Monday, April 6, 2009


To the question, “Who is the world’s greatest living architect?” my answer, without hesitation, is Spanish-born Santiago Calatrava. His work is engaging, exciting. and intellectually challenging. It is sinuously sculptural, but disciplined with spatial purpose and structural elegance. Calatrava consistently employs principles of design that lift his work above theatrical grandstanding into the poetic. The dream-like curves of Gaudi, the rational organization of Palladio, the sense of scale of Frank Lloyd Wright… all these qualities are contained in the architecture of Santiago Calatrava.

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable finds Calatrava a little over the top and doesn’t rate him as highly as some others. (As told to Charlie Rose during a television interview.) I respect her opinion; she is one of the most astute observers of architecture around. However, on this score, I have to disagree. Perhaps, at first glance, Calatrava seems ostentatious. I will allow that in a few instances he stretches too far. (The Tenerife Opera House, for example.)But overall he produces work that is inventive and richly organic. Other star international architects don’t offer a complete package. Most of them seem to repeat the same fashionable fractured forms and place more importance on exterior display than interior richness. Not so with Calatrava. In his work, the primary focus is interior spaces. This is where we can really feel and experience architecture. Out of this core value he produces lyrical exteriors that express and exalt the spaces within.

Unfortunately, there are few examples Calatrava's work in the United States. However, one of his finest is the soaring Milwaukee Art Museum, pictured here. This is an extensive addition to a 1957 building by Eero Saarinen and a 1975 addition by David Kahler. As if the main spaces were not sufficiently exciting, take a look at the basement parking garage. Has there ever been a utilitarian space so elegantly executed? Calatrava is without equal.