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Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture into Architecture made me realize how mainstream modern architecture followed a different path than that of modern sculpture. Whereas traditional modern sculptors such as August Rodin, Alberto Giacometti, and especially Constantin Brancusi created alternately fluid shapes and rough forms, modern architects—and in particular I’m thinking about the Bauhaus school and Le Corbusier (except for his Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp)—stuck to boxlike, rectilinear forms. It seems that this kind of look wasn’t adopted by modern sculptors until Tony Smith and later Minimalists such as Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Robert Morris, and Carl Andre did so. Where was the flight and fancy in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century? How did Louis Sullivan’s ethos of “form ever follows function” create such sterile, square buildings?
Now we have Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry, and Daniel Libeskind. Is it contemporary engineering that allows for their radical, decorative buildings? Or do the architects approach their work as sculpture?
Nicolai Ouroussoff, a critic from the New York Times, called Calatrava’s sculpture “mostly derivative” and argued that it would never appear in an exhibition at the Met on its own merits. The Spanish-born architect’s finished sculpture, especially the black granite and the gold-plated brass works, seem like regressive thing to make in the 1990s, as if developments in sculpture since midcentury hadn’t happened at all. His figure studies of people and bulls also feel decorative. It seems pretentious that Calatrava would present finished sculpture as sketches for architecture. I’d rather see his working drawings for both his art and architecture to see how the two disciplines relate.
Calatrava’s Turning Torso apartment tower in Malmö, Sweden, is modern architecture with a twist—literally. The architect actually considers the human form in his design, applying the body’s temple to a physical structure. I haven’t seen this in much architecture. Similarly, his Quadracci Pavilion for the Milwaukee Art Museum looks like a boat—when does architecture ever look like something other than a building? Well—this is found in kitsch architecture: ice-cream stores shaped like an ice-cream cone or an abandoned building that I used to see in Florida shaped like an orange—not to mention the structure of an infamous strip club called the Booby Trap that was shaped like a two breasts. Now, after postmodernist pastiche, is kitsch the new progressive architecture?
With this show Met is almost “pulling a Guggenheim” by giving an exhibition to an architect who has several projects pending in New York. Recall Frank Gehry: Architect at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2001, which climaxed with the architect’s model for a new McGuggenheim branch at the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan. The Met has no vested interest in Calatrava’s projects, but a show at such an esteemed institution places a cultural stamp of approval on the architect’s plans.