Vision(arie)s of the WTC: Santiago Calatrava

 

“A building has integrity just like a man. And just as seldom.”   –  Ayn Rand

This September 11th will mark the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Difficult though it is to believe that such time has passed since that terrible morning, children not yet born then are now entering the fifth grade. Despite the years of cleanup and recovery— both physical and spiritual, despite a prolonged war and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it appears that the new Freedom Tower is moving along steadily and is set to be completed by 2013. It is designed to stand 1776 feet high from base to antenna, complete with four buildings, each perfected with state-of-the-art safety features such as structural redundancy, enhanced fireproofing, biological and chemical filters, and designated “areas of refuge” on each floor. Projections prove it to be a masterwork of both elegance and strength. However, though such a structure is destined to turn gazes aloft to marvel at its perfection, the picture would be incomplete were spectators not to notice the dazzling architectural virtues below their very feet.

With the completion of the new Freedom Tower is to come another great work of stylistic and technological innovation, thanks to the forward-thinking of an architect who seems destined to leave his mark on the world and all of its great cities. It is as seldom in the world of architecture today as it is in the various other arts that one finds an artist whose work displays the dual virtues of consistent quality and daring innovation. Such are the incomparable creations of Spain’s Santiago Calatrava. From his home of Valencia to Venice to Zurich and Jerusalem, Mister Calatrava has consistently devised structures which embody a sense of motion and an exalted spirit which will be quite welcome in a place which has become synonymous with tragedy.

With the Puente de la Mujer bridge in Buenos Aires and its ability to rotate horizontally a full 90 degrees to permit the foot traffic of the city’s many pedestrians or, alternatively, the passage of boats into the nearby harbor, Mister Calatrava gave new dimension to the age-old concept of a drawbridge. Sought after by those who seek to complement their own art with his, he has been commissioned to create venues which have played host to internationally-renowned talents in Tenerife, Valencia (twice), and even the New York Ballet, where he designed stunning sets to frame the movements of some of the world’s greatest dancers. In 2009, the idyllic city of Venice, Italy welcomed only the fourth bridge to span the Canal Grande since the 16th century and the Quarto Ponte sul Canal Grande bore the name of Spain’s most illustrious architect.

In 2013, New York will enjoy the honor of his work with the reconstruction of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) station beneath the World Trade Center site. Initially conceived when Calatrava watched his young daughter release a bird over south Manhattan, the original design displayed a protrusion from the ground to suggest the snow white wings of a dove in flight. As numerous budgetary cutbacks and restrictions have led to the paring-down of that design to something more modest, though nonetheless elegant, Calatrava has maintained his characteristic cool, stressing that he is merely honored to be a part of the rebuilding process. The final design may not as quickly recall a dove in flight, nor will it be equipped with such innovations as the fully-opening roof which Calatrava had first conceived, but his characteristic reconciliation of beauty and function remains firmly intact.

Visionaries like Santiago Calatrava suggest to us that, though yesterday’s tomorrows have not produced the futuristic landscape they once promised, the field of architecture is not without its living symbols of human potential and innovation. We must also bear in mind that while such elegance often remains the province of more estimable addresses and higher budgets, markets for the construction of our train stations, office towers, parks, and even our homes remain forever subject to the tastes of individuals and their willingness to either settle for the providence of simplicity and convention or to insist upon the quality and genius that makes men proud to stand before the creations of their species. Put simply, supply follows demand, so when the time comes for each of us to make even the simplest of purchases, always remember that with each decision, we are, in effect, tendering our vote for one product over another— not a political vote, but the equally valuable, equally personal economic vote for the success or failure of a given producer. As for myself, in the under-appreciated field of today’s architecture and urban design, my vote goes to excellence in the form of Santiago Calatrava.

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