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Wednesday April 11 2007

I have been digging, as you do, into two things, which it now occurs to me may have something to do with each other.

First I have been following the argument re-(this one never really goes away these days)ignited about the alleged death of the classical music industyr by Norman Lebrecht and his latest book, Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: the Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry

Okay you probably won’t want to read all of that.  I’ve yet to read it myself.  But you can read: Martin Kettle, Alex Ross, and Lebrecht himself at his new blog.

Second, I have been noting with ever increasing amazement the career and creations of the architect Santiago Calatrava, my latest wave of interest in this man being provoked by coming across this snap, of a big culture-palace in Calatrava’s birthplace, Valencia:

image

This detail of the same place is also very pretty:

image

Stepping back and flying up, what you see is this:

image

Two other Calatrava creations I have only just clocked are these two towers.  The one on the left in Sweden is already built.  The one on the right is to be in Chicago, fingers crossed.  (That picture is an earlier version of this edifice.  The latest version looks rather more ungainly, to my eye.)

image image

Now, here’s the beginnings of my point, blogged rather than written about properly.

Architecture is a public art, and it had its crisis of modernity in the sixties and seventies.  Regular people did not just ignore what then passed for Modern Architecture.  They spat at it.  And the architects noticed.  The spit was on their shirtfronts, and they did not like it one bit.  The current generation of super-architects (a) exists, and (b) exists by having rejigged architectural modernism to make it look good.  Modern Architecture is now in rude health, whereas thirty or forty years ago it was merely rude.  (Other big current names: Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano.)

The architects, you might say, have created new repertoire.

Meanwhile the “classical musicians” have just been jogging along, re-recording their back catalogue for CDs and now for internet distribution.  They also had rude and ugly modernism, but regular people could ignore it, and did.  They didn’t have to live in this stuff.  Very little spitting, and mostly by the orchestral musicians forced to play it.  Whereas the architects and their city-builder clients knew they had a crisis on their hands and settled down to sorting it to great effect, the classical musicians postponed their crisis.  They didn’t search out new composers, with a new way of doing things which combined modernity with popularity in the Calatrava manner.  Only now are they facing this crisis, in the form of cancelled recording contracts, subsidies that just have to remain but actually may soon be cancelled, and commercial sponsors who themselves grew up with the Beatles and who are understandably losing interest in the classical museum.

“Crossover” was an attempt to solve this problem, but it remains despised by the proper classical people.  The nearest thing to a musical parallel to Calatrava etc. are the Americans: Philip Glass and John Adams.  Nice.  But not that much in the way of popular impact, and not nearly enough to alter the sums for the classical music fraternity.

Meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century, pop music has exploded, in a way that has very little parallel in architecture.  If architecture was like pop music, it would be as if every suburban house in the world was a an artistic statement and a potential artistic masterpiece, with the people just loving it, and with this month’s most favourite off-the-peg house design being a popular obsession and a major news item.  (I’m told that Soweto is, or used to be, rather like this, but I really have no idea.) Imagine what the “classical architects” would make of that sort of world, and you have what much of the classical music fraternity does make of pop music now.  Lofty contempt.  Rage.  Envy.  Grudging and now growing respect.  Obsessive brooding on the single-figure-and-falling percentage scored by “proper architecture” in the bigger picture of architecture as a whole.

Well, it’s a thought.  Or rather, those are thoughts.

You actually do not have anything like the full context of the complex in Valencia, by the way. Valencia used to be three quarters encircled by the river Turia. This was problematic, as the river would often burst its banks and flood the city. In the 1960s the problem was solved once and for all by diverting the river away from the city, and moving its mouth a little south along the Mediterranean coast.

That left the question of what to do with the empty river bed. One option would have been to fill it in, but instead they decided to turn the bottom of the river into the “Turia Gardens”: a leisure complex of parks, childrens playgrounds, walking trails, sports facilities, and the Calatrava cultural complex, which is in the section of the former bed towards the former river mouth where the river widened and became shallower. Calatrava’s buildings are only part of a much larger and grander project, although a fairly large part. Of course, the many bridges across the river are still there, although they now cross empty space rather than water. A couple of others have been added, at least one by Calatrava.

Calatrava is a greatest modern architect of transport infrastructure: bridges, airports, underground railway stations, etc. (Norman Foster is probably the only other transport infrastructure architect of equal acclaim). Spain is full of his bridges. China and Korea are full of knockoffs of his bridges. Bilbao airport is not in my mind entirely successful (it looks a little too much like a bridge, and last time I was there I spent ten minutes trying to figure out where the car rental desks were amongst all the spectacular white columns).

However, amongst all the arguments over what to build at ground zero in New York, there seems to be almost universal agreement that Calatrava’s plans for the railway station at the site are brilliant, which is a big thing given that nobody seems to like anything else which has been proposed for the site.

However, Calatrava’s more conventional buildings (towers and the like) seem to get much worse reviews. (That Swedish building is middlingly contreversial). His buildings seem to look good, but not get the functional details of large office or residential buildings right. An office building is complicated from a functional point of view in terms of vast numbers of small details, in a way in which a bridge or even a railway station insn’t. And the skeletal style of Calatrava’s buildings is perhaps not reall suited to that kind of building.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 11 April 2007

Two things.
-Seems you haven’t read 2Blowhards for a while...or rather for a long time. Look into archives for “architecture” and you’ll see exactly what you think would happen with classical architects if the world was an equivalent of pop-music. Contempt, envy, populist demagogy, whole set - happening now.
See the recent maddening thread on T. Mayne’s Federal building in SF [my opinion, in short: it’s one ugly building, but let’s judge it by its merit]

-Calatrava is the closest, in my opinion, to architectural genius in contemporary architecture. If I wasn’t an atheist I’s worshiped him on my knees. The first time I saw his building (Arts Museum) I was in Milwaukee on a lighting seminar - completely unprepared - and was love-struck for life.  Another one - in Lisbon, the North railroad station near the Expo Park. You just know, know immediately- it’s him. Michael, I envy you, seeing so much of C’ work in your travels.
But you’re right, , he’s not one for office towers. He’s one of the last incarnation of “spiritual” architects...not the hi-rise material.

Posted by Tat on 11 April 2007

By the way, the first photo in this set is a Calatrava bridge going over the Turia gardens, although alas it is all bridge and no context also.

Although I have seen a lot of Calatrava structures, most of them are bridges. The larger structures are rarer. I visit Spain a fair bit, and just about every city in Spain has felt the need to have a Calatrava bridge.

This makes me think of two other points. Firstly, Calatrava is the first architect to really get the fact that bridges (or relatively small bridges at least) are now the preserve of architects rather than engineers. It used to be that building bridges was all about cost - you designed the bridge so that you used the least expensive materials possible for a bridge of the length and strength you needed. (This is still the case for bridges carrying vehicles that are more than about 200m in length, but it is not true for shorter vehicular bridges or pedestrian bridges). This was because doing anything other than optimal design in a cost sense led to the bridge being either vastly more expensive or structurally dubious. However, materials have now got so strong and so inexpensive that the cost of the materials is a relatively minor portion of the total cost of designing and building the bridge, and it is possible for architectural flights of fancy to take place and a bridge to still be structurally sound. (They can still get it wrong - witness the Millennium Bridge in London).

The second thing is that Calatrava came of age as an architect just as Spain had managed to get rich after putting fascism behind it. Spain wanted to show it was modern and hip, and has done so by building lots of new and interseting buildings. Calatrava had the good fortune to be a world class Spanish architect who came along at the moment when everyone in Spain wanted to hire someone like that. As a consequence, a huge number of his structures have actually been built. For most other architects, a much greater percentage of designs just remain in the drawing board.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 13 April 2007

It’s a nice theory, Michael. Only 1) Calatrava not only trained as a civil engineer (after graduating in architecture), but his first employment was as an engineer - Zurich, not in Spain.  2) According to this rather old article, he entered competitions as a way to gain comissions - and the competitions were for bridges, mostly Spanish; he entered them as a civil engineer. Only after gaining solid reputation as a bridge designer he started to get building projects.

Posted by Tat on 14 April 2007

As an ignorant observer, I don’t see what Michael says as being disproved by the career information that Tat supplies.  That Calatrava did architecture first, and only then trained as an engineer, suggests that his basic calling was always architecture, but that it made sense to add engineering to it.  Then, he went to work designing bridges, in a way that combined the two disciplines, and finally got back into architecture.

However, that he is able to do his own engineering means that his “flights of fancy” are less fantastical, from an engineering point of view.  And probably also more fantastic for architecture fans like me, because he can push the envelope of fantasy further.

As so often with innovation, the trick is to bring together disciplines which have been kept distinct.  (Famous science case, Crick and Watson added chemistry to biology to crack DNA.)

Either way, thanks to both.  This often happens with me.  The posting is a mere catalyst (to continue with the chemistry).  The best comments then get to the heart of it.

Although, in my defence, this posting was originally as much about music as about architecture/engineering, even thought the pix said otherwise.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 14 April 2007

Tat

Your comment about 2Blowhards is making me think of such a complicated reply, involving the possible contrast between Europe and USA, that I will probably do it as a separate posting.  (But, I promise nothing.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 14 April 2007

You’re right, Brian, Calatrava’s uniqueness is in combining 2 professions together. Of course, that used to be a normal mode before industrial revolution and specialization, so in a sense, he’s the modern interpretation of Benvenuto Cellini - just the complexity of both professions is much higher. And another thing - he is brilliant in both parts of his dualism.

Stilll, he started studying engineering when he was 24, as a post-graduate - he never worked as an architect before he started his engineering practice. And we all know that school and practical work are two distinctly different worlds. Actually, I read that him being an engineer in addition to architect makes many in architectural world cringe, this is a standard reaction in the field when anybody mentions C: “oh, him - but he’s not an architect, he’s just a bridge engineer!”.

The differences between US and Europe - it’s such a vast topic. I have much to say about that myself...but rather not. Better listen to your thoughts first!

Posted by Tat on 14 April 2007

Oh, and about the music.

As someone else just reminded on their blog,
“ if you’re not an expert snake catcher, don’t attempt to catch snakes”.
I know too little about classical music to comment on your parallels - they sound excellent and very likely true to me. But I’m not a snake catcher.

Posted by Tat on 14 April 2007

Tat, as to snake catching, I think it’s fine for non-snake-catchers to hazard intelligent guesses about snake catching(where would this blog be if I didn’t think this?), so long as they (we) make it clear that this is what they (we) are doing.  No need to pretend to be an expert if you aren’t, in fact a strong need not to.  But amateur opinions are still often very well worth nothing.

After all, amateur opinion ("it’s gobshite") was what sank European Modern Movement Modern Architecture, fifties, sixties and seventies vintage, i.e Le Corbusier and his numerous concrete obsessed imitators.  And it is amateur opinon now ("cool") which is giving Modern Architecture Mark 2 (Calatrava, Rogers, Foster, et al.) such a warm reception by comparison.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 14 April 2007

True - but only in case of amateurs, not ignoramus(es?i?). Afraid, I’m the latter where the music is concerned.

Posted by Tat on 15 April 2007
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