Calatrava Strikes a Chord

The Spanish architect discusses his bridge in Israel as well as his project in New York.

This summer, Jerusalem inaugurated a new bridge by Santiago Calatrava that will be the centerpiece of a planned light-rail system connecting the Old City to the sprawling neighborhoods just over its walls. The serpentine, cable-stayed structure is a stone’s throw away from the Central Bus Station in a dusty, car-clogged intersection, where its gleaming white “strings” (it is meant to evoke a harp) and glass-and-basalt walkway make an odd juxtaposition with the dismal surroundings. The angled mast, which rises 387 feet into the air—making it among the most prominent features of the skyline—has been a particular point of contention, with many Israelis calling it overscaled and out of place. The city maintains that the $70 million bridge, which is expected to open in 2010 along with the first rail line, will help ease perennial traffic jams, aid tourists traveling into the Old City, and provide Jerusalem with a sparkling new symbolic entrance. At the opening ceremony (where a taped message from Ehud Olmert, the transit system’s main backer and now Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister, was greeted with jeers), the city’s current mayor, Uri Lupolianski, compared grumbling over the project to early mixed reviews of the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge. The next morning, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I spoke to Calatrava about designing a high-profile project in an ancient city, the criticism of the bridge, and why New York City needs to build “grandiose infrastructure.”

A number of your very high-profile projects recently—in Malmo and Chicago, for example—are really reshaping the skylines of the cities they’re in. Jerusalem is a much older city and more resistant to change than, say, Chicago, where the skyline is just seventy years old. Does that ever make you nervous, to be making such a permanent change here?
Indeed, the skyline as we understand it today was invented in those cities, in Chicago, New York—they are incomparable with any other skyline. They are also alike, and also if you look, the skyline is not yet concluded. Here, all the features outside of the old city have been growing and increasing. I used to stay in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim, and these are the first buildings built outside the walls of Jerusalem. We have to recognize that here is a way for the city to keep growing until there are seven hundred thousand inhabitants or more living in the agglomeration of Jerusalem. The approach I have had to this program here was to do something as thin and as transparent as possible, and also minimize the impact in the skyline of the city.

The official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who just spoke said that one of the goals in bringing an architect of such stature to Israel was to try to get people to see the Middle East conflict through Israeli eyes. Is that a goal for you too?
In all my talk, I’ve tried to avoid the problem of the conflict. Why? Because I want to emphasize that there are many other things here. There are many other things happening. Seven and a half million people live in a country that keeps growing, in a country that is progressing and will maybe catch the median of the European community in the next ten years. The fact that they are now turning their eyes toward infrastructure shows a very high degree of maturity. Because the money is going to increase the capacity for communication, production, and quality of life for everybody living in this country—for Jews, for Arabs, for Christians. The system is also linking Arab parts of the city with the other parts of the city.

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But many people in occupied East Jerusalem haven’t been happy with the light-rail line coming through the city. So there is a political dimension to the infrastructure itself.
Of course, there is. And there are people who don’t like it—that’s natural. This country is a hyper-democratic country. I have come here several times to explain the project to the neighbors, to defend it, and to speak on behalf of the bridge in order to convince the commissioners that it is a good thing and that the overall infrastructure project, which I feel a lot of affinity with, is necessary for the city in terms of how it progresses. We have to start looking at Jerusalem as a historical city and as the great city of peace, with the signification it has and conserving it for the next generation, but also as a city that is growing in a way that has never happened in its history. We have to react to this situation and do that in the most generous and beautiful way.

In Ha’aretz this morning, there was a column saying that the bridge itself was very beautiful, but as the heart of an entire infrastructure project, it didn’t really serve the city well. It diverts traffic and will actually cause more in certain places, and not many people will use the light rail.

Well, in these matters I am very pragmatic. Here in Israel, a project like this doesn’t exist yet. It is the first one. I’ve spent many years in Zurich, a city that has a wonderful public-transportation system. In Zurich, you will barely use your own car. They have a net of tramways that started very simply many years ago. But today it is such an unbelievable network and interconnected with bus lines. So I imagine one day in which Israel will have high-speed trains connecting Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and Haifa, where people will work in Jerusalem living in Tel Aviv, or maybe vice versa. I see the future of this city and this country very much related to problems of infrastructure that I think are crucial to face in this moment.

Going back to New York, what’s the status of the PATH station? The budget, and thus the plans, has changed recently.
New York—I am not learning from somewhere else. I’m learning from New York in the project I am doing. For example, the drive along the Hudson, getting onto the George Washington Bridge, has examples of features done maybe seventy, eighty years ago. Unbelievable! You look at the retaining wall done in stone, the bridges done in stone, how the highway inserts into the park, how beautiful the George Washington Bridge is—built in a crisis time! You know, this was not the richest moment of the city. They built this grandiose infrastructure piece. Then if you keep going toward Connecticut, staying always on the same side of the Hudson, on the Manhattan side, you get onto a highway which is also a marvel of landscaping, with those stone bridges.

We have to discover again that in America there is a tradition of high quality of infrastructure as you can not see anywhere else. The sixties, seventies, and eighties brought us into constrains; it also led to the demolition of Penn Station, which is an absurdity. It would have been one of the greatest monuments of the city. Now if you look at Grand Central and compare it with Penn Station and think how worthwhile the old Penn Station was, why do you want to give that to the commuters of New Jersey, coming from Jersey City, in order to help the city grow and flourish. Why do you want to put them in the poorness of the architecture of Penn Station? So it’s necessary in places like New York—differently from Israel, where those things doesn’t exist—to discover the excellence that public infrastructure can have. It’s our due.

And it has been my fight together with the Port Authority, together, very close together, hand in hand, five years working together, that we deliver a high-quality infrastructure for transporters and commuters. I can ensure you that we have done and keep doing all the possible effort in order to hold the cost of the station inside the frames of an affordable project. We have done that by very conscious and very careful value engineering. You also have to understand that the Port Authority, my client, which I have had the honor to work for, has been in charge of many other projects. And it is carrying the responsibilities and costs of all the other projects. Among others, they are building the Freedom Tower, and they are building and excavating all the sites for Silverstein Properties—for Tower Number Two, Number Three, and Number Four. They are also even building the memorial and carrying an enormous responsibility and cost for it. And, finally, they are building the PATH station.

So we are in front of a situation that is very important to be clarified. The Port Authority is not only carrying the station that they were originally in charge of, but they are carrying also a major responsibility and practically building the whole site themselves. And this is a complicated thing. You don’t have enough attention to your own project because you are carrying costs coming from other sides that nobody can justify, and they could be wrongly associated to the station for which we have been charged, fighting and fighting and fighting to deliver a quality infrastructure. And in the best approach, by doing the very best value engineering, and by working very diligently during five years in a project that is crucial for these players. Believe me, if we do a great station, people will come and this place will flourish. So it’s essential.

And will it happen this year?
I am sure. I am sure. I tell you, I am sure. I have had the honor to work for five years in this project. This is probably the project in which I have dedicated more time in all my career. Even last week, I was with the Port Authority. Even next week, I will be back there and keep working with them because they want to do this station. They have built the George Washington Bridge; they have built Kennedy Airport. Imagine how important this institution is for everyday life. So they know what they have to do. It’s very important that the press and the public support the Port Authority. They lost 85 [employees in the attacks of September 11]. Imagine. One of the things that connects me to them is that they want me to honor those at the Port Authority who passed away in the tragedy by doing the most noble thing you can do: not only rebuilding but building something of high dignity.

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