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Star Spanish architect’s work draws praise — and costly repairs

Santiago Calatrava’s flowing, modernist projects are tourist attractions all over the world. But several have also been subjects of legal dispute over their need for repairs.

Spanish architect, sculptor, and structural engineer Santiago Calatrava has designed some of the world’s most emblematic works. The clean, flowing designs of his bridges and buildings are tourist attractions in cities around the globe.

But along with plaudits, his radical designs have also drawn a less pleasant consequence: Many clients end up demanding repairs – and if not through friendly arrangement, in the courts.

Mr. Calatrava rose to stardom after his work on theMontjuic Communications Tower was showcased in theBarcelona 1992 Olympics. Since then, he has designed and constructed projects all over the world, including in the USSwitzerlandIsrael, and several European countries, especially in his native Spain. Currently he is completing the new World Trade Center‘s futuristic transportation hub in New York.

Perhaps his biggest work is the City of Arts and Sciences, a complex of six buildings and one bridge, all but one bearing Calatrava’s modernist signature, in his native city, Valencia. The City is Valencia’s most visited attraction and not without reason. It is nothing short of awe-inspiring, with its arches, bent steel, and harmonious yet revolutionary structures.

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But while Calatrava’s works are highly lauded, they also have sparked controversy. His projects often end up delayed and costing significantly more than initial budgets: For example, the cost of his New York transit hub has doubled and will not open until 2015. And more controversially, they’ve led to legal claims.

He is facing a legal challenge in Italy over the Ponte della Costituzione footbridge in Venice, which critics say is overpriced and “a lasting injury” to the city, due to the excessive need for repairs. He won 30,000 euros in court from Spain’s northern coastal city of Bilbao after the city resurfaced a glass bridge without permission because it was too slippery when it rained. He was also compelled to fix an airport in northern Spain, to mention some of the most public repairs.

His latest spat involves a breathtaking winery he designed and built in Alava, Spain. The powerful business group Domecq, owner of the Bodegas Ysios winery, is suing Calatrava for 2 million euros to repair the roof, which leaks water, making humidity control – vital for wine – impossible. The architect has worked on repairs for months, but the winery feels that the problem is just getting worse.

‘Breaking the mold is necessary’

Calatrava’s biggest work, the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, may prove to be his most controversial, as it threatens to land him in court again.

The initial project was commissioned in 1991 for nearly 250 million euros, but by the time it was completed seven years ago, the total cost had multiplied by four. That includes nearly 100 million euros that Calatrava was paid. Left-wing party Esquerra Unida, which disclosed public documents earlier this year over the project’s finances, says it is still considering whether to subject the accounting and tax practices to further investigation. 

But it is not cost overruns nor tax concerns that could land Calatrava yet again in court. Rather, it is faulty design.

The most emblematic building, Valencia’s Opera House, which cost almost 500 million euros ($649 million), is leaking, its roof is visibly fracturing, and the building flooded during torrential rains. Further, the acoustics are not what were promised, and part of the seating was removed because it had no view of the stage.

But Antonio Estepa Rubio, an architect professor at Universidad de Jaén and an expert on regulations, says that radical designs like Calatrava’s will naturally lead to these sorts of controversies.

“Calatrava is the architect of geometry and these are probably problems with the complex geometry of his work,” he says. “The problem is adapting existing technologies to complex geometries. It’s difficult to solve these problems, which transcend the regular structural issues.”

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And, Mr. Estepa adds, that is how the field of architecture evolves. “History is full of these types of excesses. It’s normal and necessary. There are more complex technical and regulatory issues, but architects like Calatrava who break the mold are necessary.”

Shared responsibility?

And there is another set of actors who Estepa argues share responsibility with Calatrava: the officials in the regional governments. “They bought a brand, and artists like Calatrava are offered broad room to operate that others do not get. Everything is allowed,” he says.

“I’m sure Calatrava shares some responsibility, but this is just one piece of the big picture that also includes lack of accountability in Spain over the last decade.”

Regional leaders of Valencia, which is home of some of Spain’s most serious corruption investigations, only recently started publicly holding Calatrava responsible for the City of Arts and Sciences problems. For years, the Popular Party-controlled regional government hid contracts and payment information and defended Calatrava. But that changed in March, after Esquerra Unida made its disclosure.

Authorities now say they are negotiating with Calatrava and contractors to fix the faulty construction and avoid court. The cost of repairs and responsibilities will be determined by an independent judicial report, after an earlier technical report found Calatrava and builders at fault.

Calatrava and the Valencia government did not respond to requests for comment. The architect hasn’t disputed the claims publicly, other than saying that his fees are fair and suggesting that Valencia should be grateful that his work attracts so many visitors.

“The [regional] government says it will demand responsibility and we will wait for the results,” said Esquerra Unida’s regional leader Ignacio Blanco, who exposed the contracts and bills. “But if we are not satisfied, we will take all necessary legal steps.”