Spain’s very own ‘starchitect’ helped to transform and revitalise his home city of Valencia and ranks among the greatest designers and engineers of our era.

His work is so prolific that you don’t have to look far to spot a building or cross a bridge that came off his drawing board, and in so doing Santiago Calatrava has had a great influence on the course of modern architecture.

A starchitect is an architectural celebrity whose very name adds prestige and value to a project. As a result, such a designer seldom works on private homes or small projects, but is in demand to lead design teams that create large public and corporate projects such as railway stations, airports, stadiums, conference centres, modern parliament buildings, university campuses, museums, concert halls, resort hotels and of course skyscraper headquarters and luxurious apartment towers.

Santiago Calatrava may not rank among the most famous starchitects, but simply being one of a very select group of world-renowned names in this field is quite something, and as such he is one of the most illustrious Spain has produced in the fields of design, architecture, engineering, and art since the era of Picasso, Dalí and Gaudi. His professional career took off not in his home city of Valencia, but in Switzerland, and has since spread across Europe and far beyond.

Artist, Designer and Engineer

Architecture is in many ways the coming together of art, design and engineering, for an architect works with shapes, textures, tones and light, but is ultimately responsible for the construction of often complicated, large-scale buildings that have to be safe, functional and stand the test of time. Most, however, rely on qualified engineers for this side of things, but Calatrava is unusual in adding a second degree in civil engineering to his original one in architecture.

Having graduated in architecture from the Polytechnic University of Valencia, he therefore enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, where the greater understanding of physics and structural engineering opened up new dimensions. Inspired by the pioneering work in structural reinforced concrete of early 20th century Swiss engineer Robert Maillart, Calatrava realised that “with an adequate combination of force and mass, you can create emotion.”

Upon completing his doctorate in 1981 he opened up his own office in Zürich, which became his home after he married a local woman. Never much of a designer of homes, his future took another path, creating exhibition halls, warehouses and the first of the bridges that would truly launch his career. Indeed, where others focused on villas, Santiago Calatrava became known as more of an industrial architect, and one of the leading ones of our times at that.

Architecture Inspired by Anatomy

A series of smaller, regional projects eventually led to his first big assignment, redesigning the Zürich Stadelhofen railway station, which began in 1983. It is here that the organic-industrial style for which he would become so famous is first clearly visible in a design largely devoid of straight lines and right angles. Instead, there was the exposed structure of columns and beams that together looked like a skeleton of concrete and steel, with emotive, dynamic forms tilted for further effect.

It was a departure from the sterner functionalism of a previous era, and a style set free by engineering prowess, but also one that always looked strong and durable. This ability to add style and a sense of public engagement with otherwise unremarkable structures such as railway stations and bridges caught the eye, and before long Calatrava was working on new bridges across Europe, including his native Spain.

Apart from encapsulating the structural properties of the human form, which conform with those of architecture as laid out in the Vitruvian principles, Calatrava also made his ‘spines’ move in ways that gave architecture a new sense of motion and dynamism. It worked particularly well for bridges, which all of a sudden became interesting, and beautified the cities and landscapes they formed part of.

A Bridge Builder

Curvature is therefore a signature design feature of the Spanish master’s work, and through it he brings buildings to life, as in the case of a series of bridge projects in Spain that began with the Bac de Roda in Barcelona. By the time of the Puente del Alamillo, created for Seville’s Expo 92, Calatrava’s designs had become ever more striking, and the architect ever more in demand.

The Seville bridge, which crosses the Meandro San Jerónimo River, is 200 metres long, but it’s stand-out feature is a 142-metre tall pylon angled at 58 degrees that revolutionised bridge design and made the architect a celebrity in his own country. The inclination, by the way, is the same as that of the Pyramid of Giza, near Cairo, and this is naturally not a coincidence, for Santiago Calatrava seeks inspiration from the world around him.

More illustrious projects followed, including the Montjuïc communications tower near the Olympic complex in Barcelona, prestigious large-scale airport designs in Bilbao and Lyon, as well as his first major North American design and the Gare do Oriente – the new high-tech railway terminal built for Lisbon’s Expo 98. Now firmly arrived as a ‘starchitect’ in the midst of Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Frank Gehry, Calatrava received more top international commissions.

Joining the International Elite

It ushered in a period of designing buildings rather than structures, and the Valencia-born architect and engineer took it in his stride, producing designs that remained true to his stylistic inspiration while answering the brief of his clients, which were usually large public and corporate entities. The seminal works produced during this period of the 1990s through to the 2000s include the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin and the Bodegas Ysios winery in Laguardia, in the Rioja Alavesa.

While the former was the continuation of his personal style in a large building, the bodega’s otherworldly appearance began to match the almost digital look of Frank Gehry. The new millennium would bring with it his most famous projects, including the Turning Torso tower in Malmö, one of his few residential projects, and the creation of the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia – a large-scale project with which his career truly had come full circle.

It is fitting that it’s in his home city of Valencia where Santiago Calatrava would create his ultimate works of art, producing landmark designs for the Science Museum, the City of Arts and Sciences and the Palace of the Arts, which has been nicknamed ‘Darth Vader’s Helmet’ by some. There has been some criticism surrounding practicality and maintenance issues, but it cannot be denied that the bold, modernist designs of Calatrava helped to revive the city’s identity and urban redevelopment.

More grand projects have followed, including the velodrome for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and many more across the Americas and Europe, but it is with the seemingly UFO-inspired structures in Valencia that Santiago Calatrava sealed his reputation and cemented his place among the stellar names of world architecture.