Santiago Calatrava: The Bird Man

Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books:

20051215calatravaGreat architects are often blamed for the sins of their copyists. The twentieth century’s most influential master builder, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, saw his daring reduction of the tall building into glass skin and steel bones debased by postwar developers who quickly grasped how profitable that formula could be if stripped of his fine materials and exquisite details. In the 1960s, the pervasiveness of inferior versions of Mies’s designs incited Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to advocate, in such books as Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas as well as in their own buildings, a richer vocabulary of historical and vernacular allusions; but opportunistic postmodernists perverted their ideas into mere styling tips.

Frank Gehry is the latest to suffer that galling form of flattery. The global ballyhoo that surrounded the debut of his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of 1991–1997 presaged an outbreak of hideous imitations. Yet Gehry’s idiosyncratic expressionism cannot be mimicked with as much facility as Mies’s minimalism or Venturi and Scott Brown’s mannerism. Indeed, the onus of plagiarism lies most heavily on Gehry himself, as each new client expects the next Bilbao. Gehry’s influence has been less specific in its effects on architectural style but no less significant: the example of Bilbao has encouraged establishment patrons to award commissions to a younger generation of experimental architects whom they never would have considered before. And none of them has benefited more from Gehry’s impact than Santiago Calatrava, architecture’s newest superstar.

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