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Calatrava Trauma: Bird Man Gets His Wings Clipped in Manhattan

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Architect’s rendering of 80 South Street, Santiago Calatrava

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George Howe‘s and William Lescaze‘s model of unexecuted proposal for the new
Museum of Modern Art, 1930, on recent display at MoMA

By Guest Blogger Martin Filler

For superstar architect Santiago
Calatrava
, the cruelest month has indeed been April, which witnessed the
demise of one of his headline-making New York City projects and announcement of
likely cutbacks to another. Readers of the New
York Review of Books
know I’m no fan of
his work, which I find irredeemably corny, ostentatiously over-engineered, and
mind-numbingly repetitive.

Literal-minded architects have always enjoyed a suggestible
audience for designs like Calatrava’s big birds, which pander to sentimental
notions of representational symbolism—think of all those “praying hands”
churches after World War II. Calatrava, who has wrung much publicity from poultry,
revealed that the inspiration for his World Trade Center Transportation Hub
came to him in a vision of a peace dove flying heavenward.

What’s bugged me most about Calatrava’s kitsch is not his
popular following, but the degree to which he has been embraced by institutions
that ought to know better, particularly the Metropolitan Museum, whose 2005
Calatrava retrospective was one of the few embarrassments of Philippe de Montebello‘s impeccably
tasteful tenure. Now, however, the inexorable corrective of a tanking economy
is interceding on behalf of those of us who wondered how on earth this Spanish Schlockmeister could have bamboozled so
many in the art world.

On Apr. 16, Lois
Weiss
of the New York Post
reported that developer Frank Sciame
was pulling the plug on his Calatrava-designed 80 South St. condominium tower (top)
in Lower Manhattan. Comprising 12 quadruplex apartments—each occupying its
own glass-walled cube suspended outward from an 835-foot-tall concrete core—it
received ecstatic praise from establishment eminences including the NY TimesNicolai Ouroussoff and City Planning doyenne Amanda Burden.

I’m surprised that no one has yet
pointed out the Calatrava scheme’s suspiciously close resemblance to George Howe‘s and William Lescaze‘s unexecuted 1930 proposal for New York’s fledgling
Museum of Modern Art, a model for which (also above), included in the recent “75
Years of Architecture at MoMA” exhibition, featured similar glass-walled cubic
units hung from an interior mast. Dwellings at 80 South St. were priced at
about $30-million a pop, irrational exuberance even in the palmy financial
climate of 2004. Now the property is on the market for $115 million.

The day before that story broke, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced that likely cost overruns of almost $1
billion on initial estimates of $2.2 billion would compel serious modification
of Calatrava’s much-ballyhooed PATH terminal at the World Trade Center site,
planned for completion a year ago but now unlikely to open before 2013.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the hardnosed businessman, noted that “the realities are that we
only have so much money…We may have to find something else.” But Port Authority
chief Anthony Shorris insisted that
Calatrava’s signature winglike retractable roofs remain non-negotiable: “We’re
committed to that as an important part of that downtown Manhattan landscape.”

Calatrava won this commission following the Ground Zero
master-plan debacle, but even cursory due diligence should have forewarned the
Port Authority about his history of ballooning cost overruns, especially on
jobs with mechanized elements (like the hub’s pointless convertible roofs),
including the ruinously expensive Milwaukee Art Museum addition and Athens
Olympic Stadium.

In an Apr. 18 editorial, the Times listed the hub among six
New York City planning initiatives imperiled by the recession, along with the
Javits Center, Pier 40, Penn Station, Hudson Yards, and Atlantic Yards.
Predictably, the Times again remained
silent
about its business dealings with Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner, which made its call for a
government bailout of that sweetheart deal all the more problematic.

“A strong state hand,” the Gray Lady advised in its editorial, “could ensure
that the [Atlantic Yards] project—with adequate low-income housing—survives hard times.”
Given the Times’ own dwindling bottom line, which has fueled persistent
takeover rumors, surviving hard times is a preoccupation that hits close to
home. 

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