Legal Troubles Dog Famed Spanish Architect Santiago Calatrava

A Spanish court named Calatrava, designer of New York's Ground Zero transport hub, a suspect in alleged contract fraud. Prosecutors say he got $3.6 million for a convention center that wasn't built.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Spain's most famous living architect is Santiago Calatrava. He's designed dozens of buildings in his native country as well as the Milwaukee Art Museum in Florida Polytechnic University. Now he's at work in the new transit station at the World Trade Center in New York, but that project is massively over budget and behind schedule and it's highlighted some of Calatrava's legal troubles back in Spain. Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I'm standing in front of Valencia's soaring, white modern opera house. I'd hope to see Placido Domingo sing here, but instead scaffolding blocks the entrance and workers are scraping off the building's facade after its tiles started falling off. Valencia's Opera House is among dozens of Spanish buildings designed by Santiago Calatrava. His popularity soared during Spain's construction boom and then took a nosedive with Spain's economy. Calatrava coated his opera house with what many here now call an impractical material - tiny mosaic tiles that started wrinkling and crumbling after just a few years.

SANTIAGO ARISSIAN: Wind, water - once you have a crack you begin to have troubles falling down.

FRAYER: Paint engineer Santiago Arissian surveys the damage as Calatrava and the bankrupt city of Valencia argue over who should pay for repairs. Ignacio Blanco is a local councilman investigating why Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences, a museum complex of which the opera house is part, cost nearly three times its original budget.

IGNACIO BLANCO: (Through translator) At first Calatrava was our favorite native son, the world famous avant-garde architect, but problems started popping up with his buildings and they all went over budget. Now people associate Calatrava with abuse of public money - a symbol of an era we couldn't afford.

FRAYER: And the problems aren't just in Valencia, he says.

BLANCO: (Through translator) In Venice there were problems with the bridge he designed, in Bilbao with a bridge and an airport, in Spanish Wine Country a bodega's roof is leaking, in Oviedo his convention center roof caved in and in general almost all of his projects go over budget.

FRAYER: All this is a little bit worrying across the Atlantic where Calatrava is designing the new Ground Zero Transit Hub in New York. So far the project costs have doubled and it's six years behind schedule. The New York Post recently dubbed it the Calatrasaurus and a $4 billion boondoggle. NPR repeatedly asked Calatrava's office in Zurich to comment for this story, but it declined. The architect was supposed to be in Spain this week testifying as a suspect in a fraud case. Prosecutors say he got 3.6 million dollars to design yet another Spanish convention center that was never built, but Calatrava didn't show up for his court date.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Legal troubles aside, Calatrava's modern, white creations look otherworldly and still draw millions of tourists to Valencia, but architecture critic Jose Miguel Iribas says Calatrava's over-the-top aesthetic has gone out of fashion.

JOSE MIGUEL IRIBAS: (Through translator) His creations are spectacular, but they're like empty boxes we now have to fill. He put imagination over practicality. It's the story of Spanish architecture in recent years, but now it's moving towards - modesty, simplicity, practicality - responding to necessities.

FRAYER: Meanwhile at the Valencia Opera House the necessity is making repairs and paying off all the debt this city went into to pay for Calatrava's designs. A retired teacher, Ricardo Salgado, smokes a cigarette and rolls his eyes when I ask about the architect.

RICARDO SALGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Politicians wanted to build their Valley of the Kings, their pyramids and they chose the glamorous Calatrava, the best architect in the world, he says - but who has to pay for these pyramids now? Our future generations, he says, my sons and my grandsons. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Valencia, Spain.

GONYEA: This is NPR News.

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