Santiago Calatrava: a better bridge designer than an architect

I recently visited Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain.  This huge complex was built in the bed of the river Turia, which was diverted after a devastating flood in 1957.  Shortly after, the riverbed was converted into a park to showcase the work of the Valencia native, Santiago Calatrava.  The park has one of his bridges and his signature egg shell structures of white concrete, steel, and glass for which he is well known. There are several large buildings including the Valencia Opera House, a science museum, a planetarium, and a blue sports center across the bridge called Agora.  Originally the complex was expected to cost $ 375 million dollars but eventually ended up costing the municipality of Valencia an upwards of $ 1.3 Billion dollars.

As you walk through the complex you begin to notice the failures of good site planning and urban design. It becomes obvious that Calatrava is a much better bridge designer than an architect. His bridge shown above is a fine example of the old adage “less is more.”  His bridges both here and in Seville are simple, elegant and a sight to marvel.  Their elegant presence is unobtrusive to its surroundings compared to traditional suspension bridges.  His bridge seems in size and shape to be merely half a traditional suspension bridge; the two pylons are reduced to one. Similarly the catenary arch of the suspension bridge is halved, where cables only extend from one side but still carry the load of the bridge.

Meanwhile his buildings in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia are overworked and out of scale. His buildings overwhelm the park so much so that there is very little green space left.

Calatrava does not show sensitive and restrained use of materials in his buildings the way he does in his bridges.  They are built with concrete, glass, and steel materials that are expensive and difficult to maintain. The white concrete that is used to form the compound curves of the egg shell structures will be expensive to maintain over time. It is likely that these white concrete structures will not age well.

The glass and steel used in these buildings is also made to order and no two pieces match each other.  The municipality would have to go to great lengths to keep an adequate supply of matching glass pieces in stock for repairs.  The cost of maintenance is especially pertinent during a time when Valencia, like so many other cities, is facing financial hardship.

Ultimately, the visit to Calatrava’s City of Arts and Science was a little underwhelming. However, I have to admit his structures look like nothing else I have encountered. Their uniqueness is especially mesmerizing in photographs.

Syed Ahmed

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  1. Monday, yet again… | PlaNYourCity - April 22, 2013

    [...] Poor Santiago Calatrava’s honor has been wounded by claims of shoddy roofs and slippery bridges. This is a shame, his Ysios Winery photographs well and so do his bridges. [...]

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