Santiago Calatrava Biography

Spanish-born architect Sanitago Calatrava (born 1951) has gained international celebrity for structures that suggest the shapes and the motion of organic entities, even as they rely in their construction on the modernist triad of concrete, glass, and steel.

Calatrava's projects are big; he tends to attract commissions for major civic structures that soon become established as community landmarks. His work is immediately recognizable, and it transcends the common architectural distinction between spare modernist forms and playful postmodernist ones. Their clean, geometrical lines are mellowed as Calatrava shapes them into pleasing forms that for the architect's many ordinary admirers suggest flight or spiritual uplift. As his chief influences Calatrava has named two architects of sharply opposing styles: the Catalonian Spanish maverick Antonio Gaudi (1852–1926), whose irregular buildings evoked organic growth, and the Finnish-American modernist Eero Saarinen (1910–1961), designer of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and other abstract structures that communicated a peaceful sense of order and of integration with their surroundings. In a way, Calatrava's work combines the best of these diverse predecessors.

Began Art Classes at Eight

Born in Valencia, Spain, on July 28, 1951, Calatrava grew up in an established family involved in the primary industry of that coastal metropolis: agricultural exports. The family's hillside home was imposing, with large rooms that Calatrava later named as an inspiration for his attraction to major projects and big spaces. Though Calatrava's father was oriented toward commercial activities at work, he loved art and took his son to see Spain's greatest museum, the Prado in Madrid. Calatrava started to show an interest in sculpture and drawing, and by the time he was eight he had enrolled in art classes in Valencia.

Calatrava's family had suffered during the political upheavals of the 1930s in Spain, and they saw an international future as their son's best chance. When he was 13, they took advantage of a liberalization of travel restrictions imposed by dictator Francisco Franco in order to send him to Paris under a student exchange program. He later took classes in Switzerland and learned German on his way to eventual fluency in seven languages.

At this point Calatrava still hoped to become an artist. He made plans to attend art school in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), but he arrived in mid-1968, with the student protests of that year at their height, and found that his classes had been cancelled. Back in Valencia, he decided to attend the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura (Technical University of Architecture). He challenged himself with extra work: he and a group of friends wrote two books on the architecture of Valencia and the island of Ibiza while he was enrolled. After he graduated

he returned to Switzerland and entered a civil engineering program at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) or Federal Technology University in Zurich.

Receiving dual Ph.D. degrees in structural engineering and technical science from that institution in 1979 and 1981, he became one of the few architects fully trained as an engineer. In Zurich, Calatrava met and married his wife, Robertina, a law student and later lawyer who has played an important role in managing his far-flung business enterprises. A glimpse of his growing architectural imagination appeared when he and some other graduate students designed and built a swimming pool in the rotunda of the school's main building—transparent, donut-shaped, and suspended above the floor, it allowed passersby to watch swimmers from below.

Eye-Catching Bridges Gained Attention

Calatrava opened his own architecture firm in Zurich after finishing his degree in 1981. It did not take him long to graduate from small projects to major civic commissions; after he won a contest, his design for Zurich's new train station was built in the early 1980s. The station was situated on a small strip of land that left no room for the spacious interior of a traditional train station. Calatrava responded with a unique design: a series of individual concrete corridors that resembled the ribcage of an animal and in fact was inspired by a dog skeleton a veterinary student in Zurich had given him and which he later mounted on the wall of his office, marveling to interviewers about its mechanical perfection.

In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Calatrava made his reputation as an architect by designing more than 50 bridges, most of them in Europe. Bridges allowed Calatrava to combine his architectural with his engineering expertise. Often made of white concrete and steel, his bridge designs had distinctive profiles. Many were asymmetrical. The Pont de l'Europe (Bridge of Europe) over the Loire River in Orléans, France, featured a seemingly tense arch, leaping out of the water and through the roadway, that some likened to a bowstring. Calatrava's Alamillo Bridge in Seville, Spain, was supported by a single leaning pylon that looked ready to topple over. "Being an engineer frees him to make his architecture daring," noted Doug Stewart in Smithsonian magazine. Calatrava's bridges attracted attention in the United States, and a show covering his work was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1993. Commissions for bridge projects in the United States began to come to fruition in the early 2000s. A so-called Sundial Bridge (Turtle Bay Bridge) in a park in Redding, California, had a single spire that served as a sundial, and Calatrava's firm made designs for a series of five massive bridges planned for the Dallas, Texas, area.

Calatrava's first completed U.S. building, however, was an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum originally designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957. The central feature of his design was a massive two-part sunshade resembling a pair of wings that could open and close in order to change the lighting inside the building. The design was ambitious and difficult; Calatrava at one point was forced to come to Milwaukee and earn state engineering certification in Wisconsin in order to keep the project on track. Parts of the shade were eventually made in Spain and shipped to Milwaukee by plane, and its trademark opening and closing capability was not ready for the structure's unveiling in 2001.

Despite these problems, Calatrava's structure proved a terrific crowd-pleaser. Architecture magazine critic Joseph Giovannini, even as he questioned certain aspects of the design, noted that "it is hard to argue with the sheer joy this exuberant museum has stirred in Milwaukee." Attendance at the museum soared, and other cities began to make inquiries about the hot new European architect. The organic forms of Calatrava's buildings appealed to ordinary users put off by the severity of other modern structures, and the ascending, reach-for-the-sky feel of his works often had a spiritual quality that was a perfect fit for American optimism.

Designed Rail Terminal on WTC Site

That spiritual quality helped win Calatrava a major commission in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City. The terminal of the PATH rail system, serving commuters in New York's western suburbs, had been destroyed in the attacks, and in 2003 Calatrava's design was chosen for its replacement. It too was birdlike, with the interior of the building divided into a pair of wings, and the white building seemed to suggest a phoenix rising from the ashes. Slated to open in 2009, the station was delayed several times as Calatrava's design was altered due to security concerns.

Calatrava remained busy in Europe as well, designing an opera house in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, that evoked a giant ocean wave. His commissions in Europe in the early 2000s included the first modern bridge allowed to be built over the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy's historic city center, and an opera house in his hometown of Valencia, one of a whole complex of museum buildings that he designed there. But Calatrava's most visible European design of the 2000s was the roof of the Olympic Sports Complex in Athens, Greece, viewed by hundreds of millions of people on international television broadcasts. Resembling a double arch shape in distance shots, it proved on closer inspection to consist of a series of curved white spines that suggested the ribcage of an animal.

Little known in the United States even in the late 1990s, Calatrava was something of an architectural star there by the mid-2000s. In 2005 he won the prestigious Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects. Cities vied for his services, and he began to attract commissions for top-dollar office and residential projects—somewhat underrep-resented in Calatrava's portfolio up to that point even though such projects were central to the work of most architects. With the 80 South Street Tower in New York City, Calatrava continued reshaping the skyline of Lower Manhattan. The structure consisted of a stack of ten cubes, offset from one another and held up by a giant scaffold. Each cube comprised one condominium, with prices starting at $29 million. Calatrava also seemed ready to move into another area with a commission for the new Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California, a replacement for a cathedral leveled in the 1989 earthquake that shook the San Francisco Bay area. Calatrava's design featured moving vertical planes meant to evoke a pair of praying hands.

The Oakland design, however, was never built. In 2003 Calatrava and the Diocese of Oakland parted ways, with the scope of Calatrava's project reported as one of a group of causes for the break. Calatrava's massive bridges in Dallas also ran into trouble with city government officials in 2006 after the first span, with a cost initially estimated at $57 million, attracted a low bid of a staggering $113 million from the first round of contractors solicited for the job. With massive projects that seemed designed to outdo his previous creations, Calatrava was in danger of pricing himself out of some markets.

Cost issues were of paramount importance as plans for Calatrava's most ambitious project of all took shape in Chicago. In 2005, developer Christopher Carley announced plans for a Calatrava-designed hotel and condominium tower, the Fordham Spire, that would rise 115 stories above a lot near Chicago's lakefront. Each floor of Calatrava's building would make a two-degree turn from the one below, reaching a 270-degree rotation with the narrowest top floor and giving the building a slim, graceful corkscrew shape. If completed, the building would be the tallest in the United States and perhaps in the world.

The building immediately stirred up public interest in Chicago, already home to two of the world's tallest skyscrapers. It also drew criticism from, among others, rival developer Donald Trump, who questioned its feasibility in an era where terrorism fears had hobbled the construction of tall skyscrapers (although construction was underway on his own 92-story Chicago tower). As of 2006 Calatrava's project had acquired a new developer, Ireland's Garrett Kelleher, and a new name, 400 North Lake Shore Drive. Its financing was reported to be on track, despite a ballooning of its estimated cost from $600 million to $1.2 billion. What was certain was that Santiago Calatrava had already reshaped the look of cities around the world with his landmark projects.


Newsmakers , Issue 1, Thomson Gale, 2005.


Architectural Review , February 2001.

Architecture , February 2002; January 2005.

Art in America , March 2001; October 2003.

Chicago Tribune , July 26, 2005.

Smithsonian , November 1996; April 2005.

Time , March 8, 2004; April 18, 2005.


"Bio," Santiago Calatrava Official Website, (September 30, 2006).

"400 North Lake Shore Drive Project Continues to Move Forward," New City Skyline, (October 1, 2006).

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