The Builder of Bridges

The Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa has granted an honorary doctorate in the sciences to Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava, who in recent years has become synonymous with the designing of suspension bridges and buildings inspired by shapes of flora and fauna.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

On Monday, the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa granted an honorary doctorate in the sciences to Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava, who in recent years has become synonymous with the designing of suspension bridges and buildings inspired by shapes of flora and fauna.

The proposal to grant Calatrava an honorary degree was the initiative of the dean of the architecture and town planning department, Prof. Edna Shaviv. Her proposal was approved, she says, without reservations. The granters of the degree said it is: "A sign of recognition of your status as one of the leading architects of our time, and in appreciation of your ability to combine technology and art in elegant designing of buildings and bridges."

Almost the entire facult

y and student body of the department were present for the lecture given by Calatrava in honor of the event, in which he presented a selection of his most recent works, which were increasingly amazing. In the presentation, he flashed pictures of beautiful suspension bridges, shaped like arches or harps, which he is designing all over the world, and awe-inspiring buildings in the shape of an eyelid or a wing or a sail or all them combined - some of the structures are opened and closed by means of hydraulic or pneumatic mechanisms - which have far outgrown their dimensions and seem to have lost any logic of form. In a manner one would not expect of an architect who is also an engineer, his works are not subject to minimalism and are weighed down by an abundance of form bordering on decadence.

As in previous lectures by Calatrava in Israel, those present in the hall were a captive, admiring audience, nonjudgmental, perhaps hypnotized. Otherwise it's hard to explain how they didn't notice and didn't protest the absence of the works most relevant to the Israeli public - the pedestrian bridge that he designed in Petah Tikva, and which is being built now on Jabotinsky Street, and a bridge for the light railway at the entrance to Jerusalem, a controversial project that is arousing strong public opposition, and is in the advanced stages of planning.

In an interview after the lecture, Calatrava said: "Had I known it was relevant, I would have brought slides. But I have already presented the project to the planning committee, and I thought that was sufficient." The architectural world in Israel, which always maintains its doubtful right not to react, seems to have earned the lame explanation honestly.

The day after the lecture, Calatrava had a meeting with Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, who wants to build his own Calatrava bridge in the city. If it is built, it will join about 40 suspension bridges in multiple variations of an asymmetric arch or harp that Calatrava has already designed above various traffic obstacles in Barcelona, Seville, Bilbao, Orleans, Buenos Aires and other cities. At this rate, it looks as though there won't be a bend in a river, an intersection or an expressway in the world without Calatrava's signature logo.

There is no question Calatrava has become a brand name, the McDonald's of the bridge world, a symbol of architectural globalization in a sophisticated and glorified version - his arched bridges vis-a-vis the famous Golden Arches. One cannot argue with his success. His bridges are miracle solutions that are accessible and relatively easy to implement, and in a beautiful wave of his magic wand, they have rescued the field of infrastructure - that same unavoidable excrescence of life in the modern world - from ugliness. When his bridges began to appear, they almost sidelined any competitor. "What do you want, another ugly concrete bridge by the Ma'atz public works authority?" say the marketers of the Jerusalem train bridge, and it's difficult not to agree, considering the present reality in Israel.

Feels at home here

Calatrava, 53, was born in a village near Valencia, Spain, a city that he says reminds him of Israel, in its "open and free Mediterranean atmosphere, which makes me feel at home here." He is an architect with a doctorate in urban planning, who studied engineering, as well. "I don't see any difference between architecture and engineering," he says. "It's the same profession." Although he is considered the disciple of modern architects and engineers such as Eero Saarinen and Luigi Nervi, in his works the form is not an outcome of the function, but an entity in itself.

Calatrava's works begin as an image in his sketchbook. He says he draws feverishly, and has difficulty stopping himself from creating different versions and allowing the structure to be built. He exploits his hand well to market his works, and his slide presentations are usually accompanied by sketches he draws in real time, or by a model that he creates instantly from a piece of paper, before the admiring eyes of an enthusiastic audience. His offices are located in Valencia, Paris, Zurich and New York, and he divides his time between Europe and the United States. He is married to Robertina and is the father of four children. His mother is Jewish and his family is descended from the anusim (crypto-Jews who were persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition, converted to Catholicism and continued to practice Judaism clandestinely).

The first building he designed was the Stadelhofen train station in Zurich in 1983, and his first bridge was the Bac-de-Roda Bridge in Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics. His work is based on a simple basic technology that has been translated into abundant architecture. Among the buildings he has designed in recent years are the concert hall in Tenerife, a new wing for the art museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the Olympic compound in Athens, which is almost finished, despite the forecasts that it wouldn't be ready in time. About a year ago, he was appointed to design the train and subway terminal at the World Trade Center site in New York. He says the inspiration for his designs is "a child who opens his hands to release a bird."

Calatrava says he is not involved in the public debate about the World Trade Center, nor in the interpersonal conflicts among its planners, surrounding the complaints of the overall planner, Daniel Libeskind, that he has been sidelined by other star architects. "I'm isolated from the entire discussion," says Calatrava. "I have good relations with Libeskind, he supports me and I support him, and personally there has been no clash between us." In response to complaints in New York about the huge cost of the station, $2 billion, he says the budget was determined in advance. In response to complaints in Jerusalem about the high cost of the bridge for the light railway, estimated at about NIS 100 million, he says "that price is completely reasonable for this kind of bridge."

He first came to Israel in 1997 for the opening of a wandering exhibition of his works in the National Science Museum in the old Technion building in Hadar Hacarmel in Haifa. The miniature models of his works looked like cute executive toys, and aroused childlike affection. During that visit, he was invited by Azorim to design the pedestrian bridge in Petah Tikva, which after many bureaucratic woes is now under construction. He was invited to Jerusalem by city engineer Uri Shetrit and former mayor Ehud Olmert, who, he says, told him, "You've already built many bridges, but here you'll build the most beautiful one."

The bridge, which will rise to a height of about 130 meters above a chaotic intersection in a crowded urban environment, is arousing opposition in many circles in Jerusalem. The residents of the area, whose homes are only a few meters from the bridge, claim it will damage their quality of life; professionals are saying the bridge option was chosen because of an overblown municipal ego rather than for planning reasons, and that a tunnel should have been chosen instead; and others fear it will compete with the traditional symbols of the city.

For his part, Calatrava believes "the bridge will solve the traffic problems at the intersection, and will give it the identity of a city site." As opposed to his other bridges, the foundation of the Jerusalem bridge will have a stone facade, in accordance with the municipal bylaw. He says he didn't for a moment consider deviating from the law, which he says is "a wonderful luxury that not every city can allow itself." In his eyes (apparently in his mind's eye), Jerusalem is "the most beautiful city in the world, just going up to it causes elation."

During his visits to Jerusalem, Calatrava stays in the guesthouse at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, and "the most beautiful thing is to sit on the balcony opposite the Old City and to breathe the clean air." From the balcony he hasn't had an opportunity to study the problems that preoccupy Jerusalem and Israel. For example, although he has heard about the separation barrier being built in East Jerusalem, he says: "What I do is the opposite of building walls. I build bridges. A bridge is something that connects instead of separating. We must build bridges, lots of bridges, on both sides, and between both sides."