Santiaga Calatrava's Avant Garde Approach to Architecture

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Santiago Calatrava’s Avant-Garde Approach to Architecture: Removing the boundaries between Architecture, Engineering, and Art.

The structural components of Santiago Calatrava Avant-Garde Approach to architecture are recognized due to their unique and adventurous forms. Calatrava has been heralded to be a hybrid architect/artist/engineer whose accomplishments is represented as the integration of the three disciplines (architecture, art, and engineering). Whereas there are numerous publications that describe Calatrava’s work on artistry, architecture, and engineering, most of them concentrate on these disciplines as distinct and that describes this work. Therefore, most publications focus on the three disciplines as distinct elements, although most of their structural and functional compositions are almost identical.  Consequently, the distinctions between architecture, artistry, and engineering often derive divergent standpoints, which this paper seeks to address through a critical analysis of Calatrava’s work. Whereas many people do not understand that architecture, engineering and art are interdependent in construction work, it is critical to remove the boundaries and integrate the three disciplines in construction work.

Calatrava’s work such as the Puento del Alamillo Bridge, Athens Olympic Sports Complex, Auditorio de Tenerife, Chords Bridge, Liege Guillemins Railway Station, and Museum of Tomorrow (Figure 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6) represents his undoubtedly aesthetical and adventurous achievements that embody architecture, art and engineering. Also, Calatrava designs have been adopted for the design of future buildings. An example is the UAP Pavilion (Figure 7). The project is one of the future projects that is characterized by modern architecture, art, and engineering and is aimed to appear at the 2020 Dubai expo. Nonetheless, in Calatrava’s work, there is great interdependence between architecture, art, and engineering. Hence, the formative classification and clarification of discipline become unnecessary when determining the design of a construction project. In most cases, there is a clear connection between architecture and art but what misses from this equation is the overriding technical authority of engineering as evident in Calatrava’s Alamillo Bridge. Most consideration is given to externalities of a building instead of the technical compositions that are defined by the engineering scope. It is such shortcomings that inspired Avant-Gard movement, which is later to be used by architects such as Santiago Calatrava.

All of Calatrava’s work entails designs and plans that envisage the blueprint of the proposed construction, combining the three disciplines. He is an architect who uses art to come with complex designs (Puento del Alamillo Bridge, Athens Olympic Sports Complex, Auditorio de Tenerife, Chords Bridge, Liege Guillemins Railway Station, and Museum of Tomorrow). Most of his structural artwork is critiqued due to optically unbalanced forms that suggest motions. There are strong illusionary effects that originate from his structures that are described by Jose Luis Gonzalez Cobelo (1989) as works that represent an elaborate dramatization of balance. He compares Calatrava’s work with some piece of a “poetic mutation” that deviates from an apparent course to result to the abrupt aperture to unforeseen possibilities and effects. On the other hand, Calatrava engineering capabilities are evident when he is able to demonstrate mechanics as a comprehension of forces that act as sources of future movements. In this case, Calatrava attempted to stress that architecture and art require engineering where one has to have a mastery of compositions of an architectural design (Yildiz, 2007).

The merging of architecture and art and ultimately design and art create modular units and structural joints, which contain the constituents of the structural whole to keep things inbound (Shen, et al., 2010). Calatrava work is too farsighted and focuses attention on functional details that navigate far beyond the central idea of architecture rather than integrating them. Such work includes; Auditorio de Tenerife, Chords Bridge, Museum of Tomorrow and Liege Guillemins Railway Station. In each of these works, there is a vacillating attention to details on acoustics, seams, walls, stress points, hanging support structures, pavement setting, and the overall complexity of the design. Focusing on these shows that outside details are often overlooked or misunderstood concerning the need for a balance between architecture and art. Nevertheless, balancing between functional and non-functional details of Calatrava’s work has a literal dependence on engineering, which is the foundation of all genres and scopes of architecture and art, even with the use of highly imaginative and software driven forms.

Although tactile theorists strive for larger conceptualization during the design of buildings, there is an underestimation of the persistent demands of specialization, which do not diminish in importance (Winfield, et al., 2007). For instance, Calatrava’s Puento del Alamillo Bridge concept design is marred by structural inefficiencies, where most of its emphasis is on art and architecture while ignoring engineering concepts (Orr, 2008). The concept design was based on a balanced cantilever approach, aimed at erecting segments of the bridge deck and the tower. Much as the architectural and artistic designs were good, engineers questioned the safety levels of the bridge. Nevertheless, the type of specialization that engineers offer becomes critical when the concept is approved and undoubtedly clarified through design and art (Cobelo, 1989). Once the proposal is established by architects through art and design, it is followed by integration into software where engineers inspect the design and the outcomes of practical applications (Yildiz, 2007). Comparatively, “the clarity of concept must precede specialization (Morgan, 2014).”  Therefore, it is only the integration of the two that could achieve the construction. Thus, both the architects and engineers collaborated in coming up with a design that incorporated all architectural and engineering specifications (Orr, 2008). Also, without specialization, derived from engineers, any concept created by architects in the construction of most of Calatrava’s designs could not succeed functionally. The indication was that efficient construction of buildings could only be achieved when there was the integration of the three disciplines to work as one entity (Orr, 2008).

Calatrava’s work provides a clear basis to establish relationship or connection between architecture, engineering, and art (Sharp, 2003). Calatrava suggests of moving structural designs. Nevertheless, the figurative representation of motion is distinct from embodying such a motion. Calatrava’s structures offer an impression of a motion in different dimensions such as falling, flying and turning. Such motions, embedded in some of Calatrava’s architectural works has visual suggestions that do not have any material references. Their unfolding happens when a structural design is experienced as pictorial representation or installations that cannot find a material reference for implementation. In such, the perceived motions of a structure can only be possible if there is a configuration to establish an inner equilibrium or balance. This can be offered by engineering.

 Calatrava uses the overriding principle for the optimal use of materials, which he learns from natural objects such as animals, trees, and human skeleton systems (Yildiz, 2007). He then goes ahead and creates architectural designs that are complex and more of an illusion. When Calatrava is creating these designs, they are attractive and impressive to the eye, but their weaknesses can only be discovered by engineers who have to define the designs based on engineering specifications. Thus, architecture and art will only impress the eye but will tend to drift away from reality. However, introducing engineering concepts provides a means for practical application of the architectural concepts, which means that they are interdependent entities. Although an architect is an expert in architecture and art, he may need a specialist who has insight, knowledge, and wit in what he perceives in his design.

In the recent decades, the association between architecture, engineering, and art turns to be inextricably bound to each other in what can be described as a symbiotic relationship, evident in most of Calatrava’s work (Shen, et al., 2010). For some bystanders, architecture takes form only through emulation of abstract sculptural existence, which must be defined by relevant functional and non-functional components that calls for decisive clarification of design. Nevertheless, architecture, engineering, and art took precedence during the planning and design of Calatrava’s structures. While architecture and art focused on aesthetics and spatial functionalities that were centered on look, artistry, feel, and design functionalities, engineering concentrated on structural elements of the design that Calatrava adopted (Shen, et al., 2010). Al though the engineer is involved in the process of design, it is the role of the architecture to head the designing of this structure. Therefore, the architect undertakes initiation and creation of design, including, color, shape, and spaces of the development work. In turn an engineer undertakes to analyze the design to understand or find its feasibility. In this case, the engineer finds suitable resources, suggests alterations and modifications, and evaluates the structural integrity to ensure that it conforms with the architect’s dream or vision. The role of architecture and art is to design the developmental work while engineering ensures that the design developed can be implemented reliably and safely. Architecture, art, and engineering may sometimes seem to overlap, but having a good relationship between the three disciplines promotes efficiency and effectiveness of building constructions. Also, understanding the mutual connections between the three disciplines paves way for creativity, which leads to even more complex simulations and designs, focusing on the future of architecture.

With design and art taking forms in the contemporary advanced aspects of architecture, art, and engineering, Calatrava creates a query on what is a most pressing requirement. Thus, anything that is natural including the universe’s physical properties can be utilized in construction work, which should embody both architecture and art to design and engineering for practical application of such designs. However, it is critical to understand the underlying principles of the three disciplines, which can be merged for efficient construction works. Also, in order to cater for our basic psychological and tactile needs in terms of constructions, it is clear that there is no distinct line that can be used to separate the three disciplines when it comes to construction due to the interdependence nature.




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Ankara, Turkey: Middle East Technical University.

August 01, 2023




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