Santiago Calatrava's adios to DIA: It's about the money, honey

That sucking sound you hear out at Denver International Airport isn't the arrival of the long-awaited, ever-elusive direct route to Tokyo. No, it's the sound of tens of millions of dollars in "concepting" and design fees vanishing into the wild blue yonder, as architect Santiago Calatrava bows out of the South Terminal Redevelopment Project.

Rumors have been flying for weeks that Calatrava's design firm had essentially walked off the $500 million expansion project, which includes a train station and hotel. His exit didn't become official, though, until the release of a letter this week from Santiago's spouse and business manager, Robertina Calatrava, describing the project as "plagued by financial constraints, unnecessary time delays and deep divisions between the design team and the program managers at Parsons and DIA's representatives."

Everyone's now scrambling to strike an upbeat tone about the current situation. DIA manager Kim Day, who pushed for hiring the "signature" architect, now stresses that the project can move ahead just fine without him -- even though she described Calatrava as the redevelopment's "overall architectural guru" in my 2010 feature on her grand plans for the airport, "DIA Dreams." City officials have expressed complete confidence in Parsons Transportation Group's oversight of the project -- even though the head of its team, Dwight Pullen, recently departed for a job with CH2M Hill.

But it's not too hard to read between (indeed, smack dab in the middle of) the lines of Robertina's kiss-off letter to see what sort of disagreements led to Calatrava's decision to bail. In addition to "irreconcilable" differences with the Parsons team, she wrote, "the Project still lacks sufficient funding, particularly dollars for the hard cost components of the Project; [and] it continues to set an unrealistic schedule with little or no room to develop and consolidate the design in keeping with the standards and quality of a Calatrava signature design."

Well, there you go. Genius can't be rushed, trimmed or sold short. Especially a signature genius. Calatrava is famous not simply for crowd-pleasing designs but notorious cost overruns, and the battle over "quality" versus a skyrocketing budget began to sour his romance with DIA early in the game. It's clear the designer and his client were headed in different directions a few months ago, when Day and company balked at his proposed $60 million "signature" bridge over Peña Boulevard, first suggesting that a compromise could be reached at $22 million, then scrapping the idea when RTD refused to pay a third of that cost.

Just what sort of "hard cost components" the Calatravas say the airport doesn't have the money for has yet to be clarified. Day may yet be able to put together a station and hotel that builds on Calatrava's concept, albeit more ho-hum in its ambitions than she would have liked. You can count on it lacking one very expensive item, though.

A signature.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Denver International Airport's fixation with Santiago Calatrava rail station: The flighty math."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast