THE BLOG
05/02/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

Dreams of Calatrava Fading Into the Distance

When I was doing some consulting work for a Finnish Audio Company, my Finnish partner needed an office to set up shop on the cheap. He ended up renting a cubicle in a large converted loft in the industrial part of West Berkeley. The office was mostly occupied by architects and oddball professionals. There was one receptionist that served the entire loft taking messages, making appointments, and doing some rudimentary paperwork. She turned out to be an acquaintance of mine through a friend.

One day I was there to meet my partner for an appointment, and he was late. I ended up chatting with the receptionist while browsing through some architecture magazines. One cover in particular stopped me dead in my tracks: there was a very eye-catching, audaciously designed, ultra-modern with a hint of deco, Saarinen inspired photo of a building that looked somewhat avian in form. The building was reminiscent of a Brancusi sculpture done in a very avant-garde style, and fashioned from panes of glass glommed on a steel skeleton. The effect was geometrically exquisite, ultra-modern, and quite sublime.

I quickly rifled through the pages to find the cover article: it was a feature on the newly designed Lyon-Saint Exupery terminal in Lyon France by (none other than) Santiago Calatrava. The detail of the interior was just as impressive, with dizzying array of beams laid out geometrically with clean lines that had just the right amount of organic form to render the design modern without being angularly brusque. The spaces encapsulated by the interior had a linear expansiveness that seemed to fade into the distance rather elegantly. His arrangements of the beams that continued into the ceilings in a stylized letter C-form reminded me of piscine skeletons. The manifold beams merging on a single point were reminiscent of his other famous countryman: Gaudi -- a trait best demonstrated in his design of "Gare do Oriente' in Lisbon or 'Allen Lambert Galleria' in Toronto.

Upon observing my enthusiasm, the receptionist told me that I could keep the magazine as it was an old issue. I was overjoyed, and I was eager to learn more about this amazing Spanish born architect. After I looked into his work, I came to find out he was already well known in Europe: he had done more than a few buildings and designs in Zurich, Switzerland: his firms headquarter at the time. I began to follow Calatrava's career and became an avid fan of his work.

During a café outing, I was perusing the Oakland Tribune and Calatrava was in the news: I read the article eagerly. According to the article, the Cathedral of 'Christ The Light' had been looking for space to build their new congregation (the old building was condemned after Loma Prieta quake) and they had settled on a place right next to Lake Merritt near the Kaiser building. The diocese had commissioned designs for the new cathedral from several architectural firms and Calatrava's firm was one of them. The Cathedral officials had supposedly related that the winning design will be built.

I followed this story from the Tribune with restrained excitement. I finally did visit Calatrava's website and much to my astonishment discovered that he had already designed a bridge (of all the wayward places) in Redding California. I didn't get to visit this famed Sundial Bridge many years later. I thought that Lyon -- and by now several other buildings and bridges in the years that followed -- would have to wait, time and funds permitting.

Calatrava had a preliminary sketch of his proposed Oakland cathedral on his website, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was designed like a half elongated eggshell: the side elevation had intricate arced embellishments and details with just a hint of art nouveau. The top/steeple had ellipsoid tiered crests from which the spires rose in a very gothic fashion. There were dissimilar shaped rows of curved windows in the upper and mid region of the church which followed the arced ellipsoid shape of the building. The front had a partially opened clam shell and within it laid a smaller structure nestled like a pistachio nut. The whole designed harked back to a Fabergѐ-like egg cut in half. A good example of a similar building is the newly designed L'agora in Valencia Spain.

The specter of a Calatrava right in our backyard was making me giddy with excitement but it turned into piqued resentment when I read that Calatrava indeed won the design challenge but the diocese thought it was too expensive to put the design into practice. Upon hearing this, I was emotionally inconsolable. The thought of missing out on a beautiful building by a groundbreaking architect was incongruous to what I had seen of his work. I thought that the church and, the City of Oakland to some extent, were being short-sighted and were oblivious to the benefit the building would bring to the city that is always playing second fiddle to San Francisco.

A few years later feeling a little less dejected about the Cathedral, I heard that new eastern Bay Bridge span designs were being considered and one of the designs was submitted by my favorite. Once again my hopes were raised when I saw the design: it looked fabulously minimalist, clean, geometric, and iconic in true Calatrava fashion -- but again my hopes were dashed as the committee shelved his design due to cost and structure concerns.

Although he sharpened his architectural acumen designing train stations and bridges, he has expanded his repertoire at a staggering pace. Calatrava whips up a signature trifecta of style that is difficult to mimic and has posterity etched all over it. He is the Eero Saarinen and Oscar Niemeyer of our times, and those styles are manifest in his designs. But Calatrava goes further, his creations are not only ultra-modern but movable (Puente de la Mujer Argentina, Milwaukee Art Museum U.S.A, and Museum of Tomorrow Brazil), and sculpturesque all at once: Saarinen, Calder, and Brancusi all wrapped in one. This unique style is no accident -- it stems from his background in civil engineering, architecture, and sculpture. He draws from the rich heritage of his country's artistic and architectural past, but then he fuses it with palpable geometric forms, clean lines that can mimic ornateness, and the orderly sensibility of the modern.

The eventual built design of the Cathedral was by Skidmore, Owings and Merill, and it looked somewhat promising when it was just being built. But then I kept looking for that design tour de force and brio that sets a building apart, and it never materialized. In fact even after the building was finished it looked unfinished and left a lot to be desired. The interior was far more interesting. Whatever the inspiration was, the shape is insipid and a bit like a giant glass boulder that was squashed down and chiseled on two sides and tapered without much thought, with no detail anywhere within the glass but grids that hold the panes. The result is a conical cylinder that looks flattened and lopped off at the top with a notched slit for entrance and the pulpit -- unresolved spines that have been left exposed on the roof appear as if someone forgot to take down part of the scaffolding. I call it the giant tepee, and my wife refers to it as the rack of lamb building.

The new eastern span too appeared quite nice and yes, very functional. I have seen the new bridge more than twice: during the day and once when it was night time but I feel it has no new story to tell. While not quite the ugly duckling of Bay Area, with Golden Gate and Bay Bride (western span) nearby, it is by no means in the same league or iconic. It ended up costing more than twice its original budget and several years late: however there are still some troublesome flaws in its design.

I am still awed by Golden Gate Bridge every time I visit it, and from certain vantage points the Bay Bridge too can be beguiling, especially at dusk. Calatrava is not without his faults, and his detractors have faulted him for budget overruns and leaky designs. But given a chance, I will still pluck that perfect rose despite its thorny secret I wasn't aware of the very first time I tried to do so.

The first time I visited Redding was to grab a quick bite to eat en route to Shasta. But a few years back I went to stay there for few days: to pay homage to my beloved architect by walking on the Sundial Bridge several times, including the famed night walk: I wasn't the only one. Redding has put itself on the map by taking the big gamble: it too doubted spending the extra money for a fancy bridge and nearly shelved the plan. The city has seen its visitation increase by nearly forty percent since the bridge was opened!

When many cities are clamoring to get a Calatrava in their backyard, we here in the Bay Area, the high-tech hub of the world, home of the Transamerica, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Paramount, have already missed two chances. There are several cities in the U.S. that have seen the Valencian's vision and have taken to him.

We are very fortunate to witness one of the great architectural genius of our times gradually unfold his -- now ample -- portfolio of impressive and iconic creations all over the world, and he is not quite done yet. A city's skyline and buildings is its physiognomy, and without a characteristic feature, it is just another face in midst. Calatrava's creations have that transformative signature flair.

"To me the drawn language is a very revealing language: one can see in a few lines whether a man is really an architect": that is a quote from Eero Saarinen. That cover photograph back then rang true of this quote. I could instantly tell that there was something out of ordinary at work, and the lines that Calatrava had drawn within Lyon- Saint Exupery spoke a new language: a language rich with lyricism, grace, and stylistic vocabulary -- a language for the ages.

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