculpture:



The tower:



The lower section of the Chicago Spire will resemble the Turning Torso very closely:



...while the top, originally designed with a separate, thin spire...



...will instead come to a twisting point reminiscent of fractals or occurrences of Fibonacci sequence in natural forms like pine cones:



The tower also, unmistakably and unfortunately (fortunately?) resembles a giant dildo, and 10,000+ Google results think so too:



He's also at work on another apartment building based on another of his sculptures of a torso:



Note the sculpture's clear suggestion of genetalia at the bottom, which was omitted from the tower's design:



This building will be in lower Manhattan, and I bet it'll become iconic -- I hope more so than the disappointingly dull Freedom Tower.

Let's keep going.

In the early 1990s Calatrava designed the "City of Arts and Sciences" in Valencia, Spain. (I've written before that Valencia is one of my favorite places on earth, not least of all because its dry riverbed has been turned into a miles-long park filled with soccer fields, Calatrava's museums, and a playground where kids climb all over a giant, tied-down Lemuel Gulliver.)

Calatrava's eye-shaped building houses the Planetarium for the Museum of Science. This iconic building is called L'Hemisfèric (if that sounds more French than Spanish to you, remember that this the official local language is Valenciano, aka Catalan):




Looking up from the nearby walkway, L'Umbracle (which, like the english umbrella, means something like "provider of shade"), a tree-lined promenade which nicely covers and hides the parking lot beneath it.



As I discovered when I stumbled onto them while chain-smoking my way through Valencia, this building and its environs make for magical strolling. It's hard to get a sense of how nicely the complex nestles in the city's riverbed from all the side view photos. This aerial view from Google Maps gives you some sense of the project's large size, yet perfect fit within the riverbed (the light blue parts are reflecting pools):



Close up, the buildings have design details that surprise me, because they shift at times from the sort of clean utopian industrial look that Calatrava has been making so popular to other, very different forms. For instance, this photo of Calatrava's main museum building reminds me strongly of Gaudi, whose effort to create a Catalunyan style I imagine Calatrava meant to pay homage to:



But not all Calatrava work fits its environment so well. A very recent His Milwaukee Art Museum design is, in my opinion, just the sort of design that looks light and new in renderings but heavy and overwrought and cumbersome in reality, like much of the 1970s architecture scattered around Cambridge, Mass, my hometown.



Inside the building, though, the architecture creates some magical spaces:



I'm also not so hot for the overall look of hisTenerife Opera House in the Canary Islands:



I appreciate the echoing of Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House, but that overhanging leaf (or helmet plume, or Darth Vader chamber hatch) feels forced to me. (Then again, maybe I should shut up until I have the chance to see these in person.)

Whether or not the outside works, again, there is undeniable beauty inside. Here is a shot of the auditorium:



The curtain that is folded above the stage is a semi-solid wall; it borrows on his design eight years earlier of loading doors at the Ernsting Warehouse in Coesfeld, Germany. Here is one of those doors, in three stages of opening:





I appreciate about this, among much of Calatrava's work, that its brilliance is an accessible one that a child could understand, not one that requires justification with theory and verbiage. You can imagine, for example, a child's imagination lighting up at Calatrava's forthcoming (I believe) Woodall Rodgers Extension Bridge in Dallas:



Even when the structure's form is not so easily digestible, this playfulness is present. Below are shots of the Calatrava's Bodegas Ysios in Laguardia, Spain. This is a building about which I cannot pretend to form an opinion without seeing firsthand, which is exciting:




His Oriente Station in Lisbon is thematically similar to the City of Arts and Sciences:



Of his design tropes, I am least interested in the style he used for the Milwaukee Museum, but I think it succeeds in his design of three similar bridges near each other that pass over the Hoofdvaart river in the Netherlands (one is shown here):



He is also using a blend of this sort of spiny motif and the steel arches from the City of Arts and Sciences in his design for the new World Trade Center transportation hub entrance. Mockups make it seem it won't look as good as his signature ribbing at the BCE Place Galeria in Toronto:



If you're interested in seeing other contemporary designs of completed buildings, take a quick look at the excellent page of important new works in architecture put together by Triton College architecture prof Frank Heitzman.

And I can't help but include this design of a Volkswagon prototype, the "Viseo", by Marc Kirsch, which he says was inspired by Calatrava's designs:


Frankly, if a few ripples frozen in aluminum are all it takes to make something an homage to Calatrava, make mine the much-maligned BMW Z4:


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