Designing

A letter to Santiago Calatrava

Dear Calatrava,

I hate you but I love you. We are peers architects but I feel like our practice is not swimming in the same water. My sea is your pond, my ocean is a puddle for you. You make them dream and you ruin our profession. You entertain the fantasy, and still you kill our vain hopes for trust.I visited the Oculus of NYC several times for the past 6 months and always had to admit  I was blown away. It is with awe that my eyes ran the structure, with admiration that my gaze peaked at the framed views. Even my scrutiny for failed details was defeated. White sleek arches carry us to the future while cantilevered standing point platforms play our little bodies to feel part of another – more majestic? – world. I was there with friends, and while some resent contemporary architecture for being too clean and shiny (this French guy is more on the historical side of art), the others are just blown away and can’t stop taking pictures. No one is left indifferent anyway, everyone has something to say. Bad or good, this building triggers opinions and calls for a comment. Then we can talk about Architecture! The future is yours, as explained in this interesting article.

 

On the other hand, the question remains: is it worth it? The costs outragingly exceeding the budgets, the leaks, the law suits, the operational malfunctions, the design flaws, the political struggles, and so on (more details here). While the public is entertained, we architects have to fight every day for the idea of being sort of artists, but reliable and trustworthy ones. We are defending ourselves as framed creative minds, inspired engineers, wizards that can make dreams take form, within budget and technical constraints. When we are not from the starchitect family, how to be innovative and still code(s) compliant? While you manage to get carte blanche, we have to justify every penny and sell every piece of beauty we want to add to function. And still, being on the edge is part of the work and what makes it exciting. Otherwise we would have done the Beaux Arts right? I guess you are an artist who managed to make people pay for your giant pieces, regardless of the past experiences that proved the investment wrong. But sometimes, public awe is all it takes, overpassing any ten-years insurance absurdity attached to a master piece.

     

There is no right and wrong here. I guess I am just very jealous of your achievement. That is why thinking of myself as more attached to the future use and happiness of operators and owners of my buildings is my conscious escape… Don’t get me wrong; I’ll cook the best cake I can with the ingredients available. I will fight for the beauty of details, the consistency of an idea at all scales, the completeness of the core concept. But no, I am not crazy stubborn and am ready for the compromise, because I think this is part of the job. Between dream and reality, the architect juggles with constraints and desires, taking both into account. I might never build an icon, and will instead proud myself in the little good looking buildings that work, the efficient and well-designed pieces of everyday life, the small steps towards a more sustainable and desirable city. I terribly lack of ambition, my mum would say!



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