Celebrating Santiago Calatrava Valls' nature inspired architectural feats

On the 69th birthday of Santiago Calatrava Valls, STIR commemorates the Valencia-born architect's inspirations, inventions, neo-futuristic designs and all things biological.

by STIRworld Published on : Jul 28, 2020

An artist at heart, an architect by vision, and engineer by construction, Santiago Calatrava Valls (born on July 28, 1951) has been captivating the global landscape with his soaring structural feats for the last four decades. Marked by sweeping curves, stark white materials and striking silhouettes, the Spanish innovator’s eurythmic designs scarcely fail to elicit awe and admiration. Having completed over 50 projects, including bridges, transportation hubs, theatres and even a skyscraper, Valls's dramatic visual statements have been fundamental in defining the cityscape of a number of destinations across the world.

‘The City of Arts and Sciences’ designed by Santiago Calatrava Valls in Valencia, Spain | Santiago Calatrava Valls | STIRworld
The City of Arts and Sciences designed by Santiago Calatrava Valls in Valencia, Spain Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps what’s most exciting about the sculptural dynamism of Valls's civic projects is the inspiration behind them. Intensely fascinated by animal biology, Valls mastered the practise of zoomorphism - using animal forms as the basis for architectural design. Guided by the belief that "the metamorphosis of form is optimally solved in animals and plants, with their capacity to grow and move,” Valls dedicated himself to simple observational studies of living forms. With varying bending movements, tapering columns, rounded corners and abrupt geometrical changes, many of his structures show a clear reliance on biomorphic principles that resemble characteristics similar to the natural world. Understanding the opportunities as well as limitations presented by zoomorphism, Valls's works reflect a harmonious fusion of nature and human inspired forms and rhythms.

Santiago Calatrava Valls's bird shaped Airport Railway Station in Lyon | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
Santiago Calatrava Valls's bird shaped Airport Railway Station in Lyon Image Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

In 1989, Valls was commissioned to design the Lyon Airport Railway Station in France. Inspired by the skeletal framework of a bird, Valls designed this building with an interior steel frame taking the shape of "a bird at the point of flight". This bird allusion was further reinforced by a symbolic connection - the station serving as the end point of the route from Lyon to the airport.

Santiago Calatrava’s Kuwait Expo Pavilion design | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
Santiago Calatrava’s Kuwait Expo Pavilion design Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Later in his career, Valls began to reinterpret zoomorphic forms in an attempt to introduce movement into his winged sculptures. His Kuwait Pavilion design for the 1992 Expo made use of a movable brisé soleil - segmented roof pieces capable of separating and regrouping much like the wings of a bird. Similarly, his Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, completed in 2001, is defined by wing-like brisé soleil, which closes over the structure at night or during unfavourable weather, shielding the visitors and artwork. With a roofline comprising wings that open to a span equivalent to a Boeing 747, this zoomorphic pavilion has become emblematic of the city of Milwaukee.

  • The brisé soleil of the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
    The brisé soleil of the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • DInteriors of the Milwaukee Art Museum under the wing-like structure | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworldummy
    Interiors of the Milwaukee Art Museum under the wing-like structure Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 2005, Valls designed the ‘Turning Torso’ - a 54-stories high apartment tower in Malmö, Sweden, made to twist through 90 degrees. As overtly implied by its name, the sculptural shape of the structure draws inspiration from the twisting human spinal column.

Santiago Calatrava Valls's spinal cord inspired ‘Turning Torso’ in Malmö, Sweden | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
Santiago Calatrava Valls's spinal cord inspired ‘Turning Torso’ in Malmö, Sweden Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Another one of Valls's animal inspired creations is the World Trade Center Transportation Hub  in New York. Comprising steel ribs and glass, the 150-foot tall structure is meant to conjure the image of a bird being released from a child’s hands. Santiago Calatrava Valls's signature ribs extend to create two canopies over the north and south, the centre piece of the development being a free-standing elliptical ‘Oculus’.

World Trade Centre Transportation Hub viewed through the ceiling window of the Oculus| Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
World Trade Centre Transportation Hub viewed through the ceiling window of the Oculus Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While Santiago Calatrava Valls's distinctly neo-futuristic designs may seem like the consequence of heavily complicated computer assisted technologies, they are in fact derived from a series of dappled water coloured sketches - testifying to his refrain from computers and drafting tools all together. A firm believer in the power of a pencil, Valls believes drawing by hand presents “a more meditative, more personal, more intuitive way of working”.

The 'backbone’ (Vierendeel truss) of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub designed by Santiago Calatrava Valls | Santiago Calatrava | STIRworld
The 'backbone' (Vierendeel truss) of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub designed by Santiago Calatrava Valls Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Santiago Calatrava Valls has received a total of 22 honorary degrees in recognition of his work, including the European Prize for Architecture and the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.

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