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Q & A: Santiago Calatrava

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The Scene meets Santiago Calatrava to hear how the Spanish architect is putting his ideas into practice in his hometown of Valencia.

The Scene: What was it like growing up in Valencia?

Santiago Calatrava: It was a nice place to grow up. I had a beautiful childhood here. The city is big enough to give you the notion of a city but it is also a city surrounded by gardens and the sea, the mountains ... it is a very Mediterranean city. The light is very beautiful too and the people are very happy people.

TS: When did you become interested in architecture?

SC: Seriously, when I was 17. Before then I could see that the city was very expressive but I was more involved with art, painting, sculpture. In fact I started very early here in the Arts and Crafts school when I was eight or nine years old. It's a city that has an enormous patrimony of art. We have Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque architecture. Because it was always a rich city -- ever since the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance -- there are beautiful monuments and paintings to see for all those epochs. The city is full of contrasts. For somebody who has the eye to see it's a wonderful place to learn architecture. It is the only city as far as I know in Spain that has pure Italian renaissance architecture. They commissioned Italian architects and painters to come here.

TS: How does compare to other Spanish cities?

SC: Valencia is a pure Mediterranean city; it is a city like Naples or Palermo, like Rome a little bit. Walking in the old town has a little bit of the flavor of the old city of Rome. The most liberal, the most open city in Spain. Much more than Barcelona, no comparison. Valencia is different. It's more liberal, more free and in a way it's more cosmopolitan. It has been historically in that Valencia was always a trade center.

TS: In Valencia you were surrounded by all this historic architecture and yet your work is so defiantly modern and different. Why did you choose to do something so different and how did that work?

SC: I think it worked very well because the city provokes you to do things like that because Valencia has so many epochs and they're all very clearly defined.

TS: Were you trying to create a new epoch?

SC: Yes, because I think architecture can help to renovate the city and in our case with the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias we started in the most depressed area of the city. There was nothing but obsolete industry, polluted soil and abandoned housing and it was really the backyard of the harbor and the backyard of the city. Nobody wanted to live there. We started with the ambition that a cultural project of this nature could generate a city around it. Valencia decided to use a cultural project to regenerate the city -- you could do that by hosting an Olympics or having an Expo, but here the choice was to link all these cultural things as if they were a city. And through those buildings I saw this part of the city slowly transformed so people now say it's one of the nicest places in the city to live. It was a very interesting experience more than anything else because we showed that through a cultural project it was possible to generate life around the city.

TS: Was it special for you to take on such a project in your hometown?

SC: Yes, without any doubt. I used to say I could do this project for 15 years because half of the people in the city were my relatives. One of the advantages of coming from a place is that you understand the people. It's very familiar for me and it's a great honor for me to make a contribution to my hometown which I think in all honesty has contributed very much to changing the image of the city. For people of the younger generation, the 21st century has started for them with a positive sign that Valencia is and will continue to be a very modern city.

TS: How would you describe your architectural vision?

SC: I think the background of my architecture -- and I think it is something very much from a Mediterranean culture -- is a rational one. The bones of my architecture are very much related to the structure, to the physical fact of how a building can stand up; it's also related to geometry and a certain understanding of the architecture in which there is a balance between expression and function. The buildings have a mystery that attracts you, they have a soul, and all of those things I learnt here. They are all deeply related to Valencia.

TS: Your work is often described as influenced by natural forms.

SC: The principles I follow are based on the element of repetition. This reminds you a bit of nature because nature often works in patterns. It's not a principle that's strange. There is a certain exemplarity taken out of the nature that goes into architectural structures. In architecture you are very much involved in the pragmatic sense of solving problems from a functional point of view, more than anything else. If people give buildings a certain value or a signification that goes beyond that it's good. And many times people surprise me with their interpretations. It was never my will to deliver fixed ideas into the minds of the people.

TS: Who are your influences?

SC: I became a fanatic of the architecture of Le Corbusier and I visited almost all his buildings and read all his books. Only later on did I discover that all the things that impressed me in his books, particular his ideology, he had picked up from Auguste Perret. So finally I came back to the original sources. Le Corbusier was very nostalgic about the Mediterranean, the clarity of the light, the sense of the classic, the sense of the Gothic. So I think I understand his interest in those sort of things because for me they are also very important.

TS: Do you think your work has changed the character of Valencia?

SC: Not really because Valencia is a big city. But perhaps it changed the way that people thought about the city because for 15 years they saw people always working to deliver a city in which every building was open to the public. It's been very democratic so I think it represents what Spain has been trying to do for the last 15 years.



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