The Unfortunate Intersection of Rain, Unsuitable Shoes, and Cutting Edge Transport Architecture (Sondica Airport and Campo Volantín bridge, Bilbao, Spain)

Those ‘landmark’ buildings in cities trying to regenerate themselves? Those reinventions and reimaginings anchored by the output of a star architect? The idea that revitalised and reinvigorated railway stations can cascade down economic activity and remake their previously run-down locales? You have Bilbao to thank for that.

Bilbao, for most of the 20th Century the economic heart of the Basque Country in northern Spain, suffered from rapid de-industrialisation in the century’s last quarter, with all the societal and economic problems such a shift can be expected to bring. It determined to reinvent itself as a service economy, and an attractive place to work, visit, or relocate your business to. And it did so through the medium of architecture.

The building which kicked the process off was Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1997. The third museum to play host to the Guggenheim collection, architect Gehry housed it in a deconstructivist, titanium shell, all points and curves and edges, like the frothing of a stormy metal sea. Suddenly there was a reason to go to Bilbao. And the city has never looked back since. The new Guggenheim had such a profound impact on the international perception of Bilbao that the process gained a nickname, “the Guggenheim effect”, which you’ll still see used when other cities unveil a piece of dramatic architecture designed to provide an easily recognisable landmark and kick-start their own regeneration efforts.

A single building does not a regeneration process make, and Bilbao has been busily building elsewhere too. The project has involved several pieces of stand-out transport architecture. Two architects in particular have contributed to Bilbao’s transport network, which has itself contributed to Bilbao’s new image as a forward-looking, cutting-edge place to invest. The first is Santiago Calatrava and other is Norman Foster.

By Basotxerri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Like birds taking flight: Sondica Airport terminal, airside. Even the walkways to the aircraft have (speed)bird-like detailing. Photo by Basotxerri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Long-time readers will know of this blog’s enthusiasm for Calatrava’s controversial works, and it seems as good a time as any to have a look at a couple more, given that his World Trade Center Transportation Hub has just opened in New York.

Bilbao employed Calatrava to design a set of new buildings at Bilbao’s Sondica Airport, and a pedestrian bridge in the city centre. Having already designed a smaller facility at Sondica, Calatrava was commissioned to design a larger terminal and other buildings just a few years later. The new airport terminal opened in 2000. An airport was a natural fit for Calatrava’s talents; his 1994 TGV station at Lyon Saint-Exupéry had echoes of Eero Saarinen’s earlier TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York. Bilbao’s airport terminal building is modest in scale compared to some others, but it’s no less attractive or interesting for that, and it projects exactly the image that Bilbao wants with its sharp lines and clean finish. It opened with eight gates, divided between two wings on either side of the main arrivals/departure building, those wings being extendable as and when required.

The terminal building is all about the sensation of take-off. It leans forwards and upwards, straining as if to launch itself into the air (as in the photo above). Much of the building is clad in aluminium panels, a suitable reference to aviation. Passengers approach the terminal at its back side however, a gracefully arched and curved wall of glass, concrete and white-painted steel.

By Michael Sender [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons
Sondica Airport, landside. Photo by Michael Sender [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

Inside, the drama of the terminal becomes clear. Its roof rises and propels forward to a pointed skylight at the front of the building. Underneath, Calatrava’s signature white finishes reflect plenty of light around the building, while the ribs of the building suggest the skeleton of a vast creature, a typically Calatrava preoccupation.

Photo by Boris & Co [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Inside the terminal at Sondica Airport. Photo by Boris & Co [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

On the opposite side of the terminal’s access road is a new car park. Rather than an appalling blot on the landscape and general spoiler of an arriving visitor’s first impression of a city (and yes, Heathrow Terminal 5, I am looking at you), Calatrava sensitively designed an earth-protected structure (see it here), which blends, Hobbit house-like, into the slope of a hill. “The parking structure is integrated into the complex both functionally and visually, as is too rarely the case at airports,” says Calatrava on his website. An underground passageway, with glass blocks in the ceiling letting in natural light, links the car park to the terminal.

The control tower of the airport was also part of Calatrava’s brief, and was delivered first, opening in 1996. Here, he turned convention on its head, by making the base of the tower the narrowest part, and sculpting the tower into something like a futuristic torch (see it here). Aluminium cladding ties it to the aesthetic of the terminal building.

It’s far from one of the world’s biggest airports, but Bilbao puts very many of them to shame. As Norman Foster sought to do at Stansted Airport near London, Bilbao’s terminal recaptures the original excitement and glamour of aviation, reconnecting the terminal to the outside world. On arrival by road at the terminal, there is a clear sense of the airside of the airport, and the aeroplanes waiting to whisk passengers off on their journeys.

Needless to say, as a Calatrava building, it has generated a certain degree of controversy. A 2013 New York Times article (see it here) listed various criticisms of Calatrava’s works, in the name of adding to the controversy surrounding the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. I’m sure I’ve previously expressed my view that unique buildings are inevitably more likely to suffer teething problems than production-line box buildings. Snagging on some of them is bound to be required, simply because there have been no earlier versions on which to iron out problems. But on the up side, you get something which is unique; yours alone.

In particular, the terminal at Sondica has received criticism for having insufficient facilities for arriving passengers, lacking an internal area for them to wait for their taxi, bus, or car to come and pick them up (an extension of the Bilbao Metro is planned, but no-one seems to know when it might eventually open). According to that New York Times article, a glass screen had to be hurriedly added.

I don’t have a lot of time for such criticism, which seems to be as much about a client who either didn’t want, or didn’t notice the lack of, an arrivals lounge. After all, if you’re having a house extension designed, and you want a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, you’d take it up with your architect pretty swiftly if the initial plans arrived sans-bathroom. An architect will only fulfil the brief from the client, and very often surpass it in interesting ways on a project like this; if that brief doesn’t include facilities later deemed desirable, the fault rests with an uninformed client or a poor brief.

This is nothing, however, compared to the trouble that Calatrava has found himself in with his other intervention to Bilbao’s built environment, a pedestrian footbridge over the Nervion River, which opened in 1997, almost at the same time as the Guggenheim. Problems with Calatrava buildings detailed by the New York Times (unhelpfully the article doesn’t include a list of the Calatrava buildings which haven’t suffered any such issues) include a leaky roof at a winery, a crinkling exterior finish at Valencia’s opera house and the footbridge in Bilbao, which was dubbed “The Bridge of Broken Legs” in the article.

Bridges are one of Calatrava’s specialities. He has an apparently innate understanding of the forces involved in supporting them, which allows him to create extraordinary shapes, asymmetric or backwards-leaning, or spectacularly cantilevered, or all of these at once, it seems. Bilbao’s Campo Volantín bridge has a curved deck, supported by inclined arch, and suspended by a complicated web of cables.

Photo by Zarateman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Campo Volantín footbridge. Photo by Zarateman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It was designed to open up the north-east bank of the Nervion by connecting it more directly to Bilbao city centre, and being just down from the Guggenheim, something of landmark status was desired. It is indeed a fabulous-looking thing, with its arched footings leaning right out to the glass bridge deck.

The glass deck was designed to allow light to reach into the bridge without the need for on-bridge lighting; the lights for the bridge are instead installed underneath and shine upwards. There’s no doubt about it though, it can be slippery when it rains; so much so that Bilbao’s authorities put down a rubber anti-slip (not to mention anti-architecture) carpet along the bridge, which as far as I can tell without a quick field trip, is still there.

There is nothing wrong in principle with using polished finishes such as glass on walking routes. They are more slippery when wet than rough finishes, but if you are wearing suitable outdoor shoes there’s no particular problem. That, unfortunately, is precisely the point. Have a look around at your fellow pedestrians next time you’re out in the rain. You’ll see young people sploshing along in their wellingtons having a great time. You’ll see other adults wearing sturdy shoes with grips on the bottom, not having a great time because they’ve got past the stage of actively enjoying puddles, but at least remaining upright. And then you’ll see a small but significant minority of people wobbling along in the most extraordinary range of footwear. Stilleto heels, loafers and smart shoes with shiny leather soles, none of which provide any grip and which will, almost inevitably, lead to an accident if worn on a rainy day on a glass-bottomed bridge.

Campo Volantin bridge at night. The reason for the deck is obvious - its beautiful lighting scheme in which the bridge is lit from below to avoid cluttering the deck with light fittings. PhotoBy Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Zubizuri bridge Night 2Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Campo Volantín bridge at night. The reason for the deck is obvious – its beautiful lighting scheme in which the bridge is lit from below to avoid cluttering the deck with light fittings. Photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Zubizuri bridge Night 2Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For this I blame over-reliance on the private car. People can only get away with such ridiculous footwear if the majority of their outdoor walking comprises only the distance between their front door and the car door, or their car door and the office door. They have become so unfamiliar with the reality of outdoor walking that they don’t stop to think that office shoes might not be the best option for walking around town in bad weather. These are the same people you can see wearing office attire without a coat in the middle of heavy snowfalls, unable to make their usual car journey, and now unsure how to dress for anything other than the climate controlled conditions of their car and office.

As one bus industry manager said to me the other day, our over-reliance on the private car has effectively disabled a huge slice of the population, who have simply forgotten how to walk outdoors.

All right, rant over now, but it’s ironic that the design of a bridge made for pedestrians has been so utterly compromised by the need to cater for people who have forgotten how to walk anywhere at all. It’s been further compromised by a completely insensitive additional link from one side of the bridge over a nearby road. This was the subject of a complicated legal battle between Calatrava and the city of Bilbao.

By Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The rubber mat, seen in 2012, ruining the footbridge. Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Controversies aside (maybe even because of the controversies), Calatrava’s airport buildings and city centre footbridge show how transport networks and their associated infrastructure add to the personality of a city, and in this case contribute to Bilbao’s reinvention as a cutting-edge service economy with dramatic architecture to match.

Yet, despite the obvious drama of Calatrava’s works, it’s another transport network that has probably had the greatest impact on the feel of Bilbao after the Guggenheim itself. Under the ground, Norman Foster produced one of the best-looking metros anywhere in the world. So next week, we’ll travel down a Fosterito into his underground world.

Further reading

Calatrava’s project page for Sondica Airport terminal and car park, here

Calatrava’s project page for Sondica Airport control tower, here

Calatrava’s project page for Campo Volantín footbridge, here

Daley, Suzanne (September 24, 2013): A Star Architect Leaves Some Clients Fuming. The New York Times (here)

Jodidio, Philip (2015). Calatrava – Complete Works 1979-Today. Hohenzollernring: Taschen

…and anything else linked to in the text above.

How to find…

…Sondica Airport: click here for a map

Campo Volantín Bridge: click here for a map

6 thoughts on “The Unfortunate Intersection of Rain, Unsuitable Shoes, and Cutting Edge Transport Architecture (Sondica Airport and Campo Volantín bridge, Bilbao, Spain)

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