Bilbao Envy

Meadows' show of Santiago Calatrava's designs is one big missed opportunity

It doesn't take much time wandering the inaugural exhibition at SMU's Meadows Museum to realize that Santiago Calatrava is no fool. A dreamer, certainly. A weirdo, for sure. A genius, perhaps. But when it comes to building a reputation, the Spanish-born architect and engineer is no quixotic figure.

At 49, Calatrava, who has fewer than a dozen important European commissions and about a dozen bridges to his credit, is shimmying up the slippery pole of success with astonishing ease. With his first big U.S. project, Milwaukee's new art museum, barely opened and not quite finished, he is nevertheless poised to become America's latest urban architectural fad. Newspapers from the Boston Globe to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution fawn over him, crediting his designs with revitalizing blighted downtowns, showering him with the sort of excessive praise and suspension of disbelief once reserved for Alan Greenspan. Boosterish editorial boards spank public officials who hesitate to build his vaguely surrealist concrete-and-cable visions. Behind them, a chorus of small regional museums and universities, often in burgs where Calatrava has a project on the ground or on the boards, proclaim his genius and pass out honorary degrees.

Chalk it up to the Bilbao Effect. In 1997, American architect Frank Gehry unveiled the latest and most fantastic of his creations to date, a new museum with a curving, undulating titanium skin, and transformed the sleepy Basque burg of Bilbao into a cultural Lourdes. City pols and chamber of commerce types who couldn't tell a Gehry from a Predock can spot a tourist magnet when they see one, and they all want some of this economic fairy dust.

Calatrava's model for the Tenerife (Spain) Opera House
Calatrava's model for the Tenerife (Spain) Opera House


Through August 5; (214) 768-2516
SMUís Meadows Museum

Naturally, Dallas wants some, too. And so Calatrava, who has two major projects in Bilbao, has been all but commissioned by the local Powers That Be to build a series of bridges over the Trinity. Which is where SMU and the current Meadows show come in. Last year SMU bestowed its 15th Algur H. Meadows Award for Excellence in the Arts on Calatrava; the Meadows Foundation, in turn, commissioned a fountain from the Zurich- and Paris-based architect. This year the foundation chipped in for the first bridge, and the museum is heaping on the praise. As one might surmise, the Meadows show isn't about critical evaluation, or art history, or even really about architecture--a topic that, amusingly, SMU doesn't teach, except by way of historical survey. This is a slick sales job by Dallas' platonic guardians, including the Meadows Foundation and the Communities Foundation of Texas, perfectly timed to help the city raise Calatrava's $5.9 million design fee (that's for the first bridge alone).

Of course, a rationalization is attempted. "Santiago Calatrava was chosen as the subject of this exhibition because he is among Spain's greatest living practitioners in the visual arts...The centrality of visual art--especially sculpture and drawing, the latter often in painterly washes--in [Calatrava's] creative process...makes the presentation of his work in an art museum especially appropriate." Alas, no Picasso he. Calatrava's sketches are at best workmanlike, and his abstract sculpture resembles warmed-over Henry Moore. Mercifully, the Meadows does not push the "great-artist" angle. For the catalog, the Meadows turned instead to Calatrava's handpicked hagiographer, Alexander Tzonis, a professor of architectural theory who has staked his scholarly career, in part, on helping promote Calatrava's. The result is impenetrable prose, generously salted with mysterious references to Freud, mathematics, load conditions and vegetables. (Not surprisingly, Tzonis misses the most relevant psychoanalytical concept: Bilbao envy.) Even granting the difficulty of translating architecture to English, it all has a vaguely theosophist cant. "A necessary condition to improving our cities and landscapes today is to overcome the strictures among architecture, infrastructure and sculpture, all three offering at the same time answers to problems but also invitations to new questions, epistemological and moral, and about the meaning of human action..." Translation: Calatrava is the genius Dallas needs. He speaks 10 languages, including architecture, engineering and art, and channels the collective superego. He can heal past wounds and show us a glorious future, with liberty, justice and tourist bucks for all.

All that's missing is the donation box at the door.

It's all too bad, a huge missed opportunity, for there are plenty of legitimate art-historical excuses to do this show. The Meadows show utterly fails to do what it was uniquely equipped to do: to analyze Calatrava's architecture in terms of Spanish art and history. Underneath the humanist poses and highfalutin' rhetoric, Calatrava's architecture is a continuation and interpretation of the wonderfully antirational streak in Spanish art and architecture.

To oversimplify, Spain's intellectual and political history has produced a powerful artistic heritage, wonderfully dark, violent and expressive, which has served as inspiration for artists from Manet to the Surrealists. Calatrava's work mines this heritage. His designs are surreal, resembling huge, organic forms lighting on the landscape: birds, insects, stingrays, eyeballs, crocuses, skeletal rib cages. Beyond the obvious surrealist parallels, however, Calatrava's designs are an amalgam, a continuation of European antirational architectural styles. The most important of these influences, which can be seen clearly in Calatrava's design for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, are the late Gothic and art nouveau. Like the anonymous architects of Gothic churches such as England's Wells Cathedral, Calatrava mischievously plays with structural elements, transforming ribs and flying buttresses into decorative elements. He is fascinated with see-through effects and free-flowing forms, especially arches, and the arched canopies of projects such as his Oriente Train Station recall the exuberant designs of late medieval vaults. His preoccupation with three-dimensional space, too, was shared by many a Baroque predecessor.

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