Santiago Calatrava, “Beyond Hellas”

The renowned architect, engineer and artist Santiago Calatrava presents for the first time an exhibition dedicated to his body of sculptures and paintings inspired by Greek Antiquity.

The exhibition takes place in Glyptothek, Munich and is titled “Beyond Hellas”.

The show focuses on Calatrava’s new sculptural series titled “The Aegineten”, which was developed over the last two decades. The collection features 14 wrought iron large format sculptures on a base of aged oak, which appear as modern variations of the ancient warriors of the Temple of Aphaia, in Aegina. The works are inspired by Calatrava’s first encounter with the marble works from the Late Archaic temple, which features scenes of the Trojan Wars.

The Temple of Aphaia was stripped of his sculptures during the period of Ottoman rule by C.R. Cockerell,  an antiquarian traveling in Greece in 1811-12 and his friends.

The temple’s sculptures remain in Munich today, at Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek.

Along with these sculptures the exhibition features a selection of 30 drawings, watercolors, and preparatory studies, in addition to sculptures from past series, which highlight Calatrava’s study of the human body and nature, a continuous inspiration to his architectural style. All works connect simultaneously with the general theme of Antiquity, which is intrinsic to Greek culture.

The exhibition is curated by Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz, and Florian Knauss.

On the occation of the exibition “Beyond Hellas”, Santiago Calatrava talked to Eleni Zymaraki Tzortzi.

"Jenseits von Hellas", Santiago Calatrava in der Glyptothek, 2022
Photo: Oliver Schuh, palladium.de
No reproduction without prior written permission

E.Z. Your work, currently exhibited in Glyptothek, is inspired by the ancient Greek art, as the title also points out.

Could you define the caracteristics and qualities of ancient Greek art that have triggered your inspiration and creativity over the years?

S.C. The title of the exhibition is “Beyond Hellas”, which means that we are looking at Ancient Greece but with today’s eyes.

In other words, the sculptural message that Ancient Greece brings, can be seen through the eyes of our time. And this exhibition is an essay to do exactly that: to look back at these works again and reinterpret them from a totally contemporary point of view.

E.Z. In order to further understand your point of departure, could you discuss a little more the sculptural message from Ancient Greece that you have tried to reinterpret in a contemporary way?

S.C. What really impresses me about Greek sculptures is their representation of the meaning of life, which in the case of the Aeginites is the tragic meaning of life, because it reflects a war. But at the same time, they symbolize the triumph of truth, represented in this case by the figure of Athena. So, that transcendental sense, which we have called “humanism” is still valid. If you think about today’s wars, the suffering, the bloodshed and the dire consequences that come with it, we are all hoping that the truth will triumph. This is as valid today as it was in ancient times and the ancient Greeks reflect this tragic sense of existence in the work of the Aeginetes in an extraordinary and unique way.

"Jenseits von Hellas", Santiago Calatrava in der Glyptothek, 2022
Photo: Oliver Schuh, palladium.de
No reproduction without prior written permission

E.Z. The main focus of the exhibition is The Aeginites, the body of work ispired by the sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia, in Aegina, Greece. The sculptures have been on display in the Glyptothek of Munich and depict local warriors and heroes from the Trojan wars.

What was it that you witnessed and experienced at your fist visit at the Glyptothek that captured your attention and inspired you to visit again and furthermore to experiment and create your own Aeginites?

S.C. First, seeing the Aeginites up close gives an extraordinary impression. Especially certain aspects of the work fascinated me, such as, for example, the rhythm that is reflected in the use of circular forms of the warrior’s shield that are repeated taking different positions in space. I mean the use of the circle and the rhythm of the placement of those circles to the right and left within a pure geometric composition as is the triangle of the pediment. These forms are the connection thread of the two pediments and at the same time they are also an abstract and purely formal element that gives a unique character to this work.

Seeing it from a purely abstract point of view, as an element of composition, beyond the theme that it develops from war and tragedy, it is in itself, for a person from the 20th to 21st century, an extraordinary motif, a way of understanding the formal treatment of purely abstract and geometric elements to give rise to a relationship between elements creating a composition on itself that could be understood beyond the literary element of the scene that is being represented.

This aspect was the first thing that caught my attention and fascinated me.

The current exhibition not only focuses on the Aeginites, but also contains elements of vegetal origin inspired by nature, which were common elements in Greek architecture, in acroterion, capitals, etc, where geometric shapes of very clear natural inspiration are found.

E.Z. The original sculptures are from marble. Yours are from wrough iron. Was this your first choice? Why have you chosen to work with this material?

S.C. The sculptures are not only made of forged steel, but the bases are essential. The bases are made with old oak wood reused from other elements such as beams, which we acquired over the years to form the pedestals.

The figures and the bases form a set. Not having a geometric shape as a template, as it is the pediment in which the whole scene takes place, I have created another template that consists of supporting the figures on a plinth, made of old wood with similar proportions and the same height.

We are then using the plinth as a resource to replace the pediment element of the original architecture.

Within the exhibition there is also a reference to the most primitive sculptures of Greek culture, which are the Cycladic sculptures, which are represented by five pieces sculpted in marble that I call the Cycladic circle.

"Jenseits von Hellas", Santiago Calatrava in der Glyptothek, 2022
Photo: Oliver Schuh, palladium.de
No reproduction without prior written permission

E.Z. The Aeginites were originally sculptured to be part of the Aphaia Temple in Aegina, a well preserved Doric temple, placed on the top of a pine-clad hill offering a magnificent view on the Saronic Gulf. A place with a unique energy.

Many people believe that the placement of a work of art of this kind in an environment allien and distant from its original context alters its idendity and therefore deprives it from its true qualities and values. What do you believe?

S.C. There is no doubt that the Aeginites have been removed from their natural element, which was the pediment of the temple with all the surrounding landscape. The reasons for that fact belong to history.

It is evident that the Aeginites in their original position were arranged on the pediment to be seen from the ground, and that surely the artists of the time took into account the deformation of perspective that occurs through the angle of vision of the pediment from the ground, being the pediment and the acroterion what crowns the temple.

Evidently, seen in this way, this type of extraordinary sculptures of great value appear as plunder, but they are capable of moving us, in the current situation, due to their strength, character and quality.

The way they are exhibited in the museum, it allows us to contemplate them three-dimensionally. With this, we can also see that the sense of perfection represented in the visible front part of the sculptures also continues in the back of them, giving them a life on their own.

E.Z. Aeginites  were, as you point out, an organic part of a whole structure, of a Doric Temple. Their role was to narrate a story and – to be more specific – to remind a story as they were parts of a Monument. They still do tell their history.

Your architecture is mainly public and monumental, through projects in many countries. It is also quite distinct and recognizable.

Do the history of each place and its culture define the design of your contemporary monuments? Do your architectural creations narrate a story and reflect a philosophy related to their environment, natural and cultural? If indeed so, to what extent?

S.C. To answer your question, I would like to show the significance of Greek Architecture in general, in the current Architecture through an example. For this case, I do not particularly want to choose the temple of Aegina where the Aeginetes come from, but the Parthenon temple in Athens.

The Parthenon temple was destroyed in two wars against the Persians and rebuilt in the century of Pericles. For me, it has been a great example in my work for the reconstruction of Ground Zero, above all, when I was awarded in the competition for the reconstruction of the Greek-Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Ground Zero.

I believe that this reconstruction, just like the Parthenon, it was a very clear manifesto of Anastasis (Resurrection) (from the greek word “ανάσταση”) with the construction of a temple that was representative of the effort of an entire community to defend its cultural, ethical and moral values. Likewise, the Greek-Orthodox Church represents exactly the same thing: in a place where there was destruction, the Greek-Orthodox Church is rebuilt. Moreover, the new church incorporates on its façade the same Panthelic marble with which the Parthenon was rebuilt. This fact sends a very clear message.

Therefore, these ancient values ​​of Greek architecture are still valid today.

"Jenseits von Hellas", Santiago Calatrava in der Glyptothek, 2022
Photo: Oliver Schuh, palladium.de
No reproduction without prior written permission