I remember the first time I saw a Santiago Calatrava bridge, a spinal column of calcium-white ribs snaking across a Spanish ravine. "That's cool," I thought. Then, a few years and a few thousand kilometres away, I saw another one. And another one. And another one.
Why did all these cities have similar structures in their urban centres? And what did all these places have to do with dinosaurs? Or serpents? Or fish bones?
Like a species that won't go extinct, Santiago Calatrava's skeletal structures continue to emerge from the impossible primordial goo of his watercolor sketches, slithering their way into our bridges, train stations, and parks at a staggering rate. Without any regard to a city's history or architectural style, they are plopped into the centres of our metropolises like bleached reptilian cadavers.
You can now find Calatrava's bones on five continents — including, most recently, the soon-to-open transit hub at One World Trade.
The problem with Calatrava's work is not only that it so rarely deviates from this abstracted ichthyological theme. It is also that, because of the nature of his projects, they are ceded the most visible real estate in a city. This white bread architecture — and I do mean white bread: it's almost uniformly white — immediately becomes part of a city's skyline.
Yet due to its bland ubiquity, a Calatrava piece is no more distinctive than a chain store situating itself on a city's shore. It's a structural franchise — a kind of architectural Best Buy, one that's catastrophically expensive, doesn't allow returns, and has no real warranty.
Instead of coming up with something relevant to the place, telling a story about what came before or revealing previously overlooked visual details within a city, these structures don't connect with any local authenticity or individuality in these cities. They're not architecture at all, in a sense; they're more like huge pieces of urban jewelry draped over a city's chest, like some crazed husband throwing Bulgari at his wife, hoping it will finally make her love him.
Dublin, Dallas, Buenos Aires, Milwaukee — does it matter? They all get the same thing. He's architecture's Oprah, tossing the same aesthetic upon a shrieking audience over and over: "And YOU get a fish skeleton! And YOU get a fish skeleton! And YOU get a fish skeleton!"
Not all the blame can be pinned on Calatrava. This choice is also incredibly lazy from an urban standpoint. If you were a city, would you want one of these whitewashed cages strung across your river? Would you want the same thing that literally every other city has?
But part of the issue is that it's just so easy to choose Calatrava for your project. His work is so visible, and found in so many places already, that cities think it's Something They Also Need to help them revitalize a downtown or stand out in the geopolitical sphere.
Cities mistake this formal language of dino bone necklaces as architectural greatness‚ when they should be worrying about functional quality for their citizens.
Case in point: Even Venice, Italy, has been conned into its own Skeletor Bridge, the first bridge to be built in the city in 75 years. Here, Calatrava decided on a garish creature which not only has the audacity to arc, cobra-like, over the Grand Canal, it lights up like a freaking Vegas casino.
Locals protested the bridge, and they had every right to be alarmed: in addition to being an eyesore, it also doesn't work — on a rainy day, those illuminated glass panels are slippery as hell.
Rendering for the transit hub at One World Trade in Lower Manhattan
Which brings me to another point. It would be fine if Calatrava's boneyards were simply vanilla blight on the urban landscape — if each city wants to look exactly the same as everyone else, so be it; they obviously know what they're getting.
But these structures are also a mess, structurally and financially. Remember that part I said about no refunds and no warranties?
"Clunky fixtures and some rough workmanship in the underground mezzanine of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, a small part of which opened last week, detract from what is meant to be breathtaking grandeur," wrote David W. Dunlap in The New York Times last week. Joints aren't flush and ceiling panels are buckling. And the lighting, which was meant to be recessed in the beams, is now awkwardly clinging to their sides, like "albino garden slugs."
Also? It's not even open yet and it is likely the most expensive transportation hub in the world. So far it has cost $US3.9 billion dollars.
This isn't the only example of Calatrava's shortcomings. Severe structural issues have also plagued his Palau des Les Artes building in Valencia, Spain — which is not so much a vertebra as it is an angry fish skull — and his Ysios winery in northern Spain. And his city hall in Ovedio, Spain. He's being sued for all three of those projects because of their inadequacies. Many of his bridges have also been subject to lawsuits, complaints and protests, like one in Bilbao called the "wipe-out bridge", because of the number of people who have slipped on the tiles (which, apparently, the city must spend thousands of dollars a year to replace).
In fact, there is an entire site, The Full Calatrava, uniquely devoted to chronicling the various legal, financial and political dramas that his structures have wrought upon local governments.
Why we chose Calatrava to design the most high-profile transit station in the country is one of the most disheartening elements of the rebuilt World Trade site. Instead of picking a revolutionary designer to come up with something unique, we got suckered into a one-trick pony scam that has made what is supposed to be a showcase of American innovation look just like any other place on earth. And now it seems we are going to pay the same price that those cities have paid — in ongoing repair work and outrageous maintenance fees.
We deserve better than albino garden slugs clumsily ambling along a stegosaurus carcass.
Calatrava is really an artist, and he's a great one. He may have an engineering degree, but that doesn't translate to great — or even functional! — structures. If you want to hire him to throw together a giant chest cavity for your suburban office park, go for it. But he has no business designing these critical elements of our civic infrastructure. These are the hearts and souls of our cities, and should be signature designs that come from our own stories and ideas, not Calatrava's catalogue of dead, stinky fish.