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Calatrava is gone but not forgotten at the Denver International Airport. Why should architects care?
Sharon McHugh

With regards the new design for the Denver International Airport’s (DIA) new south terminal, which was released last week, Santiago Calatrava is gone but not forgotten. And architects everywhere should be concerned. The new design, which bears resemblance to the prior one designed by Calatrava, who resigned from the project last September, is being marketed as ‘Calatrava-like’, which benefits no one, with the possible exception of the DIA which has at stake millions of dollars invested in its new south terminal’s design and no star architect at the helm.

Readers will recall that last September, Calatrava resigned from the airport job over concerns that the cost-cutting measures called for by the DIA to bring the estimated $650m project within the $500m budget, would comprise his design. In a letter to the DIA manager, Kim Day, published in the Denver Post, Robertina Calatrava, the architect’s wife and business partner, said: “From our perspective as design professionals, the project lacks sufficient funding, particularly dollars for the hard-cost components of the project. 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.” So to protect his brand, Calatrava quit the project.

But the design released last week by the successor team of Gensler and Anderson


Mason Dale Architects raises questions as to whether that brand has been sufficiently protected of if it has taken a hit. While the materials are different and some of the program elements have been cut or scaled back, and the signature ‘wings’ have been clipped, the new design is similar enough in concept to the original to be construed by the general public as a Calatrava, albeit a watered-down one. For its part, the DIA makes no apologies for muddying the design waters, for confusing the public about the authorship of the project’s design. While indeed it credits Gensler and Anderson Mason Dale as the architect for the project, the DIA continues to market what in essence is a ‘hybridized’ design from the hand of many as a Caltarava. Quoting from an article in the Denver Post, Kim Day referred to the new design as ‘a Calatrava…only simplified…. and I think better’. This statement, if for nothing else, demonstrates the growing importance of architecture in shaping brand identity, which is all the more reason why architects should do what they can to protect their brand.

Allowing the DIA to continue where Calatrava left off sets a bad precedent for architects everywhere by signaling to future clients that they can get a ‘half-baked’ signature design if they can’t afford an original one by following Denver’s lead. In choosing to continue with the bones of the Caltrava design without the maestro at the helm, what Denver is doing is akin to dining at a fine restaurant and ordering the cheapest thing on the menu (your value engineering dollars at work). Worse yet this practice ventures ever so slightly into the territory of ‘knock-off’ designs. This kind of thing happens all the time in the fashion industry. Move a bow here or there and voila your signature Coco Chanel dress can be had for a fraction of the cost of the original.

As a result of the legal agreement between Calatrava and the DIA, we may never know the details of the deal let alone why Calatrava agreed to sign off on the continuance of his design. We do know, as a matter of public record, that Caltrava’s contract with the DIA states that the architect retains the copyright to the design. But Kim Day told the Denver Post that as a result of Calatrava’s resigning from the project and his stating


in the letter from Robertina Calatrava that the firm would do what it could to forge a smooth transition on the project (between the change of architects), DIA has the right to carry on with the Calatrava design.

For its part, Gensler and Anderson Mason Dale had another choice, which was to decline the commission altogether. True, it’s a bad economy but by turning the job down or refusing to go forward with someone else’s design and insisting instead to the DIA that it start from scratch, would have sent a strong message to clients everywhere that what has happened here is not acceptable.

Early in my career, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) walked into the architect’s office where I was working at the time. They came there, rendering in hand, to discuss how they could get a cheaper version of a new environmental designed by Michael Graves (which was eventually built as designed by Graves at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ.) Graves was then at the height of his career and we were a small practice that could have benefited greatly from such a high-profile commission. We declined the commission and promptly threw the DEP Director out of our office but not before pointing out that by speaking to one architect about a project for which another is currently under contract is wrong and against the AIA’s guidelines. We next called Graves to tell him what had transpired.

It will be interesting to see what if anything transpires in the weeks ahead between the DIA and Calatrava over the designs released last week. Regardless, architects should err on the side of setting the ethical bar high and where possible should stick together to ensure that ‘knock-off’ designs are a thing of our past and not our future.



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