Calatrava Freezes Music!

January 13, 2014

Architects don’t get much press coverage these days. It’s unfortunate that when they do, the stories aren’t very flattering.

Today’s NYT has another disturbing piece about Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect and engineer who was once a darling of the press and a European cultural hero. It seems that mosaic tiles covering his new opera house in Valencia–the Queen Sofia Palace of Arts–have been flying off the surface in great numbers. Danger to the public caused the building to be closed in advance of a major Christmas performance to be conducted by Placido Domingo, another Hispanic cultural hero.

Architects have had problems with exterior tiles in other buildings–James Stirling’s History Faculty at Cambridge is a prominent case in point–but Calatrava’s high tech buildings have generally avoided the use of any traditional materials in favor of steel and concrete. He says that he wanted to pay homage to the great Catalan architect, Antonio Gaudi, who set tiles in cement or mortar to create many of his masterpieces. Gaudi, of course, was building according to centuries old traditions, not experimenting with untried new technology.

Calatrava was initially praised for his technical brilliance and structural engineering expertise. What has been most disturbing about recent reports is that, like the work of Paul Rudolf in the 20th century, Calatrava’s daring compositions have generally been poorly detailed, badly constructed, and extremely expensive to build. Stories of incompetent staff and inadequate drawings have emerged in connection with several projects, including the soon to be completed Port Authority Terminal in New York.

How, one might ask, can a renowned engineer/architect continue to win commissions and practice internationally with such a record of failed or over-budget projects? The answer is as disturbing as the question: the system that promotes and sustains “Starchitects” is blind to such mundane concerns as cost, durability, and functional performance. Questioning the judgment of artistic geniuses is off limits.

The architectural profession doesn’t need this kind of press at a critical point in history, when we are losing credibility in the eyes of the public on so many levels. The English Starchitect David Chipperfield was asked recently to give a TED lecture on, of all subjects, “Why The Public Hates Architects.” A realist, he admitted that we had encouraged such attitudes with just the kind of behavior shown by his Spanish colleague. He nevertheless defended his right to be provocative, daring, and modern.

Isn’t it time we stopped this hubris about the sacredness of “art” and the gods of “technology” and got to work on the pressing problems of the 21st century? Until we do, expect more public scorn and more damning stories in newspapers everywhere.

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