Inside The Half-Built Skeleton Of Calatrava’s Other Boondoggle

You can see it from the highway, but if you want to visit you have to hike.

This week, the architect Santiago Calatrava’s $4 billion World Trade Center station finally opens to the public. While it’s weathered withering criticism for its cost and delays, in some ways its completion is a huge relief–at least in light of several other projects that have been outright abandoned due to funding snares and delays, including projects in Chicago, the Netherlands, and Italy.


The latter is the subject of a compelling photo project, recently highlighted by Designboom, from Oliver Astrologo. Astrologo is a creative director and artist who ventured into the ghostly remains of a complex outside of Rome called the Città dello Sport, or City of Sport. Back in 2007, when the complex was envisioned, it was part of a Calatrava-designed masterplan for University of Rome Tor Vergata. The huge building was supposed to serve an anchor to a sweeping green commons, across from a 300-foot-tall high-rise where the university’s rector would be located, as the architect’s website explains. Inside one of its dual domes would be an Olympic-sized pool, the other would house a multi-purpose sports arena. (You can see the dramatic original renderings here.)

Today, Astrologo says it’s known to Romans because its white steel structure peeks above the natural landscape from the highway. “Some people are asking to demolish it because it ruins the surrounding landscape,” he says. When he visited a few years ago, it was completely abandoned and unguarded. Yet the “place was completely sterile, there were no signs of vandalism,” he adds, as though “time has stopped here.” For Astrologo, who frequently visits abandoned or obscure buildings for photo projects, it was a photographer’s dream. The wet concrete floors and rotting internal structure, domed by an eggshell-white latticework reaching 250 feet high, feel theatrical–it could be a set in Titus.

So, what happened? A potent mixture of of political and economic mayhem, compounded by the 2008 financial crisis. Originally the structure was supposed to be finished by 2009. Costs had risen from 65 million euro to 608 million, La Republica reported in 2010. Later, it was an anchor for Rome’s bid for the 2020 Olympics–which was itself ultimately canceled over economic issues. Dianne Bennett and William Graebner, bloggers at Rome the Second Time, ventured into the complex in 2012 and say this about the way it was painted in the Italian media:

In July 2011, a report in La Repubblica remarked on the surrounding “moonscape” and characterized the site as one “dove non si vede l’ombra di un operaio” (where one doesn’t see even the shadow of a worker). By mid-February of the following year, the same newspaper referred to what there was of Calatrava’s Sports City as “a cathedral in the desert,” an “emblem of defeat,” a “vero e proprio capolavoro senza futuro” (a veritable masterpiece without a future).

Now, though Astrologo says some argue for its demolition, the building may get a third chance: As a venue in Rome’s bid for the 2024 Olympics.

Calatrava is a divisive architect–for as many fans of his genius, there are critics who say the regular budget problems and delays represent irresponsible and unprofessional conduct. At the same, political and economic forces are usually owed some credit for every failed megaproject. Either way, it’s a bitter subject for taxpayers and architects alike–especially when the project lingers on, as it has outside of Rome as a half-built shell, for almost a decade.

You can check out more of Astrologo’s work on his website or Facebook, or follow him on Twitter here or Instagram.


All Photos: Oliver Astrologo


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.