Architect Spotlight | Santiago Calatrava | Photography Unfolded

Architect Spotlight | Santiago Calatrava

 In Locations, Tips + Tricks, Architect Spotlight

It’s been awhile since we’ve featured an architect on the blog, so we thought it was time to share some work of another favorite of ours, Santiago Calatrava.

He holds a bit of a special place of my heart and he might be the first “starchitect” whose work I photographed, though at the time I’m pretty sure I had no idea how important he was. As some of you may know I used to shoot a bit of everything (just scroll way deep in my photography FB feed…yikes!) and do portrait work. Needing a break from the portrait stuff, well, because I really didn’t love it. I started one of those 365 photo projects and one of my favorite shots of the year was of the Milwaukee Art Museum (I was living there at the time), way back in 2008! So the love affair began…

milwaukee art museum, santiago calatrava

A little trivia, this was his first building in the US!

Let’s get to a bit about his history and path to icon-status. He was born in Valencia, Spain and is an architect, structural engineer, painter and sculptor. In fact, he began his schooling in the arts; drawing and painting. However, after discovering Le Corbusier (a pioneer of modern architecture) he realized he could be both an artist and architect. After completing architecture school he got a degree in civil engineering. Impressive to say the least.

His work often takes influence from nature, particularly birds, the human form and the skeletal system. It’s quite evident in many of his projects. A few we’ll share today – Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), World Trade Center Transportation Hub (or Oculus), the Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport Railway Station, the Montjuic Communications Tower and the Allen Lambert Galleria in Toronto (a location we visit on each Toronto workshop!). The first two even open and close. Some early sketches around the MAM show the human body resembling a folding structure and the Oculus is meant to represent a bird let free by a child. Either way, he has a fascination with flight and movement.

The MAM’s “wings” open and close twice a day (or stay closed if winds are 65kph or about 40mph or stronger) and if you’re there at the right time of day for a semi-long exposure you can see that movement.


Moving inside to the pavilion, which is this wide-open space underneath the “wings”. They actually do serve a purpose and are for sun-shading. And this area is a  photographer’s dream! White, curvy but with linear patterns there are so many perspectives from wide to detailed.

Don’t forget to look north toward the hallways, more great patterns!

One final stop before leaving here, you must visit the parking garage! You heard that right, even this space is fantastic!

We could go on sharing images from here all day but let’s move a bit northeast to Toronto and the Allen Lambert Galleria.

Here, he continues with his interest in folding structures but also pulls inspiration from tress and medieval vaulting often found in cathedrals.


And for his fountain, while made of steel tubes, it’s meant to look like an opening flower.

Back to the US and, maybe, his most well-known design, the Oculus of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, which was commissioned to replace the hub that was destroyed on 9/11. His fascination with movement and bird-like structures is evident in every aspect of this design. From the exterior with its sweeping wings, resembling a bird in flight, to the interior of the structure which feels very skeletal and rib-like. Also, the skylight actually opens symbolizing a light that continues to shine despite the tragedy on 9/11. Originally, Calatrava wanted the wings of the structure to open and close to further represent a bird in flight, much like the wings of the MAM, but that was nixed because of budget.

You may also notice a strong resemblance of the image on the left to one from the Milwaukee Art Museum. Always interesting when you can spot such strong similarities in an architect’s designs from one location to another.

Moving onto our final two designs, we head to Europe. First, the Montjuic Communications Tower in Barcelona. Designed for the 1992 Olympic Games. Once again he’s influenced by the human figure with the design meant to resemble an Olympian holding the Olympic torch. The base, with its broken tiles, pays tribute to the famous Barcelona architect, Gaudi.

Our final stop is the Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport Railway Station. Another bird-like, skeletal and almost spine-like structure.

lyon Saint-Exupéry Airport railway station, santiago calatrava

lyon Saint-Exupéry Airport railway station, santiago calatrava

As you can see there’s certainly a style and vision behind his work and we’ve only touched on a few of his designs. If you’ve visited or photographed other locations of his, please share with us in our Facebook Group, we’d love to see them!

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