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Santiago Calatrava's DIA project: A bridge too far?

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News that an "iconic" light-rail bridge spanning Pena Boulevard at Denver International Airport could cost upwards of $60 million, more than double earlier estimates, should come as no surprise to true connoisseurs of the bridge world.

We're not talking basic overpass here. We're talking Calatrava -- as in Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish sculptor-engineer who's become the darling of major hotel-train-museum projects on several continents, hailed by the New Yorker as "the most crowd-pleasing architect since Frank Gehry."

Calatrava is famous for his bridges and stations -- and for costly designs that his critics consider too impractical, more artsy than functional, as noted in "Flight Change," my March feature on DIA aviation manager Kim Day's grand plans for the airport's billion-dollar makeover. Getting Calatrava on board for the design of a light-rail station and the connecting bridge has been an integral part of that plan.

Day defends Calatrava as a "signature" architect whose work will enhance the already powerful statement that is DIA. Yet even she is now balking at the rising price tag of the genius's work, and it's uncertain now if the bridge will be scrapped or if other financing schemes will emerge.

Calatrava's lofty design won't be unveiled until next week, but count on it being a "signature" work -- meaning that the price is roughly six times what the basic version would cost.

What makes a "signature" cost so much more? One can argue about artistry, quality and craftsman details, yadayada, but it really comes down to people's willingness to pay more for that designer label. A McDouble costs a buck, so a "signature" sandwich at Panera has to cost at least six. A loaf of generic white bread costs close to two bucks, while a signature boule from a fancy bakery can run a jaw-dropping ten dollars. You can find discount, no-name jeans for around twenty dollars, but no self-respecting slave of fashion would be caught comatose in any denim sporting less than a $120 "signature" label.

The basic, prefab, roll-out light-rail bridge RTD just erected above the Sixth Avenue freeway cost all of $10.8 million, so a Calatrava could hardly cost less than $60 million.

Making iconic statements isn't cheap, people. The real question is whether Denver is sufficiently smitten with Calatrava fever to sign up for the full treatment.

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