Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava talks to Laura Mark about his £1 billion Greenwich Peninsula scheme
Last week Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava arrived in London to show off his £1 billion vision for the Greenwich Peninsula.
Entering the press scrum to the Star Wars theme tune, the architect took centre stage at the glitzy media event alongside London mayor Sadiq Khan to launch his proposed Peninsula Place showstopper.
Calatrava’s vision involves replacing Foster + Partners’ North Greenwich Interchange with a towering winter garden where visitors will emerge into a 24m-tall glazed space and a 152m-long galleria of repeated slender columns which form an avenue supporting a glass canopy.
Backed by developer Knight Dragon, the scheme also includes a theatre, cinema, bars, shops and a wellbeing hub, topped with three finger-like towers providing offices, apartments and hotels.
But the 130,000m2 development – which will become the architect’s first to be built in London – has come under fire from critics.
Olly Wainwright of The Guardian was among the first to weigh in, saying the development ‘cemented our post-Brexit capital as a place lacking any ambition or imagination’, while Rowan Moore claimed the scheme ‘looked very like other Calatrava projects’.
Owen Hatherley was also unimpressed, adding on Twitter: ‘What did we do in the London Borough of Greenwich to deserve this, eh?’
Questions were soon raised too about whether the architect will be able to bring Peninsula Place in on budget. Costs have famously ballooned on a number of Calatrava’s showpiece schemes, most recently on the World Trade Center transport hub which, at $4 billion, was almost double the original budget.
What is more, though the development is scheduled to be submitted for planning later this year and to complete by 2023, it could come unstuck if a listing bid for the North Greenwich Interchange submitted by The Twentieth Century Society is successful. Tess Pinto, conservation adviser at the society, said: ‘The Jubilee Line Extension is a remarkable synthesis of architecture and engineering, and is the arguably the finest infrastructure built in London since the 1930s. Foster’s wavy bus interchange here is the icing on the cake […] We feel very strongly that the best of what there is should be retained, and any new schemes should work around what is there.’
Here, Calatrava speaks about working in London, the origins of the design and whether he can deliver the scheme on budget.
Why do you want to work in London?
Any architect in the world would like to work in London. It is such an extraordinary city. It is attentive to different styles and open to innovation. It is an honour to have an opportunity to contribute and in such a substantial manner.
This project is billed as your first in London, but you have had others here which have not gone ahead. What makes this one different?
London is the first city where I did a significant architectural exhibition. It was curated by Dennis Sharp at the RIBA. I was then invited – almost discovered – by [developer] Stuart Lipton to draw up a proposal for the East London river crossing. At the time I was very young and almost completely unknown.
There was also a developer who wanted to make an extension to the CityPoint – a very significant building in the City of London. They wanted to make it higher, so I made a proposition using curves and a wing going up in a spire.
None of these went ahead but now I have another important building with an important client. It was worth the wait.
Greenwich Peninsula by Santiago Calatrava
Source: Ben Blossom
Why were you chosen for this project?
That’s a good question. I asked the same question because London is a city which has extraordinary architects working here and all over the world.
Our design features a pier in the water, a park with trees, an arcade, a galleria, a winter garden, a transportation hub, and a bridge. There is the idea of connectivity and creating a hub – this is what I have been doing for more than 35 years. The Greenwich Peninsula is a huge development and I think they needed someone with enough experience of doing these kind of jobs. I have built something like 50 bridges, eight transportation hubs, and also arcades, plazas and parks. I saw the sense of quality from the client. They want to build something phenomenal. I am very proud to be part of the team.
My job is not to landmark the place or create a new icon
Do places like this need an iconic building to create a new community?
The icon is already here. There is no doubt the landmark building here is the O2.
My job is not to landmark the place or create a new icon. It is more to create a new centre for a new city. Creating a new centre means giving an identity to the place but not through a landmark because it is already there, but through the significance of the place.
The bridge is significant but it is not as tall as the towers. It will act as an icon for the plaza but not for the whole project.
What have you been influenced by?
I’ve been heavily influenced by the line of the Greenwich Meridian. The cable holding the bridge will deliver a shadow like a sundial. We are putting points around the plaza which will show the time of the day.
I love London’s parks. I’m using the tree as a metaphor. Our structure is like metal trees – on the pier, in the crescents, in the galleria – until you get to the winter garden and then you have real trees. It is a little bit like Paxton’s Crystal Palace with its glass and transparency. It’s a place where nature and man can live together.
Peninsula Place Winter Garden
Your architecture is usually made up of very clean white surfaces. This works in a Spanish context but can it work in London?
London is an intense colour palette all by itself. It is a very colourful place. The fashion in London is even a little bit more spicy – people wear red socks and extravagant ties. But on the other side London also has the serenity of its enormous, beautiful limestone façades.
Many of your projects have been marred by budget overspends and delays – Valencia, for example. What would you say to people who are worried about this here?
I have always been involved with a lot of public projects and they are very exposed. I have worked for with the [New York] Port Authority for 15 years in full harmony, for 20 years with the Belgium Railways on two projects. But this is a private developer and it is very different.
In the case of Valencia, remember that I left Spain when I was 22 and there was a dictator running the country. I married a Swiss woman and became a Swiss citizen. I have been living away from my home country all my life. But it was an honour to participate in a project with five different presidents of the region and we achieved together a project which is the showpiece of what it means to bring democracy back to a country. The project of Valencia celebrates something unique. It is an icon and gives identity to a whole generation of people like me who wanted to see the country return to a democratic system.
It is completely unjustified to talk about cost overruns on the project of Valencia
The story of the cost is all political, [and comes] from people who were not participating in the project. It changed the city enormously. We added a communications tower, built the biggest opera house and concert hall in Spain, two bridges, parking and a bus station.
It is completely unjustified to talk about cost overruns on Valencia. This is the project in Spain which most celebrates democracy in our country. It cost around €60 million a year over 20 years and, if you take into account inflation and the additional buildings, we have made an enormous contribution. It has created so much added value. It was built in the poorest area of the city and today it is the most desirable area to live in the whole city of Valencia.
How do you convince people that this project will not go over budget?
We are completely confident it will not. It is not the first time I have worked for a private developer and I am sure we will match the budget and the client will be satisfied.
We have already been working on this project for a year and a half. It has been very well planned and the cost of each part of the scheme has been very well measured by experts and analysed in terms of financial viability. We are in front of a very solid piece of work.
I have now worked on eight different transportation hubs across the world. If I were irresponsible in terms of budget, I wouldn’t have even finished one. This is the best credential.