Genius: Hidden in Plain Sight

04.17.2008 | CULTURE

Imagine a great artist whose work is seen on a daily basis by hundreds of thousands of people. Yet, even though many not only enjoy, but are transported by, his triumphs, they don't know his name. (We're not speaking of sculptures in public places. However small, the artist's name is usually inscribed or affixed.)

It's not that this artist is neglected. His many honors include MIT's Eugene McDermott Award, one of the most coveted arts awards in the US, and election to France's "Les Arts et Lettres." Ordinarily, this author is disinclined to celebrate the most successful and wealthy. It's just that this man's work demonstrates the extent to which developing a public space can set the viewer's spirit free from its earthly moorings.

Yes, Spaniard Santiago Calatrava works in the field of architecture, which, in the US, is only intermittently thought of as an art by the public. We prefer form or flash in our architecture, not art.

It figures then that his first American commission was an art museum, Milwaukee's. In Europe, Calatrava, who began securing important commissions as soon as he got out of school, is renowned for everything from bridges and railway stations to the Stadium at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

He's since completed a number of designs for American clients, but only the Sundial Bridge, which spans the Sacramento River in Redding, California, has been completed. While those who use and view it may not know the architect's name, it's become a tourist attraction. Of course, not all Americans will be impressed by his work.

The range of reactions likely runs thusly:

1. "Don't force that artsy stuff down our throats."

2. "Usually I don't go for that kind of thing. But I like this."

3. Or, as New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg exclaimed when he saw Calatrava's designs for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub at Ground Zero: "Wow."

What of architecture critics? Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times called the Ground Zero design "breathtaking." On the other hand some critics find that Calatrava's work pales before that of the two Franks -- Lloyd Wright and Gehry. To them Calatrava panders to the masses.

In 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an exhibition of his sculptures and models of his buildings. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Martin Filler maintained that Calatrava would never have been granted a show if he weren't a successful architect.

"It's a long way from Walt Disney to Frank Gehry," Filler wrote, "and Calatrava falls somewhere between the two." In fact, he makes Calatrava sound like the Andrew Lloyd Weber of modern architecture.

Regarding the two architects, "Calatrava's busy but basically obvious buildings can be comprehended at first glance. . . whereas Gehry's complex and ambiguous compositions take more time to absorb."

But take a look at a photo of Gehry's most famous work, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (third figure from the top; the rest are Calatrava). While undeniably brilliant and leavened with a dash of whimsicality, it can be viewed as art masquerading as sculpture. Not unlike a film that hews too closely to the literary novel on which it's based, Gehry seems to have descended from the semi-arid heights of serious art.

Calatrava, on the other hand, isn't too proud to extend a hand to the viewer and welcome him aboard. The thanks he gets for this from Filler is the charge that it's "kitsch."

To the public, he writes, "the ambition of Calatrava's architecture is exhilarating, and reassuring in its recollection of a time, not so long ago, when technology held out the promise of unlimited human progress. [It taps] into a deep-seated desire for a future quite different from the one we are facing."

Even if the familiar and, at times, literal shapes of Calatrava's work function as hooks, doesn't that still elevate the viewer to a realm once inaccessible to him or her?

The architect's 9/11 design is not to Filler's taste. But he admits that its "vision of the bird of peace fluttering up from the hands of a child" shows that Calatrava "has an intuitive understanding of the emotional issues in play at Ground Zero and is not shy about emphasizing them."

In fact, that can safely be said of most of Calatrava's work.

End Notes:

It behooves us to mention that the megalomania required to be both a top architect and his or her client can cause unintended consequences. For example: "The emergency fund-raising drive the Milwaukee Art Museum launched to pay off the last $25 million in cost overruns set off a chain reaction that has brought several of the city's older cultural institutions close to bankruptcy because of increased competition for local donations."

Calatrava granted Charlie Rose an animated, passionate interview at that time. The negative impact of his work on a community wasn't discussed. Instead Rose brought up the transportation center that would need to be rebuilt at Ground Zero.

Rose: "Because of what happened [the opportunity exists to] build a memorial at Ground Zero. . . the transit. . . the people who come into that central zone. . . . It will probably be imperative that they design something that will require your kind of imagination."

Calatrava: "There is no better homage to the past and the circumstances of it than to make a connection with a lot of life, everyday life. . . . It's a wonderful idea, you see, that you can bring half a million persons who will maybe for a short moment remember this place."

Did Calatrava's suitability for the Ground Zero project spontaneously occur to Rose? Or had Calatrava already applied for the commission and were both he and Rose being either coy or discreet?

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