Article: Architecture and Innovation :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Roya Marefat, Conference Coordinator

On May 8, 1996, the Lemelson Center hosted "Architecture and Innovation," an international symposium held at the National Museum of American History. The event explored the role of innovation, technology, and the creative process in architecture at the end of the 20th century through the work of two internationally renowned architects, Douglas Cardinal and Santiago Calatrava. Historians Mark Jarzombek (Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Tony Webster (Columbia University), with architect and historian Mina Marefat (Aga Khan Trust for Culture), led the discussion following the architects' presentations. The audience included architects, historians, engineers, students, and members of the general public.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, designed by Douglas Cardinal, highlights his curvilinear, natural style. Photo courtesy Douglas Cardinal

Canadian Douglas Cardinal, the speaker in the morning session, is a Native American who trained as an architect in Texas and went on to practice architecture in Edmonton and Alberta. His work fuses the spirituality of his Blackfoot heritage with advanced technology of the late 20th century. Cardinal's thoughtful presentation chronicled the journey of an architect of such award-winning projects as St. Mary's Church in Red Deer, the Space Sciences Center in Edmonton, and, most recently, the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

His use of undulating forms distinguishes his work from that of his contemporaries. Early in his career, however, Cardinal discovered that his complex organic forms were fraught with technical problems that could only be solved with advanced calculations and computer technology. Consequently, his firm has used computers to plot designs since the 1960s. Yet he never forgot the lessons of his Native American heritage. Each of his buildings illustrates his affinity with nature. For example, his design for the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa reflects the glaciers of Canada. Similarly, Saskatchewan University and his own residence embody his concern with sustainable environments, making extensive use of solar energy. In the discussion following Cardinal's presentation, Webster, Jarzombek, Marefat, and the audience continued to consider the ways in which the architect merges his Blackfoot philosophies with 20th-century technology to produce environmentally sound and artistically beautiful structures.

Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's afternoon presentation highlighted his skills as an artist, sculptor, engineer, and architect. He first spoke about his own sculpture, explaining the influence that the proportions of the human body has on his work. He then showed the audience how he translated these ideas to his architecture. Calatrava's soaring bridges, like the Alamilo Bridge in Barcelona, seem to defy the principles of stability in their lightness and asymmetry. His steel, concrete, and glass public buildings, like the communications tower in Barcelona or the Stadelhoff train station in Zurich, attest to the transparency and lightness of his structures.

Santiago Calatrava’s soaring, asymmetrical Alamilo Bridge in Barcelona portrays the innovative intersection between art and architecture that is embodied in his work. Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava

Calatrava struck a chord with many in his audience when he affirmed the role of competitions in providing opportunities for young architects to experiment with new technologies and innovative designs. As a case study, he presented his competition entry for the Reichstag in Berlin. Calatrava then showed his more recent projects, including the Lyon Airport railway station and his addition to Eero Saarinen's Milwaukee Art Museum. The museum extension, Calatrava's first building in the United States, incorporates the kinetic principles used in his sculptures. During the discussion, Calatrava continued to illustrate the union of his skills as artist and architect, sketching out ways in which the proportions of the human body, so evident in his sculpture, are reflected in his architecture.

Throughout the day, Cardinal and Calatrava urged architects not to be slaves to convention but to use creativity and imagination in their designs. Participants in the symposium had an opportunity to explore these ideas with the speakers informally at a closing reception hosted by the Embassy of Finland and its ambassador, Jaakko Laajava. Designed by the firm of Heikkinen and Komonen, this new addition to Washington's "Embassy Row" provided an appropriately innovative setting for the closing of "Architecture and Innovation."


Santiago Calatrava is a Spanish architect working in Paris and Zurich and is recognized as one of the world's innovative architects. Trained as a sculptor, an engineer, and an architect, he synthesizes new technologies and new forms in all his projects, including a memorable bridge in Barcelona and train stations in Zurich and Lyon. His work transcends the traditional boundaries between art and architecture as well as between engineering and architecture. Calatrava's projects have won critical acclaim internationally and are widely published both in Europe and in the United States.

Douglas Cardinal is a Canadian architect practicing in Ottawa and Washington, D.C. His designs incorporate complex curvilinear, undulating forms and sensuous lines. Emphasizing indigenous philosphy, his architecture expresses his Native American sensitivity simultaneously with advanced technology. With inherent respect for natural materials, his buildings are sympathetic to the surrounding environment. Cardinal has received wide recognition for his architectural work, including the commission for the design of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. He also designed the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and St. Mary's Church in Red Deer, Alberta.

Mark Jarzombek is visiting professor of architectural history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and associate professor at Cornell University. His published works include books and articles on theory and modernism.

Mina Marefat is the former senior architectural historian at the National Museum of American History, where she initiated new research and public programs. She teaches and writes on modernism, culture, and architecture and is director of architectural education for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. She serves as moderator for this symposium.

Arthur Molella is a historian of science and director of the Lemelson Center.

Tony Webster is an associate professor at Columbia University. A historian of technology and architecture, his writing addresses innovation, engineering, and architecture. He is the author of Technological Advances in Japanese Building Design and Construction and co-author of Calatrava Bridges.

Originally published in Spring 1997.

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