From left: Two views of Calatrava's Venice Bridge; Santiago Calatrava, Model for Venice Bridge.

Calatrava's Walkway of Light:
A New Bridge For Venice


by Monica Trevisan

I met Santiago Calatrava shortly before the opening of the fourth bridge over the Canal Grande in Venice, which he designed. It is called the Constitution Bridge, but Venetians know it simply as the Calatrava Bridge.

For centuries, Venetians have fought against new buildings in Venice. As citizens of one of the most special and spectacular cities in the world, Venetians feel a responsibility to protect it from change—even Andrea Palladio’s design for the Rialto Bridge was rejected c. 1554! Like all new works proposed for Venice over the centuries, the Calatrava Bridge was resisted. Unlike Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs for Venice were never built, however, Calatrava was ultimately able to realize his proposal.

Everything negative that could be said about the bridge was said: it is unnecessary; too expensive; it's in the wrong location; it is not integrated with the historic city; it seems designed for Benetton, who bought the old station to convert it in a shopping centre; it is the usual “name brand” work; it looks like a lobster . . . and so on. Now that the bridge is finally open and people have discovered how useful it is, the majority choose to cross it (causing great economic damage to the other bank of the Canal Grande). And many say that it is beautiful. 

Calatrava wanted to create a walkway of light; he used glass for the steps and the parapet. The structure resembles an animal skeleton, perhaps that of a fish, in a typically Venetian red color. It echoes the structure of small boats of the lagoon, the sandalo or the gondola, narrow at the ends and wider in the centre, with a double curvature. It reminds me one of those boats overturned. The two heads of the bridge are carved forms in Istria stone, a beautiful white compact stone always used in Venice. Seen from high up, the bridge seems very light, like a resting leaf. 

I wrote to Calatrava with some questions about the bridge. I have always considered Calatrava to be a master architect and I did not want to write about his work based solely on my own impressions. I sent my questions to his secretary in Zurich. Many months later, I was asked if I wanted to meet the ”maestro,” who was in Venice. He wanted to answer to my questions before the press conference about the bridge. I preferred to talk with him of the relationship between art and architecture.

Santiago Calatrava's New Bridge in Venice, Italy. Photo: Tulio Campostrini.

He gave me some suggestions about how to understand the relationship between art and architecture. He pointed to the way Victor Hugo, in Les Miserables, talks about Notre Dame, the way architecture was exalted before the fifteenth century. It was the main registry of humanity--complex thoughts were expressed in buildings, and every major idea was transcribed in stone. 

The Baroque retained the heritage of Gothic architecture. Calatrava says that every time he visits Rome, he goes to St. Ivo alla Sapienza church, the most complete and mature expression of Borromini’s aesthetic, an articulated space, plastic, but rigorously unified. He also mentioned the sculptor Henry Moore and the interrelation between sculpture and architecture. Sculpture such as Moore’s becomes a kind of architecture in itself—the sculpture’s presence defines the space around it, its light and atmosphere. The holes in Moore’s sculptures both define space and redefine the material from which they are made. The line of the form is not constrained but stretches to infinity.

From left: Gargoyle, Notre Dame, Paris; Borromini, Cupola, St Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome, 1660; Henry Moore, Large Reclining Figure, 1984.

I tried to keep Calatrava’s suggestions in mind as I looked at his bridge as a Gothic work that blends all the arts to overcome the limits of matter, like Borromini, something placed in the architectural space of the city that interacts with its environment. 

Santiago Calatrava—a name that combines the names of two orders of Knights Templar. Is this a coincidence?

Monica Trevisan is an architect who lives and works in Venice, Italy.