Santiago Calatrava, the man redesigning Greenwich peninsula | Art and design


In Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, about a tech giant – an Apple-Google fusion – whose power runs out of control, you learn early on that its utopian campus includes a fountain by Santiago Calatrava. This detail is bang on. It tells you that the company wants an abstract symbol of progress, content-free art, the appearance of a benign patron, and has money to burn.

Calatrava is a maker of trophies, popular with cities keen to raise their profile with structures like bridges and railway stations whose functional purposes become the occasion for the display of curving, flying, hanging, waving shapes that he likes to compare to skeletons, or birds, or trees, or other things of nature. Sometimes his buildings have moving parts, roofs that open or sunshades that unfurl.

He has the trappings of polymathic genius. He was an engineer and a mathematician before he was an architect. He sculpts with a smooth abstraction a bit like Brancusi. He wants you to know that he paints every day: washes of doves, bulls and ecstatic nudes. Presentations of his projects come with drawings in a similar style, showing his working out of shapes and details.

He also brings in his train a staggering number of alleged mishaps, projects late and over-budget, leaking roofs and falling masonry, broken limbs caused by slippery glass surfaces. His record was dismembered by an article in the New York Times. In his native Valencia, a website whose name roughly translated as “Calatrava bleeds you dry” was set up to detail the failings of his projects there. He sued and won on the basis that the title was “insulting and degrading”, so the website was recreated as or “Calatrava won’t silence us”, with much the same content as before.

Alex Poucher

Peninsula Place’s three towers rise above the nearby O2 and North Greenwich station in an artist’s impression. Photograph: Uniform

Not that you would know from meeting him that there were any troubles in Calatrava’s paradise. He is a man of imperturbable demeanour, calm and polite, who speaks fluently and with few pauses – it’s hard to get a word in edgeways – about the “cosmically related” design of a new £1bn development on the Greenwich peninsula in London. Like the rock star that he sort-of is – I love you Oslo! – he flatters the place where he is putting on a show. A bridge on the Grand Canal that he designed was “an act of love for Venice and for Italian culture in general”. “I always admired the US as the country of the space shuttle, of technological achievement,” he said, when designing an art museum in Milwaukee. London “is such an important place since my childhood, when I listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones”.

Until now, Britain has been unreceptive, apart from a bridge in Salford and the remodelling of a London office tower, where Calatrava’s original intentions were watered down by planners. This might be about to change with his 1.4m sq ft Greenwich project next to the O2, the building formerly known as the Millennium Dome. Peninsula Place, as it is called, is the centrepiece of the redevelopment of 150 acres of the Greenwich peninsula by the Hong Kong-based property company Knight Dragon, which promises to create thousands of new homes.

Knight Dragon have been accused of wriggling out of commitments to provide affordable housing, to the tune of 527 homes, to which they respond that the project would not have been commercially viable otherwise. This story didn’t stop the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, backing Calatrava’s project at its launch last week. It shows, he said, that his city “remains open to investment, trade and the very best talent from around the globe”.

It consists of three 30-storey towers growing out of a base containing a cathedral-sized “galleria”, the whole containing flats, a hotel, offices, retail and connections to a tube station and a bus station. A bridge flies out of the side to cross busy roads and connect both to a future riverside development and a pier for boat services. A vertical cable that ties it to the ground, landing directly on the Greenwich meridian, will act as a gnomon for a giant sundial.

Alex Poucher

The Calatrava-designed City of Arts and Sciences in his home town of Valencia, Spain, whose buildings suffered from multiple problems. Photograph: Esperanza Adelantado Garcia/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

Calatrava explains that he didn’t want to create separate towers and a podium but a single building, unified by great, sweeping U-shaped curves. “It is like my hand,” he says, “the event is like my hand.” The project “has clear and unique references to British architecture,” he says. It is inspired by British garden cities (there are some trees) and by the engineering of Brunel and Joseph Paxton and “all those greenhouses that are so British”.

In truth, it looks very like other Calatrava projects around the world, because that is what you get when you hire him: his signature, his style, his shapes. Relationships to adjoining buildings tend to be schematic, and if the shape conflicts with function, function tends to lose. The towers of the Greenwich scheme thicken towards their base, which makes for deep floor plans, which will make it difficult to plan apartments without creating rooms a long way from daylight. The relationship to blocks of affordable flats by another architect across the street seems awkward, and problematic for the views from both developments.

I receive assurances that these issues are fixable, though I don’t see evidence, and I would believe them more if it wasn’t for the many other tales about Calatrava projects: budgets that go from $38m to $122m, or €300m to a €1bn, or $2bn to $4bn, glass-decked bridges in Venice and Bilbao that cause people to slip and injure themselves, a winery leaking and humid in a way unhelpful to the production of wine, a convention centre that partly collapsed during construction. Clumsy remedial work often follows: an unsightly rubber mat on the Bilbao bridge, an absurd capsule fixed to the Venice one for the wheelchair users not served by the original design.

Alex Poucher

Shoppers and tourists in the ‘Oculus’ of Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York. hotographs by Uniform, Getty, Alamy Photograph: Alamy

Many centre on the City of Arts and Sciences in his native city of Valencia, which earned its architect nearly €100m in fees but left a huge public debt. The opera house there suffered leaks, a flooded basement, obstructed views and falling ceramic cladding. A pergola got too hot in the sun for plants to grow on it. A science centre also leaked and was initially built without fire escapes or lifts for the disabled.

Calatrava defends himself. His World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York went up in cost after attacks on transport in Madrid and London required greater security measures. (Which seemingly hadn’t been included until then, even though Calatrava’s building stands on the site of 9/11.) He points out that he gets repeat commissions from railway companies in Spain, France and Belgium: “Do you think that someone who didn’t care would get more work with the same client?” The falling ceramic in Valencia was because it wasn’t properly glued. “As an architect, you do not have control of who will build the building,” he says, “and who will have the capability. The role of the architect is to stand there and help your client in any circumstances. Even if you do not deserve any blame, you have to stand there, like the captain of a boat.” Well, maybe, but this captain seems to have terribly bad luck with the weather.

The deal with Calatrava is that, whatever the cost in money and inconvenience, you get attention-grabbing, crowd-pleasing spectacle, which Peninsula Place will deliver. In this case, any financial headaches will be borne by the private sector, in the form of Knight Dragon. I just hope that this is not where the money that they said they couldn’t spend on affordable homes is going.

Click to view the original article on The Guardian.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here