“There is a campaign to discredit me for electoral ends”

In a rare interview Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava responds to criticism of his work

Santiago Calatrava in Madrid.
Santiago Calatrava in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

“How can you have created seven of the biggest train stations in the world if, as I have heard people say, my buildings aren’t very practical? Or how can you be chosen, out of 15 candidates, to build the Greek Orthodox church at New York’s Ground Zero? Nobody does something bad and gets to do it again.” Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava, 63, is one of the world’s leading architects, though several of his works have courted controversy in Spain. Despite his reluctance to give interviews, his initial nerves disappear as he talks passionately and almost non-stop to EL PAÍS about his work during a two-hour interview. He does so accompanied by his two lawyers, with whom he has just held a meeting, ahead of a court appearance in Castellón on Tuesday regarding an investigation into why the Valencian regional government paid him €2.7 million to design a convention center that was never built. But neither of them vetoes a single topic, allowing Calatrava to talk freely about the criticism he has come in for in Spain over his buildings in Oviedo, Bilbao and Valencia.

Question. The City of Arts and Sciences complex in Valencia was budgeted at €308 million but cost €1.282 billion. Why?

Answer. The €308 million budget referred to the first project, known as the City of Arts and Communication, 25 years ago, which only planned for three buildings. After the change of government in 1994, the regional administration had a drastic change of plan and designed the Palau de les Arts on the foundations of the communications tower. The name was changed and they also decided to build a botanical gardens, L’Umbracle; a covered parking garage; a bus station; two bridges; a new power plant; L’Àgora arena…

I would like to make it clear that I am not an architect who belongs to any party”

Q. It’s said your works always go over budget.

A. Unfortunately in Spain, where I have worked for more than 20 years without consideration for any political colors, a campaign with a clear political nature has begun that, by discrediting me personally, is pursuing an electoral end. I would like to make it clear that I am not an architect who belongs to any party. Not any. Florida Polytechnic University was built, for instance, after making adjustments to the planned budget and within the allotted time. That was managed, not just thanks to the quality and the maturity of the project, but also because of the quality of the construction company, Skankska Construction, and the owner’s effective following of the project. The architect is not the only one responsible for the work, for its development, quality and final cost.

Q. The trencadís mosaic made from broken tile shards on the Palau de les Arts came unstuck eight years after it was put in place.

A. Various factors came together, all of them unconnected to the work of an architect as the designer and director of a project. I have committed myself – and you have to understand my participation in the resetting of the trencadís in those terms – to making sure all the phases of the work are carried out under the greatest of controls. And this time the owner [the Valencia regional government] is committed to making sure there is adequate maintenance. The idea is to recover the beauty of the original surface without any further cost to Valencians. We are dealing with a typical Mediterranean material that has been used for more than 100 years. It was used brilliantly in the Tenerife Auditorium, and over 12 years later it is still giving a sparkle to a unique work exposed to the sun, wind and Atlantic storms.

Q. Why is the roof of the Domecq de Laguardia winery in the Basque Country leaking?

A. There were a number of hurricane-force winds during the construction work that caused serious flaws and uprooted parts of the roof that was being put in place. The best thing would have been to begin the roof again, but for cost reasons it was decided to try to repair it. This solution did not give good results and we refused to agree to the roof precisely because it wasn’t guaranteed watertight. In any case, we have collaborated with the owner and the construction company to solve the problem, and there is now a satisfactory agreement for everyone.

The best thing would have been to begin the roof again, but for cost reasons it was decided to try to repair it”

Q. Your bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice has attracted complaints because disabled people cannot cross it and because of the weight it exerts on the far ends, which were initially unstable.

A. When we started to build the bridge it had been more than 125 years since one had been constructed over the Grand Canal. Between 16,000 and 25,000 people pass over it every day. If it is true that there was originally a certain confusion, independent mediating engineers hired by the Venice government have confirmed that the performance of the bridge is that which was accepted during the design and calculation phase, and that the concrete supports, after a short initial settling phase, have not moved again. What’s more, four mobile platforms to move people with reduced mobility are planned, despite the fact that the local government defended the theory that the vaporetto public transport boat is Venice’s ‘horizontal elevator’ for passing from one side to the other. To access the vaporetto we built a ramp that overcame the drop between the Piazzale Roma and the vaporetto. But the local government commissioned the ovovia gondola lift to be built.

After making his statement to the judge, in which he declared that former Valencia regional premier Francisco Camps authorized the cost overruns on the abandoned Castellón convention center project, Calatrava was set to return to his base in Zurich. He is currently involved in eight new projects in the US, Brazil, Switzerland and Qatar. “We are finishing off the multimodal station in Ground Zero and we have been commissioned to construct the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church, which shows that New York is demonstrably satisfied with our contribution up to now.” As is Canada, too, which has just awarded him a prize for his Peace Bridge in Calgary.

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