Sunday, July 08, 2007

Calatrava: An architect for the 21st Century

I’ve written already about the National Design Triennial at the Cooper Hewitt in Manhattan, which brings together the experimental designs and emerging ideas—including animation, new media, fashion, robotics, architecture, product, medical, and graphic design—at the centre of American culture from 2003 to 2006.

The plentiful exhibits run the gamut from computer games: The Sims, and SnowWorld. a three-dimensional virtual-reality game designed for to lessen pain in severely wounded burn victims through to fashion: Thom Browne’s new vision for menswear and Mara Cornejo/Zero’s experiments with clothing the female form, passing by, for example, a Ron Arad lamp and an James Bond-esque underwater motorcycle.

But, easy as it is to spend an entire day working through the two floors of exhibits, the installation that holds me transfixed each time I visit (& I’ve been four times already) is the 3D video rendering of bridge architect Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub.

It would be easy to write this off as yet another self indulgent architectural carbuncle, especially when one considers that, although Calatrava visualised the structure as a bird being released from a child's hand, safety concerns have limited the initial scope, it looks more like the offspring between a dinosaur and an enraged porcupine from the exterior. Costing $2 billion it’s due to finally open in 2009.

There is a widespread belief that the rebuilding of the Ground Zero site must aspire to include a spiritual dimension, and it could be argued that a structure that resembles a stegosaurus wouldn’t necessarily fulfil this idea, yet Calatrava has conceived an interior beautiful in its clarity and in its towering vision, which transcends its exterior, with a roof span which opens to the sky both in good weather and every year on September 11th.

The soaring spaces in subway stations are the cathedral-like spaces of the Nineties and the Noughties: Norman Foster’s cavernous spaces in his system for Bilbao, and his Canary Wharf vast ticket hall filled with refracted light for the Jubilee Line extension in London represent the Nineties; Calavatra’s WTC Subway the Noughties. The essential difference: Foster’s spaces are underground, Calatrava’s station concourse is flooded with natural light.

But, unlike Foster, Calatrava is both an architect & an engineer, who started primarily as a bridge and train station designer. With the WTC hub he marries both disciplines in a purity of design that combines both the banally functional and the quietly beautiful in a building that is an ambitious, and ultimately successful, memorial to the events of September 2001.

Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006
On view December 8, 2006–July 29, 2007