Building a name for controversy

Architect Calatrava's new Oviedo project adds to long list of criticized works

A distant heir to Gaudí first and Ricardo Bofill second, Santiago Calatrava was once a Spanish architect who dazzled the world. He still does, but not just for technical-artistic reasons. These days, the Valencian is also remarkable for his ability to create controversy wherever he builds.

An habitué of the courts and the star of legal-financial soap operas in keeping with the scope of his unquestionable wisdom and projects, Calatrava, 59, has a lot of people talking about him, although the man himself rarely speaks in public. His global prestige is built on years of impressing people with awesome, revolutionary works of civil engineering, many of which are inspired by bird shapes, including the future World Trade Center Transportation Hub, originally designed to resemble a bird flying out of a child's hand. But his reputation also owes a lot to multimillion-euro projects endorsed by the occasional politician without scruples, and sits in stark contrast to an endless train of problems surrounding his work.

His latest legal battle is being waged in Oviedo, where a judge recently ruled against him over the new Palacio de Congresos y Exposiciones convention center. Calatrava, his Valencian studio Hoc Signo Vinces, the developer Fiaga and the subcontracted company Esdehor will have to pay

3.5 million euros to the insurer Allianz following the August 2006 collapse of part of the building during construction work (three workers at the site sustained slight injuries).

The developer and builder blamed the accident on "a problem of design, direction and execution" attributable to the architect's studio. The architecture team in turn blamed the builder. In any case, Calatrava collected 7 million euros for heading the project. When the judge called him in for a statement he refused to show up alleging medical reasons, although the court considered his absence "unjustified."

The architect has further been criticized by the developer over one of the building's most singular elements, a giant visor that is meant to be raised - "a feat of engineering" that cost at least

4 million euros and does not work because of failures in its complex hydraulic system.

Calatrava's Oviedo complex - which includes a mall, a four-star hotel, the regional culture and health departments and an underground parking lot - is the most expensive private project ever undertaken in Asturias (79 million euros). It was controversial from the beginning because of its location, sandwiched between buildings and only visible from the higher parts of town. It is also too large for the space it is in, and its lateral U-shaped arms practically touch the nearby residential buildings.

The city of Oviedo, run by the Popular Party (PP), paid Calatrava 1.5 million euros for three other projects for this space that were never carried out.

But Oviedo is just one of the battle fronts open for Calatrava across Spain. Several problems in the Valencian region were recently added to a list that includes the controversial Zubizuri footbridge in Bilbao, which is popularly known as "la pasarela de los morrazos" ("footbridge of the smacks") because of the tremendously slippery material that was used to pave it. Also near Bilbao, Calatrava built Loiu airport, which is spectacular from an esthetic point of view but lacks a waiting area for passengers. And then there was his much-disputed bridge over the Grand Canal of Venice, which was inaugurated amid fears of collapse and disapproval over its

11 million euro cost.

The architect, a prophet in his own land as demonstrated by all the streets and buildings that bear his name in the Valencian region and the Balearic Islands, has also been involved in suspicious contract awards by the PP, and criticized for the way his projects always balloon above the initial budget. The left-wing party Esquerra Unida claimed that in 2006, the Valencian government signed a contract with Calatrava without a prior public tender, and asked him to design and build a convention center for Castellón on a budget of 60 million euros. Calatrava allegedly received 2.7 million euros for a project that never saw the light. The Castellón attorney's office also received complaints about two other "ghost projects": several high-rises near the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia (also built by him) and a project in the port of Torrevieja. The architect allegedly accepted 5.8 million euros for all three projects.

Calatrava defended himself in a statement, saying that his studio met every single one of the obligations set out in the contracts. In the Balearic Islands, a judge is investigating a 2006 payment of 1.2 million euros by then-premier Jaume Matas of the PP to Calatrava for a preliminary project, scale model and videos of an opera house that was never built.

His most famous project of all, the City of Arts and Sciences (which includes greatly successful initiatives like the Science Museum) was going to cost 150 million euros, but the ruling PP modified the project, raising the budget to 308 million euros. Sixteen years later, the cost ballooned nearly tenfold to 1.3 billion euros.

A view of the Santiago Calatrava-designed auditorium in Oviedo.
A view of the Santiago Calatrava-designed auditorium in Oviedo.PACO PAREDES
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