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Small-scale look at towering ambition

Santiago Calatrava's architecture and art are juxtaposed as a Met show tries new devices.

October 18, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Museum of Art has held just two architecture exhibitions over the last 35 years: one on Marcel Breuer and the other on Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

These days, however, in an age of high-wattage architectural celebrity, any museum that doesn't tap into the growing public fascination with the field risks looking behind the times. And so today brings the opening of "Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture Into Architecture," a show that is modest in size but tellingly opportunistic. In New York as elsewhere, Calatrava is hot. But as an institution, the Met is simply too huge to jump on a bandwagon with anything resembling agility.

The show, which juxtaposes Calatrava's sculptures and sketchbooks with models of buildings either completed or in the works, also smacks of a relatively new museum-world affliction: curtain-wall envy. The Met is one of very few museums in New York that hasn't been able to exploit architecture as a marketing or re-branding tool in the last decade.

The Museum of Modern Art continues to draw throngs to its crisp new building 30 blocks south, expensively redesigned by Yoshio Taniguchi. The New Museum, the Whitney Museum and the Morgan Library are all getting ready to open new or expanded digs -- the first by the highly fashionable Japanese firm SANAA and the other two by Renzo Piano.

The dignified, neoclassical Met, on the other hand, is prevented by its Central Park location from growing any larger or more modern-looking. And its New York mission keeps it from seeking Guggenheim-style global domination. There will be no Temple of Dendur, in other words, for the new millennium, no Met outpost in Bilbao or Las Vegas or Rio. But preservationists and city planning czars can hardly object if the Met wants to market contemporary architecture in the form of models that are merely a few inches high.

The Calatrava exhibition was organized by Gary Tinterow, who was tapped last year to head a strengthened department of 19th century, modern and contemporary art at the Met, and another curator, Jane Adlin. If it's meant to announce a new focus on contemporary architecture at the museum, it is a rather weak opening salvo. Terence Riley, chief architecture curator at MoMA, will not be losing any sleep over it, to be sure.

Still, the 54-year-old Calatrava, who was born in Valencia, Spain, and lives and works in Zurich, makes such an attractive subject for a museum show that it is surprising none of its Manhattan rivals beat the Met to the punch. He is not only trained as an architect and engineer but he also produces sculptures in marble and polished metal that are sleekly attractive, if highly derivative of Brancusi and other well-known Modernists.

Calatrava's combination of left- and right-brain talents -- how many sculptors do you know who can explain the difference between a suspension and a cable-stayed bridge? -- has won him increasingly large-scale commissions around the world. The most prominent in this country is surely the forthcoming transportation hub at the World Trade Center site, so far the only architectural success story at ground zero and a building whose soaring and elegant forms have made Calatrava a household name in New York. He has also designed an extension to the Milwaukee Art Museum on the edge of Lake Michigan, which opened four years ago, bridges as far removed as Bilbao, Spain, and Redding, Calif., and a handful of other train stations. His plan for a new Atlanta Symphony Center was unveiled earlier this year.

Calatrava's architecture, which borrows liberally from Gaudi and Eero Saarinen, among others, is bone-white and skeletal and often aggressively anthropomorphic, with moving parts and forms based on the human body or the wings of a bird.

In the last couple of years, he has become one of the go-to designers for condominium developers who, taking their cue from museum directors, seek to use architecture as a promotional tool. His Turning Torso apartment tower opened in August in Malmo, Sweden, and according to the Met is the tallest building in Scandinavia.

Over the summer, a Chicago developer announced plans for a 2,000-foot Calatrava skyscraper known as the Fordham Spire. In New York, Calatrava has designed a residential tower for Lower Manhattan that consists of a dozen stacked cubes. Each four-story unit in the building, known as 80 South Street, would cantilever out dramatically from a central core. Prices will start at roughly $30 million per apartment.

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