Famous for his beautifully engineered and designed bridges, Santiago Calatrava, the controversial neofuturistic architect, is back in the news with the completion of his Oculus World Trade Centre Transportation Hub in New York City.


World Trade Center Transportation Hub, New York, Santiago Calatrava

The wait is over; after more than 10 years and billions of dollars, the Santiago Calatrava designed Oculus World Trade Centre station is ready. Like a graceful dove, about to take flight, this new transport hub makes for a striking, unforgettable piece of architecture.

Yet like so many of Calatrava’s works it has attracted significant controversy. Taking even a cursory look back at his career shows that he has a real knack for encountering significant technical challenges and exceeding clients’ budgets.

Conceived back in 2004, with an original estimated budget of 2 billion dollars, the colossal structure of the World Trade Centre Transportation Hub has finally taken shape. The vast steel wings now painted in Calatrava’s signature white glisten in the New York springtime sunshine. It appears as if the station is about to soar; yet the truth is that the only thing that truly did soar was the price tag. It is said that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will be left nursing a bill approaching 4 billion dollars. Yes that’s right, 4 billion dollars – for a train station! That’s after many challenges that included a leaking roof, a problem that appears to have plagued some of his other buildings.


World Trade Center Transportation Hub, New York, Santiago Calatrava

Iconic architecture

The lower Manhattan station and its vast shopping centre is defined by its ‘Oculus’ pavilion, adjacent to the USA National September 11 Memorial, at Ground Zero where the Twin Towers once stood. Both budgetary and technical issues mean that the pavilion does not have its originally-planned ‘oculus’ – a roof of two wings that would have opened. It is a sad sacrifice as Calatrava had shown this concept before in his first completed US building, the new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. The focal point of this museum wing is a huge two-part structure, a signature Calatrava pair of wings, that open and close, changing the lighting inside the building.

Yet even without the opening roof, New York’s newest train station is clearly set to become one of the architectural icons of the city.


Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport Railway Station, Lyon, Palladium Photodesign

Engineering aesthetics

Calatrava was born in 1951 in Valencia, the Mediterranean city on Spain’s eastern coast. He attended art school and later in 1974 qualified as an architect. His further education would take him to Zurich where he qualified as a civil engineer, and later opened his first architectural and engineering practice.

It is his engineering background that has enabled this renowned architect to embark on complex and daring projects that are unique in the world.

Take a look at Santiago Calatrava’s professional CV and it’s clear the architect is no stranger to iconic projects. He’s the talent behind remarkable buildings such as the Athens Olympic Complex; Valencia’s City of Arts & Sciences (with its innovative use of ceramic, and ‘organic’ details); the Adan Marti Auditorium in Tenerife (which echoes a huge ocean wave), and the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro (which features a vast overhanging roof, topped with solar panels that follow the position of the sun).


Auditoria de Tenerife, Tenerife


Building bridges

It is probably his daring style and Calatrava’s desire to challenge engineering approaches that have led to some of his works attracting critics and controversy – not just for how they look, but for how much they have ended up costing. Often it is multiple technical and political aspects of his projects, somewhat out of his direct control, that have led to budget overruns and lengthy delays in completion.

However Calatrava continues to dream big and the world continues to be seduced by his designs.


Guillemins TGV Railway Station, Liège, Palladium Photodesign

Since the beginning of Calatrava’s career, bridges have been a favourite project – and are now pretty much a trademark of his style and approach. Combining engineering expertise with design beauty and creative finesse, his bridges have become ever more striking, graceful and distinctive.

With his artistic flair and knowledge, the works of Calatrava echo nature with organic structures and motifs. It seems that despite the practical challenges in daily use of some of his crossings, no city is worth its salt these days without a stunning Calatrava bridge.

Seville, Andalucía’s capital, was one of the first cities to be graced with a Calatrava water-crossing. Built for the World Expo ’92, the ‘Puente del Alamillo’ or Alamillo Bridge is a monumental structure, a showcase of Calatrava’s use of cantilever engineering. He continued to build bridges across the world, in cities including Bilbao (where he used glass for the footbridge crossing that became dangerously slippery when wet – tricky in a city where it rains for almost 5 months of the year!); Manchester; Buenos Aires; Jerusalem; and Dublin.

It’s not just world capitals that want a piece of Calatrava architecture to decorate their skylines. Emerging urban areas have also looked to the architect for a trademark bridge. Haarlemmermeer, in the Netherlands was pretty much unheard of, yet this fast growing urban area now has three of Calatrava’s cable-stayed bridges, helping give the new community an identity. Also, the rapidly growing Chinese city of Huashan will soon have three Santiago Calatrava designed spans across a Yangtze River canal.


Peace Bridge, Calgary, Canada, Alan Karchmer


Peace Bridge, Calgary, Canada, Alan Karchmer

Transformational design

One of Calatrava’s best known works is of course the City of Arts and Sciences built in his home town of Valencia. This museum and cultural centre, now of national and international significance, is made up of five main elements, four of which were designed by Calatrava: the Hemisfèric (IMAX cinema), the Umbracle (a landscaped area), the Príncipe Felipe Science Museum, the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía (a world-class opera house) and also the Oceanográfico (said to be the largest aquarium in Europe, designed by Félix Candela). This vast complex is built on the dry riverbed that runs through the Mediterraneo city and, despite the controversy of the construction budget and technical problems, (including ceramics blowing off in the wind and roofs leaking) it is credited with transforming the perception of Valencia, consolidating and strengthening its position as a European city of art and culture.


Ciudad De Las Artes y De Las Ciencias, Valencia, Palladium Photodesign


Serreria Bridge, Valencia, Palladium Photodesign

Surely that is what architecture is all about; a celebration of art and aesthetics in everyday city life. The art of making our built environment something that captures the imagination, ‘wows’ users and visitors; and creates a place that is unique and memorable. Together this can transform the status of cities, enhancing their position internationally. Well, that’s certainly what Calatrava’s customers hope.


Turning Torso, Malmö, Palladium Photo design


Turning Torso, Malmö, Palladium Photodesign


Just deserts

Despite Calatrava’s colorful history, he has no shortage of commissions. His architecture firm recently announced a commission from the United Arab Emirates; for the construction of a ‘landmark’ observation tower in the Emirates’ new Creek Harbour development, slated to be a city of the future.

Well, at least in desert Dubai they won’t have to worry about a wet slippery bridge or a leaking Calatrava roof!


The Florida Department of Innovation, Florida, Alan Karchmer


The Florida Department of Innovation, Florida, Alan Karchmer


Text by @andrewaforbes

More on Calatrava


Back to Blog main page