'Beyond Hellas: Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek' links antiquity with modernity

by Vladimir Belogolovsky

(L) Santiago Calatrava, (R) After Hellas: Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek. Image: (L) © Thomas Hoeffgen, (R) © Santiago Calatrava LLC

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Santiago Calatrava about 'The Aegineten', a series of artworks, 30 years in the making and now on display in the Glyptothek in Munich.


From June 22 to October 23, 2022, the Glyptothek, a museum in Munich, Germany that houses an extensive collection of sculptures dating from the archaic age to the Roman era, presents Beyond Hellas: Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek. It is the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the sculptural and painting oeuvre of the renowned Spanish architect, engineer, and artist. The works are put on display in a form of a lively dialogue between the architecture of the 1830 temple-like Neoclassical building, and the masterpieces of the museum’s collection, particularly its acclaimed fallen warriors from the east and west pediments of the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina.

The works on show at the exhibition include 14 wrought iron sculptures settled atop oak. Image: Renate Kühling, ©State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek Munich bases

Among Calatrava’s artworks, are 14 wrought iron abstracted sculptures placed on aged oak bases, 30 drawings, watercolours, and preparatory studies. They are directly inspired by the ancient marbles. This series is called The Aegineten; it has been in development for 30 years, from the moment when Calatrava first encountered the museum’s collection. There are also sculptures from other series. The exhibition’s curators, Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz and Florian Knauss, the museum’s director, selected these pieces to illustrate the architect’s continuous study of the human body and nature, the apparent theme in the architecture of his buildings and bridges, as well as the influence of antiquity on his work. In the following interview with Santiago Calatrava, we discussed what sparked his fascination with the ancient warriors, the architect’s search for the true elemental nature of art, links between antiquity and modernity, as well as between sculpture and architecture, and how movement within nature inspires his architecture.

Calatrava’s works are directly inspired by the ancient marble sculptures housed as part of the museum’s collection. Image: © Santiago Calatrava LLC

Vladimir Belogolovsky: How did the idea of Beyond Hellas: Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek exhibition originate and what is its main concept?

Santiago Calatrava: I visited the Glyptothek museum in Munich for the first time 30 years ago. There, I found the Greek marbles that were displayed at the Late Archaic Temple of Aphaia profoundly inspiring. The warriors that were portrayed had this unexpected sense of modernity within them, somehow presented as beyond the perfection of classicism. I sketched those figures to analyse and learn about them, so I could really absorb their beauty. Those warriors were a motive that continuously inspired my drawings, and at some point, my drawings jumped from paper to sculptures. Then I continued exploring and began to capture different movements and dynamics of those pieces. This new art exhibition captures those results and the process of research and experimentation on this topic over the past 30 years.

The curators behind the exhibition selected the pieces on show to highlight Calatrava’s continuous study of the human body and nature. mage: Renate Kühling, © State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek Munich

VB: As you just mentioned, you have been working on this series of sculptures and drawings for the last 30 years. Could you touch on how it became possible, in a way, to reunite your works with the works that inspired you originally?

SC: I have great respect for the amazing classical works exhibited at the Glyptothek museum. I never intended to exhibit my work there but, after a conversation with the museum, the idea of showcasing my works there came up and we subsequently decided to make an exhibition out of my sculptures. I am enormously proud and honoured to exhibit my work in the same space where such extraordinary classical works are displayed.

Calatrava reveals that he perceived a sense of modernity in the forms of the warriors in the museum’s collection, and his sketches documenting them eventually turned into sculptures. Image: © Santiago Calatrava LLC

VB: What have you discovered through the process of working on this series of artworks inspired by the ancient warriors of the Temple of Aphaia, both as an artist and as an architect?

SC: In my work, I tried to take in the perfume of antiquity and use it as my inspiration. I found myself obsessed with the beauty of classical works and their inspiration seen in the natural world, which has been used in many architectural elements: in acroteria, friezes, chapiters, and beyond. In my work, I apply the rules often observed in classical art, as well as in nature itself — always keeping the natural balance and movements of objects in mind. I look to classical works to not only learn from their sources but to reinterpret them.

In this particular series, the use of the circle was inspired by the warriors' shields and became its leitmotiv. The circle is the representation of geometric perfection and of infinity.

The reputed Spanish architect had been developing the collection, titled The Aegineten, for over 30 years. Image: © Santiago Calatrava LLC

VB: Did any of the sketches or sculptures in this show inspire a particular vision that may have materialised in any of your specific buildings? What is the ultimate goal of these artworks?

SC: In the universe of sculpture and architecture, there are no clear barriers. The way I approach sculpting and designing architecture is by searching for the true elemental nature that can be displayed. In a pure comparison, as famed sculptor Henry Moore would put it, architecture adds another dimension to the sculpture because you can physically enter that space and let the architecture surround you. After all, architecture is what protects us from the elements. On the other hand, sculptures are completely free from the constraints of a room or the need to serve a function, and this aspect allows the sculptor to explore geometries and structures with a much more open mind.

Sketching is often the first step in Calatrava’s design process, and he describes the hand as the shortest distance between imagination and reality as expressed on paper. Image: © Santiago Calatrava 1992
Calatrava is also fond of adding watercolour to his sketches, viewing it as a means to revisit ideas seen in his mind. Image: © Santiago Calatrava 1992

VB: Could you talk about your design process — from studies of human and animal anatomy, body postures, forms of nature, or such notions as movement, to expressing them in buildings, structures, and bridges?

SC: I typically like to start my design process by sketching a lot. I often take the time to watercolour many of my sketches because by colouring them you are revisiting the ideas that you saw in your mind. For me, the sketch is essential because your hand is the shortest distance between your imagination and the reality of something that can be expressed on paper. I have done thousands of sketches in my life, and I still believe that the most direct way of bringing ideas from an imaginary space into reality is by drawing.

After that, we would begin to work with models or create rough schematics of how the project should work. And, of course, as soon as we jump into those specific phases, other more complex elements appear. But the design process should go step by step in a deliberate, orthodox way to bring each idea into creation. The more the design advances, the more people collaborate with me. Eventually, there are two or three collaborators who are helping me transfer the designs into the digital format.

In the end, the whole team in the office may be working on the project to conclude each phase in the most linear and diligent way possible. But the most important aspect of the whole process is that the emotion and the artistic vision expressed in the very first sketch are not lost along the way. Therefore, it must be very clearly communicated.

The architect views movement and dynamics as essential features of his architectural vocabulary. Image: Renate Kühling, © State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek Munich

VB: You have been searching for parallels between human and animal anatomy and your architecture for many years. How is this search affecting the expressions of your buildings? How did you first initiate this quest?

SC: Since the very beginning of my work as an architect, I believed that movement and dynamics were an essential part of my architecture. It’s true that we have learned from classical periods across different cultures with architecture that has more “static” elements. However, I think introducing something more dynamic such as elements that will change with the hours of the day, seasons, the movement of the sun and wind, or the pure functional needs of the building, has enormous potential to give every building a strong character.

Our inspiration can come from animals, from the human body, or from flowers that open and close. Movement is within nature; you see it in the change of the seasons or how the sea moves. That’s what inspired me to bring it to life through mechanical solutions and into my architecture.

Calatrava was inspired by the movement that is inherent in nature, and seeks to incorporate it into his architectural endeavours through mechanical solutions. Image: Renate Kühling, © State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek Munich
In Calatrava’s view, adding movement and more dynamic elements to architecture has enormous potential to give buildings a strong character. Image: © Santiago Calatrava LLC

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