El País reported recently that the government of the Autonomous Region of Valencia, when it was presided by Francisco Camps (the Popular Party leader who resigned recently over allegations of corruption), paid architect Santiago Calatrava over €15 million to design three skyscrapers for the city of Valencia that, it turns out, are never going to be built. The unusually high “fee” for such a preliminary study, not to mention the lack of an architectural competition, are not the only “irregularities,” however. The site of the three controversial skyscrapers is adjacent to a monumental opera house, a science museum, an IMAX cinema, a stadium, and a bridge all designed by Calatrava. Such a concentration in one place of so many large buildings by one architect is rare, and highly questionable in its wisdom.
True, a number of architects are historically associated with cities in which they built their careers: Palladio with Vicenza, Gaudí with Barcelona, Mies van der Rohe with Chicago, to name only some examples. But their works are not conspicuously amassed into a single ensemble the way Calatrava’s work is in Valencia. The problem with Calatrava’s architecture is that it long ago became a signature style, which is to say a cliché. It’s one thing when these clichés are distributed around the globe in different cities, but when overdone in one single place, a cliché quickly becomes a theme park.
Calatrava’s early work, mainly bridges, actually contain some rationality. But in his later work, especially larger buildings, rationality gives way entirely to spectacle and showmanship. The true “function” of a Calatrava building is to impress; use is mere pretext. The elongated and elevated proportions of the science museum at the City of Arts and Sciences, for example, make that building appear much larger than it is in reality; not unlike the way an aggressive dog makes its hair stand on end in order to appear bigger and more menacing. It’s all about appearance.
The problem with the “City” of Arts and Sciences is that it is not designed by an architect-urbanist, but by an architect-sculptor of stand-alone objects. An architect-urbanist, when commissioned to design a large-scale urban project, will usually devise a plan in which the finer components –the individual buildings and public spaces– are passed on to several different architects to design. In the City of Arts and Sciences, however, Calatrava is everything. To be fair: one of the buildings at the City of Arts and Culture, the aquarium, is by another architect, Felix Candela; but it is off at one end, where it acts as a transition piece between the port of Valencia and Calatravaland.
It is useful to compare Valencia’s City of Arts and Culture to another overly expensive cultural mega-project in Spain of roughly similar size and also designed in one highly individualistic signature style: the City of Culture of Galicia by Peter Eisenman. Here, six large buildings will, if/when completed, form an artificial hilltop “topgraphy” of sorts. But therein also lies a difference: Eisenmanland is actually relatively dense and compact compared to Calatravaland. It is less of a sprawling arrangement of similar-looking stand-alone objects, and more of a single megastructure.
Calatrava’s work can be taken in low doses. It seems ideally suited for tourist consumption: an intense “experience” to post on Instagram or Facebook. But I doubt anyone could stand living there for very long. A good thing it is, then, that these residential towers are not going ahead. Enough is enough.
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