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You have to admire their self-control. The last time a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized a show on a living architect was 1973, when Postmodernism was in its infancy and Brutalism was still embraced as an architectural style. Since then, architecture has become more popular than ever, and even small art institutions are vying for a piece of its audience, pumping out exhibitions that range from the indecently self-promoting to scholarly and thoughtful. The Met held back until now.
The new show, "Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture Into Architecture," is a transparent effort to finally capitalize on that popularity. I have no problem with that. Calatrava has several major projects in the works in Manhattan, including a $2.2 billion transportation hub at Ground Zero and a dazzling tower planned for a site near the Brooklyn Bridge. The public can only benefit from gaining insight into the architect's thought process.
But who exactly is the target audience? An array of architectural models, videos, drawings and sculptures, the show tries to demonstrate the link between the architect's luxurious bronze and marble sculptures and his architecture. Yet no one would argue that Calatrava's sculptures would make it into the Met on their own merits; as art, they are mostly derivative of the works of dead masters like Brancusi.
And the show does not shed much light on how sculpture figures into Calatrava's creative process. The problems suggest themselves as soon as you enter the gallery. Architects draw for different reasons than artists do for one thing, to work through ideas with a freedom that cannot be replicated by using computer software. It is also a way to seduce a client. Calatrava is adept at this: He likes to sketch the outline of a bird or a human figure as he explains a design, drawing you into more intimate contact with his work.
At the Met, the drawings have a more didactic function. A frieze depicting bulls and naked figures runs along the upper portion of the gallery walls. Drawn in chalk and charcoal on folded paper, it is obviously intended to link Calatrava's work to the long arc of architectural history, through Le Corbusier back to the Parthenon. Such artistic pretensions don't add much to the show.
Just beyond the entrance to the gallery, a stack of polished white marble cubes, held together by steel pins and string, is set next to a model of his Turning Torso apartment tower in Malmo, Sweden. Calatrava actually built an earlier, cruder version of this sculpture out of wood blocks in 1985, when he was still working out the tower design; sadly, it is not included here. The more stylish marble version was obviously conceived for this show, as a finished work of art. And while it works as a diagram, it tells us little or nothing about how he achieved the buoyant effect of the tower.
New Yorkers are more likely to be drawn to the pairing of a tower model for 80 South St. and "Climbing Torso," a 1990 marble and steel sculpture. A series of cubes that cantilever out from a central mast, the tower is a striking metaphor for Manhattan's spiraling income disparity. Each box is conceived as a town house suspended in midair above the city, an escape capsule for the ruling class. Social issues aside, the pairing helps us glean what gives so many of the designs their hypnotic beauty. The sculpture is the design reduced to its essence a pure expression of the tension and compression that mold the building's structure. It captures the delicacy of the structural system that lies at the core of all of the architect's best work.
New Yorkers might also be interested in a video that is intended to take them through his mental process when he was designing the PATH Station at Ground Zero. It feels like a sales pitch; evidently, the sketch of a woman cupping a dove in both her hands is meant to make patrons swoon.
But other drawings dangle clues to Calatrava's real influences, who were engineers rather than artists. The station's tapered V- shaped columns, for instance, are a virtual homage with a more sinewy bent to the work of Pier Luigi Nervi, the postwar Italian engineer. And they raise a more compelling question than any ruminations on Calatrava's artistic talent: Where does he rank among the great architect-engineers of previous generations?
One criticism that surfaces is that his work is too gimmicky. Structural purists, for example, compare Calatrava unfavorably with the early 20th-century engineer Robert Maillart, whose early bridges, resting on delicate three-hinged arches, were models of efficiency. They are ingenious structural diagrams stripped down to their essence. By comparison, Calatrava sometimes seems caught up in his own wizardry; his designs become overwrought.
The evidence both for and against this argument can be found in the show. Not far from the transportation hub is a model of the Milwaukee Art Museum, its lobby enveloped in two enormous brises- soleil. Their forms rise and fall to control the light flow into the lobby, evoking a bird occasionally stretching out its wings. The movable structures are a well-worn Calatrava theme, but here they amount to self-indulgence. The structure encloses nothing but a lobby; the museum's art galleries are secondary. At other times, it is this kind of bravura that makes you love his work. The sprawling City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, Calatrava's masterwork, testifies to the range of his vision. The concrete and glass canopy of the planetarium conjures an eye rising out of the water, and the repetitive arches of the winter garden are imbued with a ripe sensuality. Like Gaudi's creations, Calatrava's work is about fantasy. The rigorous structure of the armature is there to hold the flesh together and give it life.
At times like these, the faux-Brancusi bronzes that dominate the room fade away, and you feel yourself getting closer to what makes the man tick. One wishes he had left the sculptures back at his studio.
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