Was it just the summer before last that Santiago Calatrava brought his genius for form to Denver International Airport with design proposals for a dramatic bridge, a theatrical train station and a sculptural hotel, all in his signature white-on-white style? Yes, it was ("Taking Off," August 5, 2010).
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I've met a lot of famous architects over the years — Michael Graves, Daniel Libeskind, David Adjaye — but the afternoon I spent with Calatrava at that time was different. He existed on another level from the others, and I was amazed by his unbelievable thoughtfulness and stunning architectural vision. Only my years-earlier conversation with Walter Netsch, who designed the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, was comparable. But now, Calatrava's plans for DIA have gone "poof" and disappeared. His firm, Festina Lente — which means to make haste slowly — informed the powers-that-be at the airport that the architect would no longer be involved.
There was an adumbration of this with the cancellation of the bridge back in May (Artbeat, May 5), which indicated that the whole deal was coming apart. In fact, I actually predicted that the project was dead in front of an audience at a Design Council-sponsored panel at the Denver Art Museum that month. I didn't base my conclusion on any inside information, but simply on the fact that the bridge was no longer a part of the scheme — and let's be serious, Calatrava is best known for his bridges!
With Calatrava gone, the respected Denver firm of Anderson Mason Dale is now in charge. No disrespect intended, but I'm not sure I trust its architects to append a building onto the iconic Jeppesen Terminal by Fentress Bradburn the way I did Calatrava. And the idea that Calatrava's designs could be knocked off by AMD seems preposterous, but that decision is now in the hands of lawyers.
Calatrava's departure is an unfortunate development — not just for DIA, but for Denver. This is especially true in light of the similar exit of Steven Holl from what would become the Lindsey-Flanigan courthouse. It suggests a bureaucratic culture in the public sector that is opposed to greatness and is already responsible for eliminating a host of future landmarks.