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Venice Is Holding Calatrava Responsible for His Poor Design. Will Dallas?

Design flaws follow the Spanish architect around the world. In the latest debacle, the Italian city is fining Calatrava for his canal bridge.
By Peter Simek |

Remember how Dallas built two fake suspension bridges on either side of I-30 which were supposed to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the Trinity River, except the construction of the Santiago Calatrava-designed bridges was so dangerous they never opened? Yeah. Hard to forget that one.

Well, the bridges are still not open, but this story about another Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge reminded me of Dallas’ saga. Venice is fining Calatrava for “macroscopic negligence” over a bridge he designed that crosses the Italian city’s Grand Canal. The glass-and-steel bridge near the tourist mecca’s main train station supposedly can’t withstand the intense daily traffic. A court in Rome ruled that the architect failed to account for the huge number of tourists that cross the bridge every day. “This is negligent, the court said, because it is something ‘everyone understands’ about the floating city,” Artnet reports.

The story reminded me of Dallas’ Calatrava soap opera because, well, this kind of thing follows Calatrava around the globe. His sleek designs are notoriously high maintenance, over budget, and prone to failure. Here’s a short list of his debacles:

  • The Valencia city council sued Calatrava over his Palau De Les Arts, an opera house in the city that had to be closed because of a crumbling roof (and also included 150 seats with obstructed views).
  • The World Trade Center Transportation Hub was supposed to cost New York $2 billion, but the final price tag was closer to $4 billion, and it came complete with a leaky roof (not to mention its abhorrently kitschy design)
  • A bridge he constructed in Bilbao became known as the “wipeout bridge” because rain turns it into a slippery ice rink that takes out pedestrians.
  • Calatrava’s science museum in Valencia was constructed without fire escapes or elevators.
  • Calatrava-designed an airport, also in Bilbao, but forgot to build an arrivals lounge, which forced the city to add a makeshift glass box to handle incoming traffic.
  • A Calatrava winery featured one of the architects now trademark leaky roofs.
  • A conference center in Oviedo collapsed during construction, and a court subsequently forced the architect to pay €2.9 million in damages.

Here’s a website where someone took the time to catalog all of Calatrava’s multi-million-dollar budget overruns, and here’s an article that argues that he is the most-hated living architect.

You may be wondering, with so many great architects out there in the world—and plenty of good ones who work right here in Dallas—why did Dallas’ philanthropists throw their hats in the Calatrava camp? But to ask that question is to forget that this city has been a sucker for shiny, faux-sophisticate imports since socialites in the 1890s started sailing to Paris to pick up their latest pot-luck attire.

You also may be wondering why Dallas doesn’t do what Valencia or Venice have done, which is take Calatrava to court and force him to cough up some dough to fix his inept designs. But then, that is to overlook the fact that Dallas has its fair share of blame in the I-30 faux-suspension bridge saga. Afterall, if city staff didn’t push to “value engineer” the bridges, forgoing some vital stress tests in the process, this mess might not exist. If you then ask why on earth the city staff member that oversaw the whole debacle, Sarah Standifer, not only still has a job but is a higher up in the water department, well, my only response is “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

I suppose that leaves us with few options and a handful of life lessons. Calatrava, it turns out, was the perfect architect for a generation of Trinity dreamers: a designer of buildings that are more aesthetic imaginations or architectural images than they are actually functioning structures. Next time someone says Dallas should invest millions in projects by the architectural world’s equivalent of the monorail salesman from The Simpsons, take a hard pass. And the next time the city tries to fund a “signature” project by dipping into a fund that could have updated the city’s woefully inept traffic light system, take another hard pass.


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