Is Santiago Calatrava overrated?

Is Santiago Calatrava overrated?

Is Santiago Calatrava overrated?

What we build.
Oct. 26 2005 6:57 AM

Let's Do the Twist

Is Ground Zero's architectural superstar all he's cracked up to be?

The Turning Torso tower
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The Turning Torso tower

Most visitors to Malmö, Sweden, catch their first glimpse of Santiago Calatrava's Turning Torso as they cross the magnificent Oresund Bridge, which links Sweden to Denmark. You can hardly miss the 54-story high-rise since it stands in a flat landscape with no other tall building in sight. The apartment tower consists of nine cubes that are torqued, or twisted, through 90 degrees from top to bottom. It's a vertical exclamation point to the bridge's monumental five-mile length.

Calatrava is having a very good year. The American Institute of Architects has awarded him its Gold Medal for 2005; a show of his buildings and sculptures has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum; and work has commenced on his kinetic World Trade Center Transit Hub, which promises to be the best—and for a long time perhaps the only—building at Ground Zero. The hub is vintage Calatrava, the kind of poetic long-span structure for which he first became famous. But in the last five years he has greatly broadened his repertoire, completing a number of striking cultural buildings: the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, an expansion to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and an opera house in the Canary Islands. And now in Malmö, his first skyscraper is nearing completion.

Not so pretty up close
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Not so pretty up close
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Approaching the tower, I was reminded of another tall building, Norman Foster's Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters. The two share a matte monochrome coloring (in Calatrava's case taupe, rather than Foster's battleship gray), and purposeful, bridgelike struts that crisscross the facade. But where Foster's bank headquarters is all business, Calatrava's apartment building is more fanciful. The torqued design is an enlargement of his 1991 steel and marble sculpture, Twisting Torso. An exposed structural "spine" on one side of the building reinforces the anthropomorphic analogy.

Turning Torso stands in a new residential district in Malmö's Western Harbor, surrounded by five- and six-story apartment buildings. From a distance, the tower interestingly changes shape as one moves around it, sometimes appearing bowed, sometimes skewed, sometimes alarmingly top-heavy. Unlike the great Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, whose inspired structures were always grounded in rational construction, Calatrava can play fast and loose with engineering. The 630-foot tower doesn't taper as it rises, which is consistent with his ongoing interest in challenging gravity, but the contortionist shape appears even more massive than it actually is, producing from certain angles an uncomfortable sense of Escher-like instability.

Close-up, Turning Torso is a disappointment. It's as if, having made his big architectural move—the twist—Calatrava wasn't sure what to do. The steel and glass curtain walls are banal. The twisting produces trapezoidal-shaped windows that are distinctly odd (and must be weirder still on the interior). An interminable line of circular windows—portholes?—looks like a fugitive from an art deco night club. As for the structural spine, it appears pinned to the building and is much too flimsy, coming across as a sort of orthopedic back brace.

Calatrava’s design for the World Transportation Hub
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Calatrava's design for the World Transportation Hub

The unsatisfactory design of Turning Torso raises questions about the future direction of Calatrava's career. He has been widely praised for his lyrical structures, which has given him the confidence to tackle more complicated buildings. Yet theatrical structures can only carry an architect so far. A bridge or a stadium roof is required to perform a single dramatic task; a tall apartment building, on the other hand, must fulfill a host of functions, large and small: landmark, urban neighbor, home. If Calatrava is to expand his oeuvre successfully, he will have to deepen his range as a designer considerably. God, as Mies van der Rohe famously said, is in the details.