Spanish Fly

Dallas turns rape to romance with Calatrava bridges

So the Dallas City Council has spoken, and we are not going to devote our money or our energy to any kind of natural treatment of the river that runs through us. Instead, according to the council's recent unanimous vote on the multibillion-dollar Trinity River project, we will build a new freeway next to the river and a couple of small fake lakes. But it will be OK, because we're going to put a Calatrava suspension bridge over it.

To me, this is the same thinking that says you can take a girl straight off the farm, fill her purse with oil money, hang a Neiman Marcus sable on her shoulders, and you got yourself a duchess. I'm a snob. I think the Trinity River project is a farm girl in a fur coat.

But here's the international news: Apparently Santiago Calatrava, the famed architect of bridges and buildings, has arrived at that key moment in his career when he will build anything for money. He's ready to do the big rollout. How long before he's in Home Depot?

Instead of a linear treatment of the river, turning it into a green refuge at the heart of the city, we're going to stick a stinking freeway on top of it. And then we will try  to pretty up the mess we've made by festooning it with suspension bridges.
Instead of a linear treatment of the river, turning it into a green refuge at the heart of the city, we're going to stick a stinking freeway on top of it. And then we will try to pretty up the mess we've made by festooning it with suspension bridges.

The proposed Calatrava bridge or bridges in Dallas will be, after all, suspension bridges over a freeway and a narrow drainage ditch. Their true nature, in architectural terms, will be as follies.

An architectural folly, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is "any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder." The mental state of folly is defined by the OED as "the quality or state of being foolish, want of good sense, weakness or derangement of mind."

That about nails it.

Let's not bore ourselves with a big dissertation on the purpose of suspension bridges. We all sort of get that bridges hung by cables overhead were invented to span deep or broad chasms or places where there was some other physical reason you couldn't build a bridge on piers. Modern concrete suspension bridges have a reason for being, in other words. They were invented by engineers, not flibbertigibbets.

Calatrava, a 52-year-old Spaniard of aristocratic lineage, started designing bridges in 1984 and has been stretching the aesthetic and engineering envelopes ever since. His world renown is for wonderful bridges that loom like harps across the sky. So far those projects have also solved real needs and express at least as much mathematical and engineering genius as art.

But come to Dallas.

Here, the proposed Calatrava bridges will span mud flats between the flood-control levees or berms at either bank of the Trinity River where it flows through downtown. The first bridge, for whose design a huge private gift was recently announced, will have a main suspension span of about 800 feet, or three city blocks, in length, a third of the distance between the levees. It will cross an expanse where the more common, more practical, much cheaper solution would be a bridge of beams on piers. Stuck out in the middle of the flat yellow floodplain like a silk bow on a cow, the role of this suspension bridge will be not merely ornamental but deceitful.

In fact, by lending his name to the Trinity River project, Calatrava demonstrates how architecture can serve as camouflage for exploitation, especially when it divorces itself from function and jumps into bed with politics. At the risk of sounding seriously overwrought, I can't resist pointing out that Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, started down his own personal path to hell the minute he decided the function of buildings was not shelter but "a serious way of giving expression in stone to the will of the National Socialist movement."

And all right, OK, keep your shirt on: I realize going from the Trinity River project to the Nazis is a reach. I prefer to think of it as argumentative rather than absurd. The fact remains that the Trinity River project, as configured by the recent city council vote, is the perfect expression of the political will of old-guard Dallas, in which everything else is subverted--especially the democratic process--to 1950s-style cars-and-freeways real estate development. It's so them. I don't think it's us.

For five years we have battled over this project, which was sold to voters initially in a 1998 bond election as the solution to flood-control issues and a chance to create a vast central park in a downtown woefully devoid of green. Not far along the way, it became obvious that this whole package was window dressing for a road project certain landholders had been seeking for decades. It is their conviction, expressed often and exuberantly in hearings, that "access is success"--a line from the Eisenhower era meaning prosperity flows from newer bigger better roads. Picture a family of maniacally grinning blond people in a turquoise '52 Buick Roadmaster with chrome-trimmed ventiports in the front fenders and a big toothy waterfall grille.

What the road hustlers want is a new freeway to bring people into the worn-out warehouse district at the northwest ear of downtown. Along the way, various urban land-use experts have warned them that the freeway idea is worn-out and won't work for development. What would really enhance land values, they have argued, is proximity to a splendid urban park. The old guard listens to this advice, exchanges knowing glances, nods and whispers, "Hippies from Boston."

In its recent vote, the Dallas City Council shifted the financial priorities within the project dramatically away from park-building toward road-building, making it all too obvious which comes first. Even though voters approved $246 million for a park in 1998, plans for the park now depend on the city's ability to raise $110 million in new money from private sources. Lots of luck. Who's going to chip in now for a park squeezed between a freeway and a drainage ditch full of partially treated sewage most of the year?

All of this merely demonstrates that it's not about the park. The game is the road. And the Calatrava bridges are more than merely emblematic of the game: They are the political and cultural keystone holding it up. By sticking one or more faux suspension bridges on the floodplain, we convince ourselves that we have atoned for abusing the earth. It's not really rape if you give her jewelry. Calatrava is our jeweler.

But enough about us and our problems. We are but a small detail in the international glory that is Santiago Calatrava. The real importance of the Calatrava project in Dallas is what it means for the rest of the world--that now anyone can have a Calatrava something-or-other.

If Dallas can have faux suspension bridges across a drainage ditch, then why couldn't Wichita Falls have a much smaller Calatrava bridge across the fake 54-foot concrete waterfall on Interstate 44 (in which "water is circulated at 35,000 gallons a minute," according to one guidebook). I actually think at 35,000 gallons a minute the fake falls in Wichita Falls may be a more substantial water feature than the Trinity, especially in seasons when the upriver sewage-treatment plants are being stingy with their effluent.

As these things go, the franchising of an artist's trademark tends to get broader, shallower and smaller with time. Often in a short time. It's like artists in Santa Fe: One year the guy's got landscape oils in a gallery. The next year he's still in the gallery but his landscapes are also available on the sides of limited-edition vans. Eventually you can get his stuff as charms on free key chains at the corner Exxon station. Sometimes that whole cycle can happen in less than five years.

I think this is the good part. I would be proud to say we had played some modest role in helping bring Calatrava to the masses.

I personally would like to be able to go to Calatrava.com and order a mini for my back yard. We have a small pond, which I dug, with a rubber liner and rocks around the edge. My wife has placed potted plants and some fish in it. It's very pretty. Typically what I would do in our marriage is this: I would surprise her on her birthday with a Calatrava suspension bridge for the pond, which I would assemble from the box the night before so I could unveil it in the morning. Put her in a blindfold and stuff. Then for the next few weeks things would be tense and sort of distant. Questions would be asked about cost and whether a credit card was involved and return policies and so on. I would get mad. OK, forget that idea.

Instead, I believe I'll wait for the Calatrava sunglasses to come out. I happen to be at a point in the earlier part of my latter middle age when I am experiencing a certain reconfiguration of the hairline, which I believe is very distinguished. But I do think the Calatrava look in eyewear--I imagine a cool titanium construction with tiny ventiports and dramatically upswept grilles at both ends--might help me maintain the suave menace I crave. Can't wait, frankly. And what I put on my face: That's my own damn business.

The nice thing about one's own errors in judgment or lapses of taste is that they really don't hurt anybody else. The damage associated with the Calatrava bridge scheme in Dallas will be enormous and enduring. Just when the city is on the verge of a whole new future--people moving back into the center, a flourishing of cafes, a generation that would rather ride a bike or get on a train than park a car, that would love a place to hike or canoe in the heart of the city--the old guard manages to leave one last corpse on the levee. And it's Santiago Calatrava who will stoop to apply the rouge.

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