Santiago Calatrava Takes the Hermitage Museum's Winter Palace With His Sprawling Retrospective

A model of the WTC Transportation Hub
(Courtesy of Santiago Calatrava, LLC.)

During the career of an exceptional architect, there comes a point where he crosses the line into starchitect territory, and suddenly he's entitled to make certain demands. That's the current status of Santiago Calatrava, the renowned Spanish architect behind Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences known for his lavishly detailed style of building — and unapologetically lavish fees. His work is the subject of the Hermitage's first architectural retrospective, "Santiago Calatrava: The Quest for Movement," on view now through September 30. It's an expansive show, both in scope and size, that seems to be as much about his ego as his art. 

"Quest for Movement" features models of his most recognizable works — in addition to his masterpiece in Valencia, there's the Milwaukee Art Museum; his forthcoming World Trade Center transit hub; and bridges from Dublin, Dallas, and Venice, to name a few. The Hermitage is also attempting to position the architect as an artist, paying equal attention to his sculptural and painted works, as Calatrava himself insisted. His other demand, that his work be shown in the museum's sprawling Winter Palace, has resulted in a 20,000-square-foot show, ten times larger than the Metropolitan Museum of Art's tepidly received 2005 "Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture Into Architecture."

"The pieces did not breathe because they were so close together," Cristina Carillo de Albornoz said of that exhibtion, "but here, every piece has a lot of space, and it's a true retrospective because it's 30 years of his career." She, alongside Ksenia Malich, curated the exhibition from Calatrava's personal collections based in both New York and Zurich. She told ARTINFO her aim was to represent the the diversity of his work, and she pulled painting and sculpture from the entire course of his career, which stretches back into the '80s when he began sculpting in Paris. Her choices show the evolution of his sculptural work as it transformed from from cubist shapes to more organic forms, like "Infinite Spirit," a sculpture of sharp spokes that looks like the bones of a bird's wing fixed in a circle. "For him, an architect is an artist. He doesn’t have the conception that an architect is something different." 

There are critics who disagree. In the past, they've called Calatrava's sculptures too derivative of Brancusi, and based on what we've seen, his paintings appear to project an underwhelming flatness. It was his architecture that drew the attention of Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who pursued the show despite Calatrava's not having built anything in Russia. Piotrovsky linked the innovative spirit of Calatrava's bridges, with their unique suspensions and twisting forms, to the city of St. Petersburg, which boasts more than 300 bridges of its own. It will likely be the architectural models that will best reward Calatrava fans; built around hinges and powered by little engines, they actually move — open, close, rise, and fall — demonstrating the delicate elegance of their real-world counterparts. "Sometimes I see the models like very, very serious toys," Carillo de Albornoz told ARTINFO. "Matisse always used to say you can have a lot of joy and pleasure in art, and it is exactly the same with models." 

To see more works on view at "Santiago Calatrava: The Quest for Movement," click the slide show