Mar 164 min read

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture

written by

Aishwarya Bomble

From his humble beginnings at the Polytechnic University of Valencia to the global recognition earned by his iconic structures, Santiago Calatrava's architecture redefines the boundaries of possibility. Dive into his remarkable creations, from the fluid waves of the Mediopadana Station in Italy to the soaring arches of the Oculus in New York, each a tribute to his exceptional blend of engineering precision and artistic vision. Read more to get awestruck by his legacy and marvel at the transformative power of architecture inspired by the dimensions of nature.

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture - image 1

The Early Years of Santiago Calatrava: Academic Foundations

Santiago Calatrava began his academic journey at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain, graduating in 1974. His fascination with both art and science led him to pursue structural engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich. There, he earned his Ph.D. in 1979 with a thesis titled “On the Foldability of Frames.” This unique blend of disciplines laid the groundwork for his future endeavors, combining engineering precision with an artist's eye for form and beauty.

Establishing a Global Presence

In 1981, Calatrava founded his architecture and engineering firm in Zürich. His firm quickly expanded, opening offices in Paris, Valencia, and New York. This global presence allowed Calatrava to take on diverse projects across different continents, each reflecting his unique architectural language. His works are characterized by their dynamic forms, structural innovation, and the seamless integration of nature's principles into built environments.

When Sevilla, Spain, was hosting Expo '92, the city required the construction of bridges to facilitate access to an island designated for exhibitions. Santiago Calatrava's Alamillo Bridge (1987–92), designed specifically for this purpose, quickly garnered global recognition. The bridge's dramatic, inclined pylon and its unique cable-stayed design exemplify Calatrava's ability to blend functionality with aesthetic appeal.

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture - image 2

Image Credits - Aishwarya Bomble

Iconic Projects and Concepts

Museum of Tomorrow (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

Year: 2015

Typology: Museum

Concept: Look like a ship, bird, or plant floating on the sea

The Museum of Tomorrow stands as a symbol of Rio de Janeiro's commitment to sustainability and forward-thinking. The building's design, reminiscent of a ship, bird, or plant floating on the sea, reflects Calatrava's fascination with natural forms. The museum's innovative structure and its emphasis on renewable energy sources align with its mission to educate the public about ecological and social challenges.

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture - image 3

Image Credits - The Guardian

The Oculus (New York, USA)

Year: 2016

Typology: Transportation hub

Concept: Bird taking flight from the hands showing hope

The Oculus, a transportation hub in New York, is one of Calatrava's most celebrated works. Designed to resemble a bird taking flight, the structure symbolizes hope and renewal. Its sweeping, white ribs and expansive, light-filled interior create a striking visual experience for commuters and visitors alike, embodying Calatrava's vision of architecture as a living, breathing entity.

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture - image 4

Image Credits - Hufton+Crow

Florida Polytechnic Science Center (Lakeland, USA)

Year: 2014

Typology: Science Centre

Concept: Resembling a hat or a cage-like structure

The Florida Polytechnic Science Center showcases Calatrava's ability to merge functionality with futuristic design. The building's distinctive shape, resembling a hat or a cage-like structure, houses state-of-the-art facilities for science and technology education. Its innovative design promotes interaction and collaboration, reflecting the dynamic nature of scientific inquiry.

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture - image 5

Image Credits - Florida Politics

Mediopadana Station (Reggio Emilia, Italy)

Year: 2013

Typology: Train Station

Concept: Appearance of a fluid wave

Mediopadana Station in Italy is a testament to Calatrava's mastery of form and movement. The station's undulating roof, inspired by the fluid motion of waves, creates a sense of dynamism and energy. This architectural marvel not only serves as a functional transportation hub but also as a landmark of contemporary design.

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture - image 6

Image Credits - Parametric Architecture

Lisbon Oriente Station (Lisbon, Portugal)

Year: 1998

Typology: Transportation hub

Concept: Resembles Forest Canopy & Gothic ribs

Lisbon Oriente Station is a striking example of Calatrava's ability to draw inspiration from nature. The station's roof, resembling a forest canopy supported by Gothic-like ribs, creates a harmonious blend of organic and architectural elements. This design not only provides shelter but also evokes a sense of wonder and connection to the natural world.

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture - image 7

Image Credits - Benjamin Hemer

L'Hemispheric (Valencia, Spain)

Year: 1998

Typology: Planetarium

Concept: Resemble a human eye

L'Hemispheric in Valencia is a futuristic planetarium that stands out for its eye-like design. This architectural masterpiece symbolizes the human quest for knowledge and exploration. The building's reflective surfaces and curved lines create a sense of fluidity and motion, embodying Calatrava's belief in the interconnectedness of nature and architecture.

Decoding Santiago Calatrava's Architecture - image 8

Image Credits - Michael Echteld 

Calatrava's Architectural Philosophy

“Architecture is a pure code derived from the dimensions of nature,” says Santiago Calatrava. This philosophy is evident in all his works, where he draws inspiration from natural forms and integrates them into his designs. His buildings are not just structures but living entities that interact with their surroundings and the people who use them.


Santiago Calatrava's journey from the Polytechnic University of Valencia to becoming a globally renowned architect is a testament to his innovative spirit and artistic vision. His iconic structures, such as the Alamillo Bridge, the Oculus, and the Museum of Tomorrow, continue to inspire and awe people around the world. Calatrava's work exemplifies the transformative power of architecture when it is inspired by the dimensions of nature. His legacy serves as a reminder of the endless possibilities that arise when engineering precision meets artistic creativity.

Learn the basics and advances of parametric design with Kaarwan’s Advance Rhino & Grasshopper Certification with Job Support Program to stay ahead of the curve.

Visit the Kaarwan website for more insights!

Aishwarya Bomble

Aishwarya Bomble

An architect who is always on the go to share stories of her countless journeys.