We live in the world of a sad separation that began some five hundred years ago when art and science split apart. Scientists and technicians live in their own world, focusing mostly on the “how” of things. Others live in the world of appearances, using these things but not really understanding how they function. Just before this split occurred, it was the ideal of the Renaissance to combine these two forms of knowledge. This is why the work of Leonardo da Vinci continues to fascinate us, and why the Renaissance remains an ideal.
So why did Santiago Calatrava, now one of the world’s elite architects, decide to return to school in 1975 for a civil engineering degree after asserting himself as a promising young architect?
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At a very early age, Santiago Calatrava developed a love for drawing. He carried his pencils wherever he went. A certain paradox in drawing began to obsess him. In Valencia, Spain, where he grew up, the harsh Mediterranean sunlight would place in sharp relief the things he liked to draw- rocks, trees, buildings, people. Their outlines would slowly soften as the day progressed. Nothing he drew was ever really static; everything is in a state of change and motion- that is the essence of life. How could he capture this movement on paper, in an image that was perfectly still?
He took classes and learned techniques for creating the various illusions of something caught in the moment of movement, but it was never quite enough. As part of this impossible quest he taught himself aspects of mathematics, such as descriptive geometry, that could help him understand how to represent his objects in two dimensions. His skill improved and his interest in the subject deepened. It seemed he was destined for a career as an artist, and so in 1969 he enrolled in art school in Valencia.
A few months into his studies, he had a seemingly minor experience that would change the course of his life: browsing for supplies in a stationery store, his eye was drawn to a beautifully designed booklet describing the work of the great architect Le Corbusier. Somehow this architect had managed to create completely distinctive shapes. He turned even something as simple as a stairway into a dynamic piece of sculpture. The buildings he designed seemed to defy gravity, creating a feeling of movement in their still forms. Studying this booklet, Calatrava now developed a new obsession- to learn the secret of how such buildings came about. As soon as he could, he transferred to the one architecture school in Valencia.
Graduating from the school in 1973, Calatrava had gained a solid education in the subject. He had learned all of the most important design rules and principles. He was more than capable of taking his place in some architecture firm and working his way up. But he felt something elemental was missing in his knowledge. In looking at all of the great works of architecture that he most admired—the Pantheon in Rome, the buildings of Gaudí in Barcelona, the bridges designed by Robert Maillart in Switzerland- he had no solid idea about their actual construction. He knew more than enough about their form, their aesthetics, and how they functioned as public buildings, but he knew nothing about how they stood up, how the pieces fit together, how the buildings of Le Corbusier managed to create that impression of movement and dynamism.
It was like knowing how to draw a beautiful bird but not understanding how it could fly. As with drawing, he wanted to go beyond the surface, the design element, and touch upon the reality. He felt that the world was changing; something was in the air. With advances in technology and new materials, revolutionary possibilities had emerged for a new kind of architecture, but to truly exploit that he would have to learn something about engineering. Thinking in this direction, Calatrava made a fateful decision- he would virtually start over and enroll at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, to gain a degree in civil engineering. It would be an arduous process, but he would train himself to think and draw like an engineer. Knowing how buildings were constructed would liberate him and give him ideas about how to slowly expand the boundaries of what could be made.
In the first few years he grounded himself in the rigors of engineering- all of the mathematics and physics required for the field. But as he progressed, he found himself returning to that paradox that he had been obsessed with in childhood- how to express movement and change. In architecture, the golden rule was that buildings had to be stable and stationary. Calatrava felt the desire to break up this rigid convention. For his PhD dissertation, he decided to explore the possibilities of bringing actual movement into architecture. Inspired by NASA and its designs for space travel, as well as the folding bird wings designed by Leonardo da Vinci, Calatrava chose as his topic the foldability of structures- how through advanced engineering structures could move and transform themselves.
Completing his dissertation in 1981, he finally entered the work world- after fourteen years of a university apprenticeship in art, architecture, and engineering. In the coming years he would experiment in designing new kinds of collapsible doors, windows, and roofs that would move and open up in new ways, altering the shape of the building. He designed a drawbridge in Buenos Aires that moved outward instead of up. In 1996 he took all of this a step further with his design and construction of an extension to the Milwaukee Art Museum. It consisted of a long glass-and-steel reception hall with an eighty-foot ceiling, all shaded by an enormous moveable sunscreen on the roof. The screen had two ribbed panels that opened and closed like the wings of a giant seagull, putting the entire edifice into motion, and giving the sense of a building that could take flight.
We humans live in two worlds. First, there is the outer world of appearances- all of the forms of things that captivate our eye. But hidden from our view is another world- how these things actually function, their anatomy or composition, the parts working together and forming the whole. This second world is not so immediately captivating. It is harder to understand. It is not something visible to the eye, but only to the mind that glimpses the reality. But this “how” of things is just as poetic once we understand it- it contains the secret of life, of how things move and change.
This division between the “how” and the “what” can be applied to almost everything around us- we see the machine, not how it works; we see a group of people producing something as a business, not how the group is structured or how the products are manufactured and distributed. (In a similar fashion, we tend to be mesmerized by people’s appearances, not the psychology behind what they do or say.) As Calatrava discovered, in overcoming this division, in combining the “how” and the “what” of architecture, he gained a much deeper, or rather more rounded knowledge of the field. He grasped a larger portion of the reality that goes into making buildings. This allowed him to create something infinitely more poetic, to stretch the boundaries, to break the conventions of architecture itself.
As Calatrava intuited, this should be a part of our apprenticeship. We must make ourselves study as deeply as possible the technology we use, the functioning of the group we work in, the economics of our field, its lifeblood. We must constantly ask the questions- how do things work, how do decisions get made, how does the group interact? Rounding our knowledge in this way will give us a deeper feel for reality and the heightened power to alter it.
Written by Robert Greene.