Santiago Calatrava, a Spaniard born in 1951 who is the spiritual heir to Gaudí, has recently skyrocketed into the ranks of the “starchitects” (Gehry, Hadid, Koolhaas, Libeskind, et al.). Like Gaudí, he insists that his projects are inspired by and founded in nature’s underlying geometric structures, both simple and complex, and in its visible forms. Calatrava, also like Gaudí, and like some of his celebrated colleagues, makes architecture distinguished by its aggressive, photogenic iconicity. His buildings project striking images, and they make good logos. (An aerial view of several of Calatrava’s buildings graces the official Spanish tourist bureau’s promotional materials.) For this reason, Calatrava’s buildings and projects raise an urgent question. Is iconicity integral to good architecture? Can it, in some hands, be a deterrent to good architecture? These architects, practicing what marketing directors admiringly call “branding,” are logging a staggering number of airplane hours; and in the process, they are transforming architecture’s role in the international political economy by creating universal and instantly recognizable trademarks. In this newly organized professional context, imagery rules.
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