|Santiago Calatrava explaining his skyscrapers to mayor of Valencia Rita Barberá and former premier of the Regional Autonomy of Valencia Francisco Camps. Photo courtesy El País.|
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… (tada!) Santiago Calatrava. Such a concentration in one place of so many large buildings by one architect is rare, and rather 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 do not appear conspicuously amassed the way Calatrava’s work appears to be in Valencia. The problem with Calatrava’s architecture is that it long ago became a signature style, which is to say a cliché. When sparsely distributed around the globe in different cities, it is not very perceptible. But when overdone in one place, a cliché easily becomes a theme park.
Calatrava’s early work, mainly bridges, are appreciable for containing some rationality. But in his later work, especially larger buildings, rationality gives way entirely to spectacle and showmanship. The true “function” of Calatrava buildings is to impress; the uses for which they are designated are 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.
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 buildings and public spaces that comprise it– are passed on to several architects to design, thereby ensuring that a single architect does not dominate. In the City of Arts and Sciences, however, Calatrava controls every detail, material, and color palette (white). Alright, 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 to one end, a transition piece between the port of Valencia and Calatravaland.
It is useful to compare Valencia’s City of Arts and Culture to another expensive cultural mega-project in Spain of roughly similar size and also designed in one signature style: the City of Culture of Galicia by Peter Eisenman. Here, six large buildings will, when completed, form an artificial hilltop landscape of sorts. But therein also lies a difference: The City of Culture of Galicia is actually relatively dense and compact. It is not a sprawling arrangement of similar-looking stand-alone objects, but a single structure subdivided by the overlay of a pattern of streets and public spaces.
Calatrava’s work can be taken in low doses. It seems ideally suited for tourist consumption: an intense, once-in-a-lifetime “experience” to take photos of and post on facebook. But you couldn’t take living there for very long. A good thing it is, then, that these towers are not going ahead. In fact, considering just how corny Calatravaland would begin looking with three skyscrapers added to it, I wonder if this might not have been the plan all along.