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​Santiago Calatrava: ‘Architecture is a pure creation of the human spirit’

, People

His visit was equally anticipated by professionals who regard his work as an epitome of contemporary architecture and by wider audiences familiar with such notable of his creations as the famous ‘bridges of strings’ or ‘chords bridges’ that can be found all around the globe. Calatrava is an expert when it comes to combining natural motifs and high technology: his projects include a railway station that resembles a tropical forest, a spiral-shaped skyscraper, a flower-shaped museum and an opera house built using palm leaves made of steel.

A proponent of the surrealist and the futurist approaches in architecture, the Spanish virtuoso explained to us why he prefers to use public transport, why computers will never replace pencils and how are the music of Shostakovich and the meat industry pavilion at the All-Russian Exhibition Center related.

Daria Golovina: During your lecture on Sunday, you mentioned that Russian churches are the most perfect examples of dome architecture. At the same time, you have often argued that architectural form should always strive to be closer to nature. In Russia cathedral architecture is a traditional, conservative type of design and it cannot be altered to resemble nature. Do you think there is a way of resolving this dilemma?

Santiago Calatrava: That’s a great question! First of all, architecture is pure a creation of the human spirit, it doesn’t imitate nature. But by its own means it can assimilate the constants of the natural world, such as materials and colours. Secondly, architecture can use the elements of nature as a source of inspiration. Yesterday, when I was returning to my hotel, I noticed the sunset light reflected by the golden domes of Kremlin. As a spectator standing on the ground level I could no longer see the setting sun, but the tall cathedral building was able to transmit its light to me. Suddenly I realized: the main feature of the enormous golden dome that took so much effort to make, is ultimately its capacity for reflecting light, nothing more. Religious and other symbols often have functions that are devoid of any obvious practical value, and this is one of the examples.

D.G.: April saw the release of a big volume published by Assouline dedicated to your work and spanning your whole career. In the book it is mentioned that you are particularly inspired by the works of Rodin and Cezanne. Can you describe the influence of these great artists on your work and mention any other luminaries that you admire?

Photo: Little Savage /

S.C.: I picked Cezanne and Rodin because I lived in France for many years. I was sent there by my mother as a little boy and that is where I learnt how to draw and write. I admire Picasso, Matisse and Russian suprematists in equal measure. I also have a lot of respect for the contemporary art, and many of the artists working today, such as Alex Katz, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, are my close friends.

D.G.: In one of your interviews you have also mentioned Joseph Brodsky as an inspirational figure. What is the link between poetry and architecture?

S.C.: Architecture is an art that feeds off other art forms. I’ll give you an example: under the domes of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower I noticed a piece of text. It was just three lines, and although I couldn’t read them, this inscription intrigued me a great deal.

D.G.: And what about music?

S.C.: Oh, especially music. Yesterday I was at the Moscow Conservatory where we were treated to a concert of chamber music. Brahms Sonata No. 3 was performed, as well as works by Respighi and Janacek. Despite the concert being already over I can still hear the music ringing in my ears. Music is immaterial, whereas architecture is the complete opposite – you can actually touch it. But we should be aware of one thing: the opposites do indeed attract. I mean, isn’t it fascinating that musical terminology, words like rhythm, meter, harmony are also used in architecture? Another aspect that music and architecture have in common is that both have the ability to develop in time. Just like we need time to fully absorb the musical piece we are listening to, we also need time to examine the building from all angles to gain a proper understanding of it.

D.G.: You have often said that you prefer drawing with a pencil to working on the computer. Is this a deliberate dismissal of the new technologies? In your opinion, how does the technological advancement affect architecture?

S.C.: Not a dismissal, not at all. Computers have completely transformed the engineering technology, for example. Now we can conduct static and dynamic analysis, track the development of the whole project, which was not possible in the past. Nevertheless, I think that creative process in architecture is primarily an intellectual one, and pencil is an essential tool in it. Drawing by hand is obviously a time-consuming practice and has its own limitations, but it is also a deeper, more meditative, more personal, more intuitive way of working which is very important for an architect.

D.G.: I stumbled upon an interesting fact on the Internet: apparently you don’t have a driving license and quite often use public transport. Why do you prefer taking the tube to traveling in your own car?

S.C.: Oh, I also absolutely love trams. I have annual travel cards for public transport in many countries and cities, for example in New York and Zurich. It gives me an opportunity to be among people. Being an architect is a rather lonely occupation: most of the time it’s just you and your projects. I find using public transport quite refreshing, it allows me to observe life. I enjoy walking on foot as well. And by the way, I do actually like cars. Aesthetically they are so enchanting.

Photo: Josué Goge /

D.G.: What is the agenda for contemporary architecture and how are the objectives different compared to the ones set in the XXth century?

S.C.: Every century is different. The values and realities of the XXth century were in radical contrast to those of the XIXth century. In 1914, at the very advent of the century, suprematists had already established themselves as a movement, Picasso had already created ‘Les Demoiselles D’Avignon’ and Marx had completed his ‘Capital’ and all of this contributed to a new rhythm and created new aesthetic goals. In the XIXth century the relationship between the individual and the society was not perceived in quite the same way. I believe that today we are too entangled in the society that we live in and pretty soon regard for oneself as an independent unit would become a much more important objective. I think that even the concept of ‘nationality’ is fading away. My children were born in Zurich, they now live in New York and their friends come from all over the world. It is a whole new way of thinking: we live in the same world, we are all united and the postromantic need for divisions and borders is long gone. All of this leads, on one hand, to the global collectivism, on the other hand, to a change in the role of the individual: today every person realizes his or her significance, every person is a saint and every person can contribute to this world. I believe that architecture will follow in the same direction.

D.G.: What impression did Moscow make on you during the course of your four-day visit?

S.C.: More than 20 years ago, at the very beginning of Yeltsin’s presidency, I had an exhibition of my work in Moscow. Everything was different back then. Being in the city was almost a question of survival: even getting a decent cup of coffee was a problem. But since then Moscow has completely changed. Yesterday, after the concert at the Conservatory, we went to a café located just nearby. Inside it was bursting with energy and filled with young people – it was so full of life.

I know this might sound banal, but Kremlin made a very strong impression on me . Such an incredible integrity of forms! And also the All-Russian Exhibition Center - there are no words to describe the beauty of that place! I think that this park invokes a feeling close to tenderness. I also really admired the ‘Ukraine’ pavilion and the ‘Space’ pavilion and especially the meat industry pavilion. A truly great monument! I think it’s important to look at this place through the prism of time: the threat that was omnipresent at the time of its construction is now gone, but the aroma of aesthetics, the joy of labour is still present. This place really touches your soul, just like the music of Shostakovich.

Santiago Calatrava’s lecture was sponsored by the institute’s innovational partner ‘Megafon’. 

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