Santiago Calatrava, FAIA, has had a tough couple of years.
What should have been a glamorous and career-capping commission for the 63-year-old Spanish architect, the new transit hub at the rebuilt World Trade Center, has instead been plagued by extensive delays and massive budget overruns. In the end, it will likely take roughly twice as long to build and cost twice as much ($4 billion versus $2 billion) as originally planned. In the process, it’s become a symbol of larger bureaucratic problems at Ground Zero, a money pit half-buried next door to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
Meanwhile, what had been a steady trickle of complaints about Calatrava’s high fees and complicated, tough-to-build designs, which often feature elaborate moving parts, turned suddenly into a flood. A front-page article in The New York Times last September slammed Calatrava as an aloof, uncaring “star architect” who charges absurdly high fees—$127 million for his City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, alone—and whose all-white buildings often crack, leak, or buckle.
It went on to mention a Spanish website devoted to criticizing the architect, helpfully pointing out that its URL loosely translates to the phrase “Calatrava bleeds you dry,” before concluding that “other cities may be reluctant to hire Mr. Calatrava again.”
Given that shift in Calatrava’s professional persona—before the World Trade Center job, after all, he was more often cast in the role of civic savior—I have to admit that I paused and laughed out loud right into the soupy central Florida afternoon when, walking toward the front door of the architect’s latest American project, the Innovation, Science and Technology Building (IST) at the new campus of Florida Polytechnic University near Orlando, I saw a white sign with red letters installed near one of the ponds that Calatrava designed along the building’s southern edge. The sign showed a green animal with snapping jaws inside a circle with a line through it. Below that, in capital letters, were the words DO NOT FEED THE ALLIGATORS.
It seemed an admonition as much to Calatrava as to the students who began using the building at the end of August. Do not give your critics any more ammunition. Do not produce another pricey, preening, overcomplicated, and underperforming piece of architecture. Do not leave another client fuming and ready to complain, at colorful length, to a reporter from The New York Times.
Or maybe, if we want to be slightly more nuanced about it, do not lightly take on high-profile commissions at deeply fraught sites of spectacular terrorist violence that are run by opaque and multilayered bureaucracies—especially at a time when the media is ready to take scalps in its quest to expose the excesses, architectural and otherwise, of the pre-crash boom years. Do not, in other words, produce buildings that turn you into a tantalizingly convenient straw man.
The IST is a 162,000-square-foot, oval-shaped, two-story building that cost $60 million to put up. (That’s 1.5 percent of the Ground Zero hub’s estimated final tab.) It holds offices for faculty and the university’s president as well as classroom space and a library that has already attracted headlines for not including a single printed book. Though the first stories about Calatrava’s hiring, in 2009, mentioned a 2012 target date and budget of $45 million, university officials say the building did meet more recent timelines and cost projections.
Early photographs released over the summer certainly made clear that Calatrava has given Florida Polytechnic the kind of architectural symbol that it can put on coffee mugs and the brochures it mails to high school students and their parents. And the school’s PR staff has done its best to get out in front of any stories about Calatrava’s fee, freely letting reporters know that his firm earned $13 million for the project. To what extent the Lakeland building will do the more complicated work of recalibrating Calatrava’s place in the profession is a tougher question to answer, and one that I’d flown to Florida to try to answer.
The brand-new campus of Florida Polytechnic University, created by an act of the state legislature, sits in what was very recently farmland about 50 miles southwest of Orlando. (When I asked my university tour guide what used to occupy the site, she had a one-word answer: “Cows.”) But this is hardly a remote part of the world—or one untouched by the work of prominent architects. Florida’s Interstate 4 runs right along the northeastern edge of the campus. Florida Southern College, which includes 18 buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, is 13 miles away, and Celebration, Disney’s new town featuring a post office by Michael Graves, FAIA, and a bank by Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown, is reachable by car in about 35 minutes, as is Disney World.
Still, when Calatrava was hired to design a master plan and the IST building, he was handed a blank slate. That is the first clue that this foray into American architecture was perhaps destined from the start to work out better than Calatrava’s star-crossed effort at the World Trade Center site—or for that matter in Wisconsin, where his 2001 Milwaukee Art Museum addition, complete with giant movable brise-soleil and stretching between the original building and Lake Michigan, was initially praised by many critics before drawing fire as an example of wasteful spending.
Simply put, Calatrava, even more than most architects, works best when he has both political and architectural elbow room. In Florida, he was given space to operate and a healthy, though not extravagant, budget. For an architect up to his neck in bad press, it is hard to imagine a more useful or timely combination. At the same time, Calatrava has no excuses in this case, with a generous site and clients who were pleased—thrilled!—to have him.
In fact, the final product, produced in collaboration with local firm Alfonso Architects and built of reinforced concrete, strikes me as an example of Calatrava’s architectural approach and creative sensibility distilled, for better and worse, to its essence. There are all the usual influences on view—the Eero Saarinen forms rendered in the Richard Meier, FAIA, palette—and they are remarkably legible and easy to parse here, since they are laid out on a flat, unsullied, Oscar Niemeyer–Lucio Costa site and complemented by those ponds, which Calatrava arranged to navigate a subtle descent from south to north. The landscape barely mitigates the punishing Florida sun; it is, more than anything, a frame that provides dramatic and flattering views of the new building. In time, as other buildings fill in what is now empty space—there is a workmanlike (and white) dormitory and a small student services center about 100 yards south, but nothing else—the Calatrava design will have to deal with a bit more context.
In plan, the building is straightforward and elegant. Two double-loaded corridors lined in polished concrete, one at ground level and another on the second floor, curve in a gentle oval arc around the building. The lower one opens onto classrooms on its outer edge and to studio space, labs, and an auditorium in the center of the building. Upstairs, the corridor has faculty and administrative offices on the outside and, to the inside, some small conference and study rooms as well as the building’s functional and architectural heart: a multipurpose library and study space with a soaring ceiling that is known as “the Commons.” Two grand staircases, one on each end of the oval, lead to the upper floor.
The skylight above the Commons is shaded by a complex system of aluminum louvers that can be raised or lowered depending on the intensity and position of the sun; on the day I visited, all 94 louvers were down, casting a series of geometric shadows onto the floor but giving the room plenty of natural light.
This roof system—at 250 feet, twice as long as the one at the Milwaukee Art Museum—is perhaps the closest thing the building has to a statement of principles. Given the recent criticism Calatrava has faced, it is something of a defiant one. My buildings will still take on anthropomorphic form, this project says, and they will still be movable and bone-white and instantly recognizable as my work.
Of more interest to me was the room beneath that roof, which is among the calmest and most assured that Calatrava has ever designed, even if Florida Polytechnic made the odd decision to fill its library, near the north end of the space, with zero actual books. Instead, students will be directed to e-books and other digital resources.
The exterior of the building is ringed by pergolas, covering and lightly shading an upper terrace and a wide walkway at ground level. The pergolas provide a delicacy that is lacking in some of his other work, in Valencia and at Ground Zero. Here the effect is less skeletal and more filigreed.
There are sure to be some complaints from faculty about the almost punitively small size of their offices, and the fact that those offices lack ceilings, so that conversations drift easily from one to the next. And who knows what surprises the operation of the roof system has in store. In general, though, the allocation of space, resources, and even architectural attention is weighted encouragingly toward the students and the spaces where they will spend the most time.
All of which leaves the lingering question: What will this building mean for Calatrava’s place among the leading architects in the world and for his reputation with critics? Assuming the system of louvers doesn’t turn balky, probably not a huge amount either way. The IST will buy him a bit of time and good will, but it doesn’t suggest anything resembling a reckoning or major philosophical shift.
The building is full of handsome and even some very impressive spaces, but none of the singularly breathtaking ones that have made Calatrava, despite his price tag, so attractive to clients looking for marketing splash to go with their museum wing or train station. It reflects serious attention to detail and the bottom line; this is the work of an architect actively trying to prove, or at least re-emphasize, his bona fides.
If that seems odd for a figure of Calatrava’s stature, it is also a sign of the post-boom era in architecture and city-making. The object building, the gleaming icon designed as much for a photo spread as for its users, is something we now distrust almost reflexively. This is especially the case when it occupies a former greenfield location most easily reached by private car, as this one most certainly does.
The size of the hill that Calatrava has to climb to regain the perch he once enjoyed is not entirely his fault; his buildings have had their problems, aesthetically and practically, but he has also been made one of the poster children for boom-time excesses that in the end had more to do with economics than with architecture.
That hill is dauntingly large nonetheless. The results in Florida, more about damage control than image overhaul, are at least a step back toward the top. They don’t play to Calatrava’s harshest critics or suggest a bombastic architect unwilling to learn from earlier missteps. They don’t feed the alligators. —Christopher Hawthorne