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21 First Drafts: Santiago Calatrava's Ernstings Warehouse

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Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

Santiago Calatrava
Ernstings Warehouse in Coesfeld-Lette, Germany
Date completed: 1985

Getting the Gig:
The curves normally associated with Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava are swooping, massive, skyline-defining designs, engineering turned into parabolic pageantry. They're definitely not the bends in wavy aluminum siding. But in the early '80s, when Calatrava's career was just beginning, he wasn't yet working on bridges, skyscrapers and museums. In fact, his most important work to date wasn't a building at all, but the mammoth thesis "On The Foldability of Space Frames," a heady look into the mathematics and physics behind interlocking geometric shapes (think of the tessellating structures of Buckminster Fuller, who helped popularize the concept). While Calatrava is often criticized for being late and over-budget, he wisely focused his doctoral studies on the engineering concepts that would (literally) support his creative compositions. After years of study and degrees from both the Polytechnic University of Valencia and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, he began looking for civil engineering challenges and commissions to support his career. When Ernstings, a family clothing retailer in Germany, sought designers for a new warehouse that would potentially provide a visual signature for the company, Calatrava decided to try his hand at adding something interesting to a more mundane project.

Description and Reception:
Calatrava's design was severely restricted by the rectangular requirements of the client, so he was really only able to shape the exterior cladding. He infused the potentially bland commission with a creative, rippling curtain wall of aluminum, forming waves along the exterior that gave the box-like building a line of curving columns. Alexander Tzonis, who wrote about the building in Santiago Calatrava: The Complete Works, compares its final form to Greek temple architecture. Calatrava didn't stop there; he also fashioned unique, flexible doors for the service entrances from aluminum slats that, when fully opened, swoop down in a curved canopy. These wing-like structures showcased the complex analytical work he'd labored over for his dissertation. It's the first of many projects that, by dint of long hours spent studying complex mathematics, allowed him to turn engineering problems into sculptural exercises.

Impact On His Career:
Calatrava soon found his footing in civil projects, working on rail systems and bridges, which would eventually be the calling card that led to his more grandiose projects. The Stadelhofen Railway in Zurich, designed during that same period and finished in 1990, was especially important, as the cantilevered roofs and winged columns that he created prefigured much larger works. But it can be argued that Calatrava's propensity for curves found its first testing ground on the doors of this German warehouse. The eyelid-like entrance to the Planetarium he designed for Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences could be a descendant of doors originally meant to welcome trucks filled with inexpensive clothing. But it can be argued that Calatrava propensity for curves found its first testing ground on the doors of this roughly 300-foot-long German warehouse.

Famous Future Works::
Puente del Alamillo (Seville: 1992), City of Arts and Sciences (Valencia: 1998), Milwaukee Art Museum (Milwaukee: 2001), Athens Olympic Sports Complex (Athens: 2003), Auditorio Tenrife (Santa Cruz de Tenerife: 2003), Turning Torso (Malmo: 2005)

Current Status:
While Calatrava's work gave a prosaic building a bit of curb appeal, it's still a warehouse, and hasn't changed much since it was first built. It remains operational to this day.

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Looks Like Calatrava Won't Get Paid for His Chicago Spire Work [Curbed]
Santiago Calatrava's Latest Building is Now Ready for Liftoff [Curbed]