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Too heavy, man


Santiago Calatrava's Creative Process Alexander Tzonis. Birkhauser, 2000. 500pp. £84

'How-it's-done'books hold a special appeal for practising designers. This latest two-volume boxed set purports to illuminate Calatrava's creative process. Very short introductory essays support a reprint of the master's doctoral thesis in the first part and a collection of three 'sketchbooks' in the second. Appendices contain photographs of models and completed work.

The introduction sets the scene by applying various conceptual models to the proceeding pages in an attempt to explain a development process between the doctoral thesis and his later sketch work. Nietzsche's appropriation of the classical dichotomy 'Appollonian' (analytic) versus 'Dionysian' (allegorical) is called up.

Freud's notion of 'dreamwork' is coupled to surrealism.All good philosophical namedropping, but I couldn't link these theses into the body of the presentation.

The application of such deep ideas to the finished work seems heavy-handed. I understood the book as a good methodical study of hinged frameworks and their syntax and then as a rather repetitive set of reflections on how elementary linkages can be varied and informed by simple organic analogies. The way the best work came into being - Ernsting's warehouse and the Stadelhofen station - is well traced and readily understandable. There is a patient exploration of each solution, set alongside free sketching of classical balanced and organic forms.

I was some way through the second volume before I realised that these are not the actual studies made to generate the designs, fraught with false starts, preliminary calculations and jottings, but rather they are retrospective musings on already completed work. To call these 'the third pillar of his work' therefore seems forced. The drawings just aren't good enough to stand in their own right.

The attempt to present them in this way prevents their interpretation and understanding as a real metasystem to the actual work. In the introduction, Leonardo da Vinci's sketchbooks and the turbulent flow studies he made of the River Po are actually mimicked in Calatrava's sketches. Da Vinci's type of juxtaposition of different ideas and even his misunderstandings are entirely absent in these books.

My favourite book on engineering is a small monograph by David Billington on the work of Robert Maillart, analysing wherefrom his originality sprang; his influences; the textbooks he followed; his surroundings; his life trajectory;

and his experimental approach. It is more than 20 years old but still in print.

Conversely, this book is inordinately weighty and glossy; the words are in big print and doublespaced, making it an utterly unwieldy read.

For anyone interested in the interface between architecture and engineering there is useful documentation here which will find its place on the shelf.However, it would have been so much better had these volumes been simple facsimiles of the originals; handy working documents, unobscured by lightweight critique. Don't expect to find a model for critical thinking here; this is not a sourcebook of ideas.

Matthew Wells is a director of Techniker and author of 30 Bridges (Laurence King,2002)

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