Star Architect Must Pay Venice Over Bridge Too Fragile for Tourists

ROME — An Italian court this month ordered one of the world’s leading architects to pay damages to Venice for negligently building a bridge that failed to take into account “what everyone understands” about the city — namely, that it has a ton of tourists with luggage.

The five judges on a Roman court overseeing the use of public funds ruled on Aug. 6 that Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish-Swiss architect globally renowned for his sleek and elegantly curved designs, had committed “macroscopic negligence” in constructing the glass-and-steel bridge that opened near Venice’s train station in 2008. They fined him 78,000 euros.

Mr. Calatrava’s lawyers, reached by telephone on Friday, declined to comment or respond to questions about whether they would appeal the decision.

The court said that the bridge required constant maintenance unforeseen in Mr. Calatrava’s plans and that those problems were easily predictable given Venice’s well-known tourism problem. They said the lack of foresight raised doubts about Mr. Calatrava’s judgment.

Mr. Calatrava, who designed the PATH station in Lower Manhattan that admirers called visionary and detractors called way too expensive, has a reputation for breaking budgets. Compared to projects like that one in New York and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, the Venice bridge was a bargain, costing €11.6 million, though it was originally estimated to cost €7 million.

In Venice, Mr. Calatrava’s bridge is hardly the only victim of an out-of-control excess of tourists. The city has hired “decorum” police to keep tourists from eating on monuments, signs advise them not to dive in the canals and new technology is being used to get an accurate count on how many millions of tourists actually visit each year.

Many of them arrive at Venice’s train station, and it is the luggage they wheel over a large canal that has taken a toll on Mr. Calatrava’s bridge, especially on the glass panels that form part of its steps.

Mr. Calatrava’s original plans estimated that the steps would require replacement every 20 years. But within four years after its opening, the city needed to substitute eight of them for a cost of €36,000, according to the ruling. And like a footbridge with a glass tile surface that Mr. Calatrava designed in Bilbao, Spain, the Venice bridge also drew complaints for its lack of grip. When it rained, its sloped glass floor turned into a starchitect’s Slip ’N Slide.

“It wasn’t hard to imagine, from the beginning and in practice, that the elevated rate of falls would yield a more than proportionate risk of breaking the glass,” read the ruling.

In other words, one source of damage to the glass panels was falling tourists.

Even some fans of the bridge agreed that it had its problems.

Shaul Bassi, a professor of English literature at the Ca’ Foscari university in Venice, said he admired the bridge’s beauty and its strategic positioning, adding that it showed “that you could do something contemporary in Venice.” Still, he said, “It’s impossible not to slip on it, especially when it rains.”

Complaints about the bridge are not new.

In 2014, the city sued Mr. Calatrava for negligence, but a lower court ruled in his favor, arguing that an “incorrect use of the structure” had caused its premature deterioration. As an example of “incorrect use,” the 2015 ruling cited the “dragging of trolley bags,” or wheeled suitcases.

But the higher court in Rome, to which the city had appealed, ruled that since the bridge is close to the train station, the presence of wheeled bags should be considered “inevitable.” Such an oversight was especially egregious, it said, “because it comes from a professional of world fame.”

In 2008, Venice authorities banned tourists from carrying luggage with wheels, which they said hurt the city’s ancient pavement. But the court said the ban, officially lifted earlier this year, didn’t eliminate the possibility that a “large portion of the transit population” rolled bags behind them.

Dipping into its Latin, the court said the architect failed to “intelligere quod omnes intelligent,” or to “understand what everyone understands.”

In 2008, Mr. Calatrava defended himself against detractors, including some art critics who called his bridge a horror and a crime. “The bridge was checked with sophisticated methods,” Mr. Calatrava said at the time, “which determined that it has a solid structure which is behaving better than expected.”

Some Venice natives said that the bridge was simply the victim of Italy’s new nativism.

Roberto Ferrucci, a Venice-based writer, said that Mr. Calatrava “is venerated in the rest of the world, but here they make him look as a criminal because they suspect everything foreign.”

He added that if the bridge was Venice’s main problem, “I’d be popping Champagne.”

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