Flux and fluidity of Calatrava works photographed by Karchmer

April 3, 2018



May Lyn L. Cruz and Judith Torres

Joel V. Rico, president of the Philippine Institute of Architects, couldn’t hide his excitement when he announced one of the 80th anniversary celebration of the PIA in 2013. “In all honesty, Filipino architects—myself included—rarely bother, much less get excited, about exhibitions,” he said. “But this one is different. We are all eagerly looking forward to this!”

His enthusiasm is explained by just one word: CALATRAVA.

Liege Guillemins Station in Belgium is an important node in the high-speed train network of the country and links it to Paris, Aachen, Cologne and Frankfurt. Completed in 2009 and made of steel, glass and concrete cast onsite, the Liege station accommodates nine rail tracks, servicing 21,000 passengers daily, and a bus terminal servicing 1620 buses and 15,000 commuters every day. According to Calatrava: “I imagined a building without facades with a soaring roof above offering protection from the elements. This could maintain the views through and of the station. The vaulted shape was a natural development of this vision while the soft (perhaps feminine) undulating curve of the roof was selected to mimic the graceful rise and fall of the Cointe hills beyond. I felt that there was no better way to celebrate the technological achievement of the TGV trains than to expose the working platforms and dynamism of the moving ensemble of passengers and trains.” In an interview with the American Society of Media Photographers Karchmer says: “With my background in architecture… I think and see like an architect, and use my skills as a photographer to distill this into images that make the architect’s accomplishment apparent to observers outside the design professions.”

Scheduled in March 2013 as a prelude to the PIA’s national convention, the exhibit presents the projects of celebrated architect Santiago Calatrava, as photographed by renowned architectural photographer Alan Karchmer. It is therefore a two-man show but with only one set of works: the visionary artistry of Calatrava who created the structures, and the artistic eye of Karchmer who captures, frames and presents them as still images.

The Visionary

Santiago Calatrava (b. 1951) is of Spanish descent, and while his thick accent betrays his roots, his architecture is really that of an engaged citizen of a global village. All his structures—whether bridges, railway stations, academic buildings, museums and sports facilities—serve as gateways and spaces for movement, access and interaction of peoples, cultures and ideas.

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Calatrava planned the Auditorio de Tenerife as an iconic destination at the Canary Islands. Built in 2003, the building has an arched concrete roof o58-meters high covering the main auditorium, inspired by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing over the boulders by the shoreline. In his interview with the ASMP, Karchmer recounts his shoot for the Auditorio de Tenerife in the City of Santa Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands: “I knew, in concept, the perspective I wanted and set out on an overcast day to find the POV [point of view]. I located a view that took in the sweep of the Santa Cruz de Tenerife harbor with the monumental structure prominently in its setting. I knew the time when the light would be ideal and returned a couple of days later to execute the shot. Everything was perfect. Bt part of the incredible cloud formation that made for such a perfect sky was rapidly enroaching on the sun and I had minutes, I hoped, to get the shot. I scrambled to set up the camera. There was no time to shoot a Polaroid to study the composition, check exposure, or confirm focus. I made two exposures on negative film. There wasn’t time to bracket transparency film. By the time I had two exposures down, the clouds overtook the sun and the light was lost. But I had the shot.”

The flux and fluidity embodied in his works is surely because of the breadth and depth of his training and practice of his considerable gifts. Calatrava attended arts and crafts school as a child, finished a degree in architecture in college, took a post-graduate course in urbanism, and earned a doctorate in civil engineering. When he isn’t building, he paints and sculpts. He is an artist by heart, an architect by vision, and engineer by construction. Indeed, in and through his work, Calatrava has consistently rejected the traditional rivalries of these three fields of art and science.

While most of Calatrava’s projects have reaped global acclaim, some have been received with derision, such as the Tenerife project, reviewed by David Cohn for the Architectural Record, who called Calatrava’s use of zoomorphic forms “overbearing, lacking in human and urban scale, and even grotesque.” He further wrote: “A case in point is the Tenerife Concert Hall, with its bold cantilevered arch that surges over the building, an admittedly functionless, expressive gesture.” The scathing review of Calatrava’s Tenerife project, completed in 2003, was hardly the last word on the postmodernist architect. In 2005, Calatrava won the gold medal from the American Institute of Architects, and was the Architectural Record’s cover story; a story of many triumphs that is still unfolding.

For the past four decades, Calatrava has been enriching our global landscape with structures marked by sleek lines, heretofore unexplored angles, tilts and cantilevers, soaring heights, and modern building materials in ethereal whites and grays that negate visual weight and massiveness. They mimic, personify, and in some cases, even possess actual movement.

Calatrava’s projects are not just structures; they are contemporary icons and landmarks that define and inspire whole cities, attracting not just the people in them, but tourists from around the world. A Calatrava work is never inconspicuous or unassuming, and reactions to it are never tepid. His creations seldom fail to elicit awe and adulation (and on occasion, incredulity and outrage).

This is perhaps because Calatrava’s projects, like the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin; the Auditorio de Tenerife in Spain; the Athens Olympics Sports Complex in Greece; the Palau de las Artes in Valencia, Spain; the Liege-Guillemins TGV Railway Station in Belgium; and the famed Calatrava bridges” such as the set of three bridges of Ponti Reggio in Italy and the Sundial bridge in Redding, California, result from a full understanding of experience as an equally important aspect of architecture as the widely acknowledged form and function.

Calatrava is a master of enhancing spatial experience in architecture. As he himself said about one railway project, “[I] don’t want people to just pass through a tunnel.”

The Eye

While also possessing a graduate degree in architecture, Alan Karchmer has been practicing as an architectural photographer for more than three decades. His works have been widely published in major magazines and architectural books in the United States and abroad.

Just as Calatrava is no mere designer of buildings, Karchmer likewise does not merely shoot pictures. With his background in architecture, he reveals the complex achievements of Calatrava and his projects through the images that he composes. Angles, vantage points, and the amount, source and direction of light are all carefully considered in every shot he takes.

Quite often, Karchmer composes his images so that streets, rivers, foliage and clouds lead the eye to his subject—Calatrava’s creation—and show the subject in harmony with the surrounding landscape. He benefits by having his wife, Sandra Benedum, as his partner and collaborator, bring a different perspective and fresh eye that informs many of the photographs.

Calatrava describes the laminated glass roof of the Athens Olympic Complex stadium as “composed of a pair of bent leaves,” capable of reflecting up to 90% of the sunlight

Capturing the spirit, life and poetry of an architect’s vision is a challenge that Karchmer willingly takes on. He particularly enjoys the challenge and expectation when shooting outstanding and iconic architecture, such as Calatrava’s. In an interview by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), Karchmer articulates: “With my background in architecture I have an informed understanding of the subject and the complex issues that the architect’s work accommodates… I figure out how the building or structure functions, how it is used, how it fits into its context and how it responds to light, and I conceive of a series of photographs that will tell the story. I make a working itinerary, assigning certain photographs to specific times, but while working I keep my eyes open to new possibilities…

“Creating compelling photographs of beautiful structures requires a great deal of insight and creative thinking… The most rewarding moments happen when I have found the particular vantage point that reveals the structure in an ideal way; the context of the environment is stunning, the light is beautiful, the sky and clouds are perfect. It is even better if it happens to be 72 degrees with a pleasant breeze, but even if it is terribly hot or cold these are moments to savor.”

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As the story goes, Karchmer made Calatrava’s acquaintance after magazine Architectural Record commissioned Karchmer to photograph the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2002. When the two met the following year, the architect acknowledged the excellence of the photos., and Calatrava began commissioning Karchmer to document his projects.

The ten-year partnership between the two has resulted in a rich archive of five Calatrava buildings and twelve iconic bridges. Major publications and exhibitions of the architect’s work acknowledge Karchmer as the principal contributing photographer. He has lived up to the simple but substantive instruction he received from Calatrava since day one: “Just send us beautiful photographs.” 

Original article first appeared in BluPrint Special Issue 3 2012. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

In BluPrint’s first Special Issue of the year we hear the stories behind the numerous approaches to architectural photography directly from the best image makers from across the world. We identify the project photos included by the year they were taken, not when they were completed, to stress that architecture does not stop when the architect steps away. They have done as much as any in the profession to preserve every architect’s aspiration to create a tangible legacy.

BluPrint Special Issue 1, 2018 is available in digital format via Flip100, and in newsstands and bookstores today. Cover photo by Hufton + Crow

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