I was going through my notes and came across some scribbles dated from 18/10/2007. It was the day we three brothers gathered together at the concrete institute in London to listen to Calatrava speak.
The crowds gathered to hear this man for a very good reason – he has sculpted some of the most fascinating structures of the last couple of decades. At this presentation, Calatrava himself presented his design philosophy and several case studies of his own work.
Firstly, Calatrava praised the properties of Concrete for the freedom they bring in developing his forms. The word itself in Spanish “hormigon” means “with form”. It can take any shape, it is very humble, it has texture and natural pigmentation ranging from grey to brilliant white. It is also is extremely economical. It is not surprising that such praises should be sung at a presentation given at the concrete institute. However, his works do back up such claims.
One of his works is the La Rioja, Bodegas Ysios in Laguardia, Álava, Spain (below). This winery fits seamlessly into its surroundings. Indeed Calatrava is quoted to have said during the talk that he sees no difference between Engineerign and Landscape. Concrete allowed for such a dynamic form to be adopted, and no doubt offered the necessary thermal mass for the strict climatic conditions required for the wine making process.
Another building mentioned was his “twisting torso”, or the HSB Turning Torso building in Malmo Sweden (below). The building was to provide a symbol for the city, replacing the crane used for shipbuilding that used to sit near the current site. Calatrava makes no secret of the analogy between his building and anatomical form. Being both a Sculptor and an Engineer, his forms are grounded on solid structural logic - in this case deriving inspiration from the human spine. With all this structural integrity, elegance in form is still retained. This is extremely well summed up in this quote from the New Yorker: “Louis Kahn once referred to the Seagram Building as a beautiful lady with hidden corsets, because its bracing was tucked behind Mies van der Rohe’s exquisite façade; Calatrava’s lady has confidently removed her dress.”
The twisting torso concept started as a sculpture, and was then adapted to a high-rise building under the encouragement of the developer – even though Calatrava never built one before in his life! Indeed Calatrava enjoys much popularity amongst developers, often being the one holding the cards rather than the other way around.
However, this similarty between his sculptures and his buildings is not with out contention. He is often criticized for this over emphasis of what the building looks like from afar rather than from within. The twisting torso is no exception - no wall is straight and no window vertical. This is also extremely unconventional for a highrise building, where assurance of its static stability has traditionally been the focus. Another breach of convention is in his architectural emphasis. Most architects focus on how the high-rise building meets the floor, or meets the sky. To Calatrava it’s what’s in the middle that counts, with an emphasis on the design along the whole of its length. Can a human sized sculpture truly be scaled to hundreds of meters of tower? Is the spine, designed for flexibilty and motion truly a sound structural model for a static highrise? Perhaps such non-conformities can be forgiven in the light of such sculptural genius?
The last building of considerable note from the talk is that of the Chicago Spire. Only a proposal to date, the spire will be the tallest residential building in America, featuring a slender twisting design. The slenderness of the tower provides grounds for a more romantic interpretation of the skyline than the bulkier buildings that have dominated to date. Indeed, the New Yorker claims “Calatrava is both a romantic and a rationalist, and his gift lies in his ability to find equilibrium between these two poles.”