Santiago Calatrava: The World’s Most Hated Architect?

Critics blast Calatrava for wildly overbudget projects, including the World Trade Center’s new transit hub. Is he just misunderstood?

At a recent symposium featuring the renowned architects Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman, talk turns to fellow architect Santiago Calatrava.


“Cala-fucking-trava! What a waste,” says Graves, a founding father of Postmodernism and the man who brought high design to Target. Then he does his best Calatrava impression: “‘I will make wings for you and this subway station will cost $4 billion dollars.'”

Eisenman, best known for the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, chimes in: “When Calatrava came to Yale, he got up after a long introduction. He said: ‘I’m going to draw.’ He had a camera over a drawing board. He turned on music. And he drew for a whole hour. He turned the music off and walked off the stage.”

“Such arrogance,” Graves says.

It’s rare to hear important figures in architecture publicly attack a colleague with such undisguised venom. But, where Calatrava is concerned, it is open season. The Spanish architect built his reputation on a series of graceful harp-like bridges–Seville’s Puente de Alamillo for instance–that transformed engineering into an art form. But now he is better known for his design of the wildly overbudget and behind schedule World Trade Center Transportation Hub (due to open by late 2015). Last year, the New York Times ran a feature-length takedown of him, enumerating every disaster–the slippery bridge in Bilbao, the flood-prone opera house in Valencia, the over-budget bridges in the Netherlands.” The name of one website cited in the piece: ”Calatrava bleeds you dry.”

In a recent interview at Calatrava’s Park Avenue townhouse in New York, I asked the architect why he thought he was getting such awful press. “Because you have to suffer,” he replied. “There is so much vulgarity in the everyday, that when somebody has the pretension to do something extraordinary for the community, then you have to suffer.” And suffer he does. On paper, his projects seem like worst-case scenarios, architecture as extravagance, the Versailles School of infrastructure. But then, every so often, you set foot in one of Calatrava’s works.



In early 2012, I wound up at the grand opening party for the Calatrava-designed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity River in Dallas. In Dallas, this bridge–the first of a planned trio of spans by Calatrava–was a very big deal. The gala was held right on the bridge’s roadway. I wandered around on the structure, its white steel arch strung with cables that fanned out in two directions, drinking a margarita, ignoring the speeches (including one by the architect), and staring up at the hypnotic patterns that the white cables made against the inky night sky. From that spot, taking in a sight that would be largely unavailable once the span opened to traffic, cars zooming along the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, I had a visceral understanding of what Calatrava, the ultimate practitioner of architecture as an art form, brings to the table. The bridge was an object of startling beauty in a city not known for having any.

Photo © Alan Karchmer for Santiago Calatrava

The bridge was also something of a scandal. According to the Dallas Morning News, the official budget, $117 million, was $65 million shy of the real total. But most of the overage had to do with land acquisition. While Calatrava’s own fee–$6.3 million–was viewed as exorbitant, it was covered by private donations. The biggest cost was the design and construction of the bridge’s many access ramps, something, it would seem, than any bridge, even a more humble utilitarian one, would need.

In New York City, his name is routinely linked to the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, which was originally budgeted back in 2004 at $2 billion, but will wind up costing more like $4 billion. The numbers make him seem uniquely profligate, and he has been derided as a symptom of everything that could possibly go wrong with a major public commission. But walking through the World Trade Center’s new West Concourse, the first piece of the Transportation Hub to open to the public, I discovered that it’s absolutely gorgeous. In it, I’m wowed by Calatrava’s aesthetic virtuosity, something that is largely missing elsewhere on the World Trade Center site.


The Park Avenue townhouse where Calatrava lives is right next door to a matching townhouse where he works. It’s the home of an aesthete, the floors clad in marble, much like his transit hub. Everywhere are artworks, vases, and canvases covered with bulls who might have been painted by a very savvy cave man, paintings of trees, abstract sculptures. The doorknobs are ceramic, in the shape of human torsos. Everything in the house–with the probable exception of a handsome golden retriever–was conceived and crafted by the architect. Calatrava lives, works, and breathes in a universe of his own making.


The interview, it seems, was green lit as part of a concerted effort to shore up his reputation. “First of all, you have to think, it’s not my first railway station,” he says, when I ask him about the problems with the WTC Transportation Hub.

“We are currently finishing a railway station in Italy, very large. High-speed trains. And also finishing a second station in Belgium. Working on them, it takes maybe 8, 9, 10 years . . . It’s very normal.”

Railway stations, he explains, invariably involve myriad complex connections with an existing transportation network. “You have to work around things and hook things up. It’s slow work.”

He’s been criticized for, among other things, his refusal to compromise the aesthetics for practical reasons, so the ventilation plant for the station, for instance, is located next door in 3 World Trade Center. Of course, he doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t see his design as being dependent on the surrounding buildings. He argues that it supports them:

“The same Port Authority that was building the railway station has built 1 WTC. So the station in a way is helping all the buildings around to get built. In Tower 5, we have all the concourse areas down below, in two levels, and we have also the parking level, the delivery level for all the towers. Towers 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. So I mean we are supporting the memorial, for example, the whole visitors’ center. All the underground has been delivered by the Port Authority, before the building was put there.”


This is exactly what you might expect the architect to do: blame the developer or extenuating circumstances, but a recent Times investigation of the Transportation Hub’s problems largely supports Calatrava’s defense. The problems were widespread.

Regarding the cost overruns, he says, “I am aware how much the project has cost. But all of them have cost overruns. The Freedom Tower has a cost overrun. A significant cost overrun. And it so happened with the Memorial. It happened with the Museum. It happened, of course, also with the transportation hub. The overruns, so far as I know, are comparable. So we are in front of a global problem. It’s not a particular problem of the transportation hub.”

Again, a predictable excuse. Blame the system. Except he happens to be correct: 1 World Trade Center was originally projected to cost $1 to $1.3 billion, but the final cost was $3.8 billion, almost triple the first projection. “The World’s Most Expensive Skyscraper,” read one recent headline. The Memorial and its accompanying museum were supposed to cost $340 million but wound up costing more like $700 million. In other words, Calatrava is not the only one who bleeds you dry. But no one talks about the other architects involved, SOM or Snohetta or Gary Handel or even Daniel Libeskind, the way they talk about Calatrava.

The real problem may have less to do with budgets and more to do with who and what Calatrava is. He’s an architect whose reputation is based on form, not function. We live at a time when LEED Platinum certification, a mark of a building’s sustainability and the product of endless small calculations, is a status symbol. Many architects rely on computer design that manipulates aesthetic gestures to favor programmatic ones. In this era, the grand aesthetic gesture is deeply suspect. Architects who are famous for their formalism, who are not known for thinking pragmatically–Frank Gehry comes to mind–are watching their stars fall.



Calatrava is an unreconstructed aesthete. When I ask him about the design of the transit hub with its spiky armature sticking upward like a standing rib roast, and its epic white hall lit by a long slit of daylight (originally intended to be a grander opening controlled by giant flapping wings), he takes me upstairs in his townhouse’s phone booth-sized elevator to see a brass sculpture called Mother and Child. It’s two curved abstract forms that cling to each other, rocking. He made it 15 years ago and he says the transit hub’s design evolved from the shape of that sculpture. His process can be seen in the large hardback sketchbooks he gives to his clients, full of the hundreds of sketches that he plays with as he investigates and endlessly revises his forms. Mother and Child gradually mutates into steel stegosaurus. His process is personal, old-fashioned, and in a value engineered world full of buildings optimized by number-crunching software, deeply self-indulgent. He stood in front of a room of Yale students drawing because that’s how he explains his work. Drawing is his process.

Calatrava’s strongest defense against allegations of incompetence or indifference is the fact that some of his clients are repeat customers. He’s built two railway stations in Belgium: “Everybody knows what is going on in Belgium because it is like half of New York.” He’s worked twice for the same rail authority in Switzerland. And in Dallas, he’s now designing a second Trinity River bridge.

via Santiago Calatrava

Even at Ground Zero, despite all the rancor generated by his Transit Hub, he has successfully wooed a second client: The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a replacement for a century old church lost on September 11. He tells me that he visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for inspiration and studied its famous mosaics. “This is the Virgin Mary sitting in a throne and carrying the Jesus child,” he explains, showing me the art work that inspired his design. “And here you see I copied it, very freely.” And in his loose style, drawing after drawing, he massaged the form of Madonna and child into a tidy, symmetrical domed structure that looks an awful lot like something Michael Graves would have done back in the heyday of Postmodernism. It is, perhaps, the most conventional-looking building Calatrava has ever designed. “I have never built a cupola before,” he says.

The budget is currently set at $20 million with a completion date of 2016. These estimates have been met with derision. But maybe, without the big wings–and the Port Authority running the project–the church could offer Calatrava a little redemption.


About the author

Karrie Jacobs is a professional observer of the man-made landscape. She's a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and Architect magazine and is a faculty member at SVA's graduate program in Design Research.