Friday 26 April 2019

Niamh Horan: 'I see buildings as being like the fingers on your hand. They are all part of you'

The man behind Dublin's most famous bridge was inspired by the shape he saw on a coin, writes Niamh Horan

Santiago Calatrava, who designed the Samuel Beckett Bridge, says Dublin can benefit from having taller buildings that bring a sense of modernity
Santiago Calatrava, who designed the Samuel Beckett Bridge, says Dublin can benefit from having taller buildings that bring a sense of modernity
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

John Roebling had a vision to build a spectacular suspension bridge connecting New York and Long Island. At the time, experts throughout the world said the plan was impossible. But Roebling persevered and hired his son, Washington, to help realise his dream.

A few months in, tragedy struck. John died after an accident on site. Everyone felt the audacious project should be scrapped. But Washington refused to back down.

Despite suffering from severe decompression sickness after working on the foundations of the bridge, from his sick bed he had a view of the construction and so he developed a code, moving one finger to communicate with his wife, Emily, to deliver instructions.

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She, in turn, had an understanding of maths, catenary curves, bridge specifications and cable construction and provided the crucial link between her husband and engineers, spending the next 13 years helping to supervise the build.

Today Brooklyn Bridge as a tribute to one man's unbreakable spirit and his determination not to be discouraged by naysayers - even when considered crazy by half the world.

One man who embodies the same qualities is Santiago Calatrava. He attributes his work to passion and heart, after that he says "the only thing that exits is hard work and perseverance".

Although most Irish people wouldn't recognise him on the street, he is the architectural genius behind one of Dublin's most famous landmarks, the Samuel Beckett Bridge. Its theatrical structure is a symbol of what can come about when a city is willing to take a risk.

"The object is like a living creature," Calatrava tells the Sunday Independent, "that speaks to and lives on in the lives of others."

As much a poet as he is an engineer, the Spanish architect walked the streets of Dublin searching for inspiration before he set to work. "I went to see how alive the Irish people are when they speak. To capture the warm feeling you get when you are among them. I wanted to understand the music... It's about capturing the spirit and opening your soul to a place. And from all of this I got the emotional component."

He was travelling home through Dublin Airport when inspiration struck. He was sitting in the departure lounge and turning a coin over in his hand. He says: "I saw on the [tail] if you look closely at the mast of the harp, it's also curved like the bridge. I thought - this works well.

"I have always loved the Irish songs, their Celtic flavour, and I thought 'we have to do something with this because Dublin is a very musical city'.

"The important point of this story is that even when you are making something as precise as a bridge, you can still carry a little perfume of the place.

"After this," he says, "it was only a matter of work."

Born in Valencia, Spain, he studied drawing and painting and went on to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Still unsure of what career path he wanted to follow, he was sitting in Notre Dame Cathedral when something caught his eye.

"It was 11 in the morning and the light was entering from the south side through an enormous rose window. And I thought this is the most magical thing, the highest artistic achievement that I had ever seen. The composition of colour, light, architecture and the beauty of all of this together, that is when it became clear in my mind what I wanted to do."

Since then, his oeuvre has influenced many of the greats including Norman Foster. Bowed bridges and bird-like buildings have become his signature style. The World Trade Centre Oculus, the Constitution Bridge in Venice and the Turning Torso in Sweden - inspired by a turning human body - are among his most famous works. He praises Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy's decision to bring taller buildings to Dublin and believes they can add to the skyline.

"I am completely convinced that it is possible for cities like Dublin to have taller buildings in a way that adds value to the city. They can bring a sense of modernity and they can also bring a sense of beauty."

He explains how the Samuel Beckett bridge should act as a symbol of the possibilities: "Bridges were once seen as purely functional items. The cheapest bridge was the best. Suddenly cities started to realise that they can add enormous value to a place. And so it is with tall buildings, we can work with them so that they enrich our cities. In older cities like Dublin [to take into account] how they look, how they relate to the skyline, how they landmark the place."

Now living in Zurich, he says, despite world-wide recognition, he still suffers from his inner critic. "There has always been a feeling towards my work - the thought that it could be better - I think very often people are generally critical towards themselves."

But on his own favourite creation, he says: "I see buildings like the fingers on your hand. They are all part of you. A grandmother was once asked, of all her grandchildren, which she was most devoted to. She said 'the one who needs me the most'."

Like the great Frank Gehry, he may be a ''starchitect'' in the public's mind, but he brushes off the label: "I feel a little disturbed about this concept. It depends on how big the things you do are but even if you are just making a chair - you have the opportunity to create a masterpiece.

"We all serve our profession. Buildings have an autonomous life. You have to look at them like living creatures. You have to let them out into the world.

"Kevin Roche, for example, never thought I would travel as a young student to see his extraordinary buildings. We are serving our profession. We are not serving ourselves."

On his thoughts of Roche, who died this month, he says: "Like his buildings, he was a man ahead of his time."

Although Roche received the Pritzker prize, Calatrava has yet to make the list.

So does it matter?

"For the work and their owners, I think it is certainly very important because they give you a kind of legitimisation," he says.

"But although it is important to get awards, remember there will always be so many people who have done extraordinary work and who are devoted to their profession but who never get the same recognition. Remember one of the greatest writers of our time, James Joyce, never received the Nobel Prize.

"People only realised his work was extraordinary when the man was dead. And yet he ensured - until the last moment of his life - he was always trying to give the very best of himself to the world."

Sunday Independent

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