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For a historic cultural moment, Florence turned out to be the perfect city to host the first comprehensive exhibition of the architecture of Santiago Calatrava. To begin with, for those arriving by train, there is a splendid view from the end of the platform of a lone late-Futurist building, the power plant in reddish brown concrete and brick designed in 1932 by Angiolo Mazzoni. Remarking on its four tall smokestacks enmeshed in a steel superstructure of catwalks and an open spiral stairway, the critic Herbert Muschamp quite properly calls this building 'a proud proclamation of faith in the power of industrial technology'.

Add to this the setting for the exhibit Santiago Calatrava: Artist, Architect, Engineer -- the fifteenth-century Palazzo Strozzi, a massive Renaissance structure that recalled for the Zurich-based architect some of the buildings of his native Valencia, where he found early inspiration. In particular, he speaks of a sixteenth-century Gothic-style palace called La Lonja, where a market of agricultural produce was installed under spiralling stone columns supporting high vaults. The Strozzi's cortile and ample rooms with high windows were ideal for Calatrava s sculpture and the architectural models that required long views to appreciate how these airy linear constructions -- railway stations, airports, stadiums, concert halls and museums -- would be perceived in the landscape.

And finally, there is the spirit of Michelangelo. In the show's opening words, 'Florence presents the memory of the time when the arts were not dispersed, [and] artists worked in all media offered by art and technology'. As Michelangelo's ideas took root in sculpture, so the analogy goes, Calatrava's formal experimentation and structural formulae were also born in sculptures. In truth, he first wields a paintbrush with the apparent ease of a Chinese scholar-painter and then translates these images into sculptures that end up as soaring, tautly strung bridges or sheltering trusses. Calatrava's doctorate in engineering (on the foldability of space frames) provides the key to the realization of his imagined architectural forms. One is reminded that in the 1840s it took a construction engineer from Dublin like Richard Turner to make the breakthrough in designing the lacy Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, though Decimus Burton signed the drawings.

The purpose of the show was to establish Calatrava's important link as an artist, mainly as a sculptor whose works echo revolutionary aspects of Brancusi's polished forms as well as of Naum Gabo's experiments with torsion and tension. But the overriding theme served to elucidate his orientation to engineering principles based on human and animal anatomy.

Among. his multiple watercolours of Rodinesque human figures and Picassoesque bulls is a startling image of an eye, usually blue, under a heavy brow, with a piercing gaze. In merging this idealized eye with another image, of a bird in flight, he produced a sculpture in polished brass, The Bird, from which he derives one of his major architectural silhouettes.

Like the sculpture itself, seen from the side, the arch of the steel brow overreaching the models (and eventually the buildings themselves) appears like a protective carapace over the complexity of interior trusswork, Seen straight on, the arch separates into a winged V formation that conveys both the tension and levity of frozen flight. The iris of the eye, conveyed in the sculpture by a brass ball that rolls back and forth on the polished black granite base, can also be seen as the inner sphere, say, of the planetarium revealed behind a grid wall that opens and closes like an eyelid. If as Calatrava believes, the eye is the architect's most accurate tool, then the gaze is reciprocal, with the building configured as a seeing organism.

Inside the buildings, slender supporting columns under canopies of steel tubing recover for him the primeval notion of sheltering trees, and a full-scale mockup in the cortile gives the impression of a delicate forest. He has brought movement to architecture with his electronically controlled openings, like the glass clamshell that parts at street level to swallow up visitors into the whalelike interior of the. underground Emergency Services Centre in St Gallen, Switzerland.

The symmetry of the buildings was often expressed by half models reflected as whole in mirrored backgrounds that completed the razor sharp images. But nowhere were mirrors more effective than in the gallery of bridges, where each of the 16 models in white tubing appeared to float above its double reflected in a river of mirrors. It is difficult to travel around Europe, especially in Spain, without crossing a Calatrava bridge, and almost every major city has had one proposed if not constructed. If in Japanese culture the bridge is symbolic of the time it takes to cross from one place to another, for Calatrava, the bridge becomes a destination in itself, a link that is also a gathering place.

Three new structures are just recently completed -- the Science Museum in the Valencia complex, the airport terminal in Bilbao and the Europe Bridge over the Loire at Orleans -- and the exhibition ended with a glimpse of the future, a series of watercolour sketches of the proposed Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California, replacing a church destroyed as a result of the 1989 earthquake. Although Calatrava's tree-filled bio-shelter for the roof of St John the Divine in Manhattan has never been realized, the Oakland cathedral will also reach skyward as a pair of hands closing in prayer. For all the appearance of industrial technology, Calatrava strives to achieve beauty through organic order.
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Article Details
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Next Article:Gunnar Asplund's Skandia Cinema in Stockholm is one of the first and finest examples of the building type ever made. It may be destroyed.

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