Wednesday, 14 May 2014

46. Wonder: The City of Arts and Sciences

(For the City of Arts and Sciences preview, please click here.)

In the old times, the river Turia protected Valencia. The Romans had founded the city in 138 BC on an island on the river: the location was strategic both militarily and commercially. Empires come and go, but cities and people endure; after the Romans left late in the 4th Century, Valencia continued on, ultimately growing way beyond the small river island. But one day, in rather an unusual step, the people of Valencia decided they'd had enough of their river. Imagine London getting rid of the Thames, or on a scale closer to Valencia, Glasgow getting rid of the Clyde. It's fairly unimaginable. But in 1957, the Turia had been misbehaving, bursting its banks, and causing all kinds of havoc. No longer was it a protector. And so the Plan Sur, i.e. the South Plan, was developed, redirecting the river to the south, so that it no longer flowed through the city. It took 15 years, but one day, for the first time in over 2100 years, Valencia no longer had a river. Instead it had a river bed, 9 kilometres long, 150 metres wide, a ghostly memory snaking through the city.

On a beautiful springtime afternoon, Danielle and I walked to the river bed, strolling down a ramp into where water would once have flowed. Cyclists flew past us, joggers and dogs and old people passed by at varying velocities, a little tourist train chugged by like a vintage toy. Couples took photos of each other at fountains, groups of children squealed like dying pigs as they, apparently with great joy, used playparks. To their great credit, Valencia's local government elected not to turn the Turia river bed into roads or homes, it opted to convert the huge swathe of new land running through the city into a park. Good on them.

To be honest, they could have just left it there and nobody would have complained. But some years later, in the early 1990s, feeling a little forgotten as other cities in Spain went from strength to strength, Valencia embarked on another great project. This was why Danielle and I found ourselves walking through the Turia river bed park. After a gently paced half hour, we reached it. "What? Is this it?" Danielle promptly said, with some disgust.

This is the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, the final part of Valencia's wildly ambitious entertainment and cultural complex called "The City of Arts and Sciences", or in Spanish, "Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias", or in the Valencian dialect, "Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències". Let's get straight to it, it's a rubbish name that does the complex no favours whatsoever. It's too much of a mouthful, vaguely misleading, and it's horribly dull. You can't even shorten it: calling it just "The City" is simply confusing. It sounds like a committee sat round for weeks before reaching it as a compromise. Anything would have been better. How about "The Zagbasm" - it might clearly be rubbish, but at least it's catchy. I'm sure somebody must have had something more interesting before the committee drowned them out with the safe bet. Anyway, as with my preview, I'll call it the Cuidad for brevity. In real life, this isn't such an option - I suspect people just call it "that modern complex down the river."

The Palau de les Art Reina Sofia, or the Queen Sofia Palace of the Arts - yes, another godawful name - is the first building you come across if you walk down the river from Valencia's historic centre. And on our visit, it was having a bad day. A bad year, even. In January, parts of the white mosaic-covered roof started coming off forcing the building to be closed. After just eight years, already it was falling apart, prompting the council to sue Santiago Calatrava, the primary architect behind it. The version that greeted us had its gleaming white layer peeled back, showing us a large curving wall of rust-speckled grey. Not that I saw anything approaching repairs during the two days we visited, the only sign of life was a lone security guard pacing the walkway linking the pavement to the apparent entrance. It's an opera house, the tallest opera house in the world whooptee-doo, although there are only two performances taking place this month. The information board outside was months out of date.

Nonetheless, look beyond the repairs, and the sense of loneliness surrounding it, and the Palau is a genuinely intriguing building. Angular and dramatic, combing razor sharp points and swooping curves, it is an unusual and futuristic construction. "It looks like a helmet," Danielle said, "Maybe the Daft Punk helmet." Later, she started comparing it to a dead alien, honing in her description to the 1980s film "Batteries Not Included" when a baby alien robot is jump-started into life. The point is clear - this is a strange looking building. I happen to like that it looks like the Daft Punk helmet crossed with a dead alien robot; I believe Danielle did not intend the comparison to be complimentary.

On a better day, back to its gleaming white best and looking more like a living alien robot, I think the Palau would be a very striking building. It's massive, it's unique, it's got an evocative futuristic style. But never mind, because it's just one building of several others in the Ciudad complex. How do the rest look?


Ok, let's be fair. Take a look at this photo.

In the foreground, that's The Hemisferic, followed by the Prince Felipe Science Museum, then the blue thing in the background is the Agora, with the swooping curve of a bridge in front of it. And no doubt, it all looks pretty cool, doesn't it? But you may want to turn back now, because you're just going to be disappointed...

The Ciudad has lots to admire, and little to love. I admire the daring of Valencia in designing such a radical series of constructions, not going with a safe bet but using an architect - and a local one too - with a radical style. Much of the complex is surrounded by shallow pools of water, reflecting blue under the sky, giving the sense almost that these are strange futuristic entities emerging from the river. Individually, the buildings are all showpieces of modern computer-engineered precision architecture, and are fascinating to look at.

That final one is the Umbracle, a covered walkway with plants inside, which runs along the side of the complex.

The very hi-tech daring and precision of the buildings are their downfall: they leave me cold. They seem impersonal, to me and to the city. The atmosphere they create is clinical. While inside the Science Museum, Danielle compared it to an airport terminal. It was spot on. How many modern airport terminals - spacious, meticulously designed, efficient, empty - have you ever fallen in love with?

None of this is helped by the confusing layout and lack of clear information. On our first visit we thought they were closed for the day! For some reason, barriers block off the parts that you most want to visit, like this part:

Wide stairways leading up to a wide walkway midway up the Science Museum. Looks like a nice place to have a stroll. Turns out they are just glorified emergency exits for those inside the building in case there's a fire. Well, that's disappointing...

It's not quite in shot, but the walkways (with water on either side) to the Hemisferic are closed off too. Why? I have absolutely no idea. You enter via an underground entrance, and the only time you even get to stand inside the building at ground level is, very briefly, upon leaving the IMAX screen the building holds. Briefly, because to then exit the building you have to go back underground. We entirely failed to notice the underground entrance, by the way, on the first day, assuming the barriers indicated the building was closed for the day.

Go to the Agora, and that sense of being closed is only heightened.

This is a venue for concerts and sporting events and no doubt when they're on it makes more sense. When are they on? I don't know - there was no information there whatsoever. It was just a closed-off and empty shell, with the occasional passer-by peering inside, wondering what was going on.

With the Palau having a massive two performances this month, and the Agora entirely empty, we were relieved on our second visit to find that The Hemisferic and the Science Museum were open, if you looked in the right places. The IMAX theatre in the Hemisferic has shows roughly every hour, and we watched an enjoyable one about Egypt. It showed four of my Wonders - the Pyramids (briefly), Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and Abu Simbel - so I was happy. We also enjoyed the pointlessly futuristic earphones.

To our surprise, the screen was packed. Where had these people come from? Before the show, only a handful of people were milling around aimlessly; with five minutes to go old Spanish people started to appear en masse. Were they futuristic robots built to make the Ciudad seem less empty?

Inside the Science Museum, it was young people en masse, children in school groups. Absolutely ghastly in other words. The Science Museum is an interactive museum of science stuff, where you can press buttons and kick balls and find yourself "edutained". Yes, it's all about edutainment. Even if that word never appears anywhere, that's what it's all about. It's fine, but the 73,000 children running around don't do much for the ambiance. I particularly enjoyed one display, something to do with human nerves or something I really wasn't paying attention, in which pressing a button dispensed a boiled sweet. I took five. Danielle and I kicked some penalties too - to her dismay, I won, despite most of my kicks hitting the post (they still seemed to score points).

In London in the late 20th Century, a vast amount of money - £789 million - was spent building the Millennium Dome before people started to think, "Hey, what should we do with this thing?" It was a fancy building, a grand statement, without any actual function. A white elephant in other words. In the end, it half-heartedly put on some displays and exhibitions, before the O2 telecommunications company bought the thing off the government, made a bunch of changes, and turned it into a world-class music venue. It still looks ridiculous though. The Ciudad has the same kind of feel. It cost around the same - an ever-increasing figure that ended up three times over-budget at over €1 billion. It's not worth that. Unlike the Millennium Dome, I don't think it looks ridiculous, but it is vastly over-designed for what it is. The functions seem like afterthoughts. Is function essential for a Wonder? Essential for a building? I don't know. But as it is, the Ciudad seems awfully hollow.

With the very notable exception of the Oceanographic, which is a large aquarium and water park with lots of wildlife and a dolphinarium. It's the only part of the Ciudad complex that seems alive. Kind of behind the Agora and separated by a wall, it doesn't show up in the main photos of the complex in its entirety, as though it's ducking out the way, trying not to be associated. It's never a Wonder and never purports to be, it's just a really good aquarium with sharks and penguins and tons of colourful fish.

If Valencia had just left it there, with an eye-shaped IMAX theatre and a lovely aquarium, then I think the Ciudad would be a beloved part of the city. But they went a little too far. Do I blame them? Not really. I'm all for ambition, and going for the grand statement, and the vision behind the complex is immense, albeit functionally confused. It was a risk of the most fantastic kind, and I applaud it. But unfortunately, not all risks work out. And when they don't, it's easy to sit back and criticise.

On our final night in Valencia, Danielle and I took a wander back down the old river, to see the Ciudad at night. Often, modern buildings make a lot more sense after dark, being lit up and shining bright. Surely now, we would understand the Ciudad, in all its futuristic glory. But as we approached, we realised that the lights were off. The Ciudad sat mostly in darkness. It was a melancholy scene.

Can modern architecture have a place on my list? Of course it can - the Millau Viaduct, currently nestled at number 7 on my list is the supreme example. A well-built modern construction can have the wow factor just as much as something a thousand years old. It's true that age impresses, and there is something inherently remarkable about something that has lasted the centuries, but it is not an essential quality of a Wonder. However, what I have observed over the last few years of Wonder travelling is that pre-modern constructions built from stone or brick age so much better than most things modern from glass or steel or especially concrete. Stone can smudge or darken and it doesn't look too bad at all; often it adds to the character. But do the same to concrete and it simply looks dated and ugly. A dirty modern building looks terrible. Concrete is not an attractive material.

And although the Ciudad is hardly filthy, it has plenty of smudges and blemishes. Without regular maintenance, it would be hard to avoid this. Quite simply, it doesn't look good. This a complex that prides itself on its sleek futurism - it's all machine-cut curves and sci-fi escapism. But the fantasy doesn't match the reality. This isn't the 25th Century where microscopic robots keep everything spotless, it's the early 21st Century and the Ciudad has all the imperfections you would expect. Close up, this futuristic complex looks dated.

Some criteria then.

Size: Seven main constructions taking up a sizeable 86 acres, with the tallest part being the 125 metre pillar of the bridge - which is also the tallest point of Valencia. The Science Museum (220 metres long, 80 metres wide, 55 metres high) and the Palau (163 metres long, 57 metres wide, 75 metres high) could rightly be considered Wonders alone in terms of size 
Engineering: Bold, very hi-tech stuff.
Artistry: Elegant, dramatically curved and angled constructions, with a definite futuristic element. They might not be to everybody's taste, but there's no doubt they have style.
Age: Around a decade old, but already looking just a little dated close up. It's difficult to imagine these lasting the test of time as monuments to humanity.
Fame/Iconicity: Mostly, they've acquired notoriety for almost bankrupting Valencia. Unfortunately, this notoriety has been contained mostly within Valencia.
Context: Nestled away a few kilometres away from the city centre, in the river bed. It would be quite easy to visit Valencia and not visit, and maybe even hear about, the Ciudad.
Back Story: When you dig a little, the background of the river Turia being diverted is quite interesting. Otherwise we just have an expensive white elephant project.
Originality: Yes. Admirably distinctive from anything else you'll see.
Wow Factor: Not there. No doubt, the constructions are impressive and unusual, but they are too clinical and precise to astound. I look at these and see a computer, there's none of that "How the hell did they do that?"

If you're on holiday with your family, then you could do a lot worse than visit the Ciudad. The kids will love the Oceanographic, and they'll probably enjoy the IMAX theatre and get something out of the Science Museum too. In the evening, if you've got a babysitter, perhaps you might like to see an opera at the Palau. City of Arts and Science promotional team - you can use that if you'd like. Even if you're travelling alone and aren't interested in interactive edutainment or jumping dolphins, its an interesting complex to take a look at. But a Wonder? Never. The Ciudad is style over substance, and it just takes a visit to make that clear. The best buildings need a soul, they need a good dollop of my unrated je ne sais quoi criteria: the Ciudad is very lacking. I'd shove it down in my "Non-essential" category, below the much more interesting but less visually impressive Ayutthaya National Park but still way above the hollow, disappointing Lotus Temple (which, not incidentally, would fit in very well to the Ciudad complex if anybody ever fancies airlifting it).

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

1 comment:

  1. From your pictures, parts of it make me think of a skeleton of a giant creature, perhaps a beached whale. Those parts look quite impressive and unique.

    It's interesting what you say about it already looking dated - I tend to believe that modern building materials - i.e. post war - are often unsuitable for anything that is meant to last. It's a shame as, like you say, this was an ambitious project and I think a lot more could have been done, or rather, the same thing could have been done, but better, in terms of materials.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.