Friday, 30 August 2013

Preview: The City of Arts and Sciences

My Wonders can take the form of ancient, ruined cities, or feature as part of thriving modern cities. So, how about a city of the future?

This is the City of Arts and Sciences (Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Spanish) in Valencia. Ok, it's not actually from the future, and it's not actually a city, but it has more than a passing resemblance to science-fiction visions of how life in the 22nd Century and beyond might be. All hi-tech gloss with dynamic curves and metallic sophistication, the City of Arts and Sciences is an entertainment cultural complex set in a dried-up riverbed, running the length of over a mile. It features an opera house, planetarium, museums, exhibitions, sports facilities - you know, all the safe bets you get when a bunch of people sit down and think "What civic facilities can we put in this space?" The name too - God it's dull and clunky, and a pain in the ass to write - for brevity, I'm going to call it the Cuidad from now on. But where Valencia's governors chose not to play safe was the design. Ultra-modern, and dominated by glass and metal cut into swooping arcs, the various buildings look like giant alien robots nestled just a little east of the heart of Valencia.

To get right into the origins of the Cuidad, we have to rewind back to 1957. That was the year that Valencia was hit by a major flood, that broke the banks of the river Turia, flooding Valencia and causing general water-based devastation. This wasn't the first time - 60 years earlier, there had been a similar devastation, and the threat was constant. Something had to be done, and that was the Plan Sur, chosen the following year. Meaning simply the "South Plan" (there had also been North and Central plans in contention) it involved rerouting the Turia from the south, draining part of the river that ran through that part of the city. Effectively, the river was to be eliminated from the city. In all, the project took around 15 years, but as a result the city was now free of the threat of flooding, and had a brand new riverbed-turned-prime city space to play with - 9 km long and 150 metres wide.

To the eternal credit of the people in charge, this new space wasn't sold off and used for commercial development. Roads had been considered but the people wanted leisure, and so it was treated as a lovely bonus, turned into parkland, with trees and flowers and some sporting facilities. And then, in 1991, another idea arose. By then, Valencia was feeling a little depressed. Madrid was the capital of Spain and had been named European City of Culture in 1992 with all the prestige and money that this entails, and in the same year Barcelona was due to host the Olympics, with all the prestige and money that this entails. Even Seville was getting into the prestige game of 1992, hosting the world Expo. Poor old Valencia was becoming the forgotten city of Spain. And so the Cuidad was proposed - an arts and science project on an epic scale just to the east of the centre, using an 86-acre stretch of the riverbed. It was to be one of the world's greatest urban projects, to change people's perception of Valencia, and to change the very postcard image of the city, from the Gothic Torre de Micalet of the cathedral to something far more radical. And for this, they turned to a local boy, the architect and structural engineer, Santiago Calatrava.

Calatrava was born in Valencia in 1951, gaining his architectural degree there, before gaining further qualifications in Zurich. During the 1980s, his style had been developed and recognised; aided by advances in technology, he became known for daring structures - especially bridges - that were almost sculptural in their quality. Alamillio Bridge in Seville and the Montjuic Communications Tower for the Barcelona Olympics are two notable early creations. Slick-looking structures with sweeping curves underpinned by precision engineering was his thing, a little like metal-plated living organisms. Square boxes and right angles do not feature in his portfolio. He was told, more-or-less, to go and build something the world would notice: multiple buildings as part of a huge, stylised entertainment complex. And aided initially by an older architect, Felix Candela, a fellow Spaniard, who died in 1997, he went for it.

Construction began in July 1996, with the first building opened in 1998 and the final piece of the jigsaw opened in 2005, and at this point it's probably easiest to go building-by-building..

The centrepiece of the Cuidad, this is L'Hemisferic, a planetarium and Imax theatre. In case it seems a little vague, a planetarium is a venue for presenting shows about astronomy and the night sky. It is deliberately designed like a gigantic eye, 110 metres long and 56 metres wide, surrounded by a large pool of water - the reflection on the water "completes" the eye. Rather groovily, the eye opens and closes, with a huge movable door acting like an eyelid.

This is the huge El Museu de les Ciencies Principe Felipe (Prince Felipe Science Museum), a 220m long, 80m wide, and 55m high museum designed to look like a giant animal skeleton, and named after the heir to the Spanish throne.

Felix Candela's contribution, L'Oceanografic is a huge marine park and aquarium.

A 14-storey high opera house, apparently the tallest in the world. El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia "Queen Sofia Palace of the Arts" (Queen Sofia is the current queen of Spain) was the final part of the Cuidad to be complete, and has four halls, the largest two holding 1700 and 1500 people. It is approximately the dimensions of the Sydney Opera House.

This is the Agora, a covered area for concerts and sport, with just over 6000 capacity.

A 320-metre-long landscaped walk called L'Umbracle (meaning "shade house").

The pillar of this suspension bridge - El Puente de l'Assut de l'Or (Dam of the Gold Bridge) is the tallest structure in Valencia, at 125 metres.

Before I set off on my Asian travels in 2011, I'd never even heard of the City of Arts and Sciences. Super modern, it hadn't cropped up in my typical reading materials, perhaps being too recent for the world to fully digest. Not being super-tall or super-controversial (it seems to have had the whiff of financial scandal around it, but this isn't notable enough to have attracted global news), it hasn't hit the popular headlines, so is noted mostly within architectural circles or tourist brochures. It was pointed out to me by a Dutch guy, Michael, who I'd met in Kuala Lumpur, and it only took a few pictures for me to say "yup". Although it has quite a few parts to it, the design is coherent and consistent and very striking - in photos at least. It's one of these Wonders that I simply have no idea how it will seem in person. Will the flashy photos translate well into real life, or will it all seem a bit fake and hollow? I simply don't know what to expect.

I'll be visiting the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia in... crikey, I really don't know... next year some time. Whenever it is, I'll give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

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