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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Calatrava's Guardrail: The Architectural Trail

It’s only a guardrail.  It runs up a seldom-used stairway from the first to the second floor of the new market in Testaccio.  Curving and white, it drew our attention, and not only because it seemed so different from the brown, box-like building.  We were looking at Santiago Calatrava, the great Spanish architect.  No, he hadn’t designed this railing, or had a hand in the marketplace, for that matter. 
Calatrava's unfinished natatorium. 
But his imprint was there, nonetheless—and elsewhere in Rome, more obviously--even though his only Rome building, a natatorium for the University of Rome at Tor Vergata, sits unfinished in the weeds to the east of the city center.    

Calatrava's Bilbao bridge, 1997
Born in 1951, Calatrava was trained as both an architect and engineer, and it was as an engineering student that he was attracted to the work of the Swiss bridge engineer, Robert Maillart (1872-1940) and came to study under a disciple of Maillart’s, the famed bridge builder Christian Menn.  Through Menn and Maillart, Calatrava came to appreciate and explore the structural properties of materials, including steel, aluminum, concrete, glass and—later—carbon fiber.  In 1981, he completed a Ph.D. thesis whose title, “Concerning the Foldability of Spaceframes,” announced his growing interest in the possibilities of creating unique forms in space.

Calatrava's Bac de Roda bridge, Barcelona, 1987
Calatrava is self-consciously intellectual, and over the years, in speeches and interviews, he has articulated a broad range of cultural interests and influences: emotion (as opposed to reason—the paintings of Rothko are an example); rhythm and music; the human body and its movements and gestures (“the idea of breathing,” he said in a 2000 interview, “is astonishing….the idea that our fingers can move, the branches of trees or the waves of the water can move when the wind comes, are all astonishing ideas”); sculpture (he considers himself an architectural sculptor, and he admires the work of Rodan and Brancusi; painting (Cezanne, and especially Picasso); writers (the Russian Joseph Brodsky), and other architects (Frank Lloyd Wright [intuition producing the sublime, the poetic], Gaudi, Eero Saarinen). 

Calatrava's Valencia bridge, 1995
Calatrava is best known as designer of bridges, mostly skeletal and white structures with a curving plasticity.  Among his major works are the Bac de Roda bridge in Barcelona (1987), the Alamillo bridge in Seville (1992), the Valencia bridge for his home town (1995), and the Campo Volantin bridge in Bilbao (1997). 

These are ground-breaking structures, and it would seem absurd—even impossible—to connect them with the Testaccio market balustrade.  Impossible, that is, if there weren’t some way to demonstrate that Calatrava’s design aesthetics were penetrating and shaping the Rome architectural scene. 
Ponte della Musica (not Calatrava)
But there is.  In just a few years, two major bridges have been completed in Rome, and both demonstrate forcefully the influence of the Catalan architect.  One is Ponte Della Musica, which spans the Tevere north of Piazza del Popolo, in the quartiere of Flaminio.  

Ponte Ostiense (not Calatrava)
The other is Ponte Ostiense, which carries traffic over a rail and metro corridor just south of the Pyramid, on the city’s south side. 

Neither was designed by Santiago Calatrava, but both bear his mark. 

And so, too, does that guardrail. 


 We recommend the haiart interview with Calatrava at

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