Thinking Big: The City of Culture of Galicia as Regional Development Strategy

[Text originally commissioned in 2011 by a Swiss art institution for an exhibition that never materialized and for which I never received payment]


“Our client wanted a project that is ‘in the world.’”[i]

-Peter Eisenman citing Manuel Fraga Iribarne, former Premier of Galicia, previously Minister of Information and Tourism during the Franco dictatorship.

The City of Culture of Galicia is an ambitious attempt to build a cultural institution that is in the world; not merely in Galicia or Spain. Although Martin Heidegger might be heard resonating in these words, what the late Manuel Fraga more likely meant by this instruction to architect Peter Eisenman was that he wanted to build a cultural institution that would be respected the world over for the quality of its research, its programming and of course its architecture, thereby attracting visitors, “talent” and investment from around the world while thrusting Galicia into the global cultural scene.[ii]

Undoubtedly conceived as part of an economic development strategy aiming to position Galicia within a global twenty-first century “knowledge economy”, the CCG reflects how cultural institutions such as museums are increasingly seen not only as places of leisure or as an “exercise in civics” (Bennett, 1995, p. 102), but as potential catalysts in transforming obsolete industrial and agricultural economies into service economies. In this scheme of things, art is no longer valued exclusively as a surplus complement to the work-world of industrial activity, but rather as something that blends with the work-world in the desperate search for ideas that might eventually result in new technological hardware or software applications; the sorts of products that the global economy values most.

But it is not just a question of curating interesting exhibitions in iconic buildings with the hope that someone might get an idea for a successful new app. It is ultimately a long-term social transformation that is intended here: increasing Galicia’s “human capital,” or the region’s level of knowledge, education and expertise. Richard Florida, a promoter of what he terms “creative cities,”, points out that “the human capital theory establishes that creative people are the driving force in regional economic growth. From that perspective, economic growth will occur in places that have highly educated people.” (Florida, 2005, p. 33)

However, is Florida’s “human capital theory” at odds with more traditional “social capital”? Florida writes: “Places with dense ties and high levels of traditional social capital provide advantages to insiders and thus promote stability, while places with looser networks and weaker ties are more open to newcomers, and thus promote novel combinations of resources and ideas.” (Florida, 2005, p. 31) Indeed: “Creative communities and social capital communities are moving in opposite directions. Creative communities are centers of diversity, innovation, and economic growth; social capital communities are not.” (Florida, 2005, p. 42) Increasing a region’s human capital by way of investing in world-class cultural institutions, or better yet, by snatching up already educated and creative individuals from elsewhere, is without a doubt the development vision that lies behind the CCG.

However, the types of traditions and ties that might be perceived as a hindrance to human capital are at the same time the very things that make a place unique, which, as David Harvey observed, is also an important factor in global competitiveness:

The free flow of capital across the surface of the globe…places strong emphasis upon the particular qualities of the spaces to which that capital might be attracted. The shrinkage of space that brings diverse communities across the globe into competition with each other implies localized competitive strategies and a heightened sense of awareness of what makes a place special and gives it a competitive advantage. (Harvey, 1989, p. 271)

Indeed, when the very idea of culture is used to compete globally, it would seem that uniqueness of place, by way of cultural tradition, becomes especially important, and that no single formula for success can be copy-pasted from one part of the world to another. Are creativity –as defined by Florida– and regional cultural traditions then mutually exclusive?

Here, it is interesting to look precisely at the history of Galicia and Spain, where the idea of capitalizing on creativity as well as tradition for purposes of economic development actually goes back a long way. Tourism, a global industry in which Spain is a leader, is dependent on both creativity and local tradition. Since the 1960s, Spain has undergone modernization while attracting large numbers of foreign tourists, not only beach goers but, in fact, increasingly cultural tourists. A knowledge industry demanding creativity is thus not incompatible with regional traditions that make a place unique.

In fact, Galicia used tourism in a strategic manner to help it thrive as far back as the Middle Ages: its cathedral can be seen as the first major building to have been purposely built for tourism, in this case religious pilgrims coming from the rest of Europe. The very reason for its construction was to encourage large numbers of Christians to travel across the north of the Iberian peninsula so as to dissuade the Muslims to the south from invading. A myth was even created to entice pilgrims to hike all the way to Santiago: the discovery of the bones of the Apostle Saint James, which had “miraculously” traveled to Finisterre (“world’s end”) from Jerusalem. As the subject of the first ever travel guide believed to have been published, the Way of Saint James Pilgrimage route can be seen as the world’s first mass-tourism promotion; an “essential catalyst in [Santiago’s] development.” (Green, 2005, p.4)

The Medieval invention of the Camino de Santiago may be Spain’s first success with tourism, but it would not be its last. In fact, it was the very same Manuel Fraga Iribarne who, in the 1960s, while serving as Minister of Information and Tourism in the Franco dictatorship, built Spain’s highly successful modern era mass-tourism industry. This more secular tourism, exploiting Spain’s abundance of “sun, surf and sangría,” brought an influx of much-needed foreign currency into a country still recovering, decades later, from a brutal military uprising that led to a civil war. And, not unlike the way that the presence of northern European pilgrims brought cultural change to Galicia in the Middle Ages, so the massive influx of northern Europeans in the 1960s and 70s also loosened the mores of an isolated and inward-looking Spain that gradually opened up to the world. But even while this new, modern form of tourism was based on middle-class rest and relaxation, in an evident democratization of the spa tourism practiced by the nobility (a circuit which included San Sebastián in the Basque Country), Spain’s modern mass-tourism industry was also designed to increase foreign awareness of Spanish culture, even if this was at times an artificially fabricated culture, and even if it was ultimately intended to forge a monolithic  Spanish national cultural identity at the expense of a plurality of regional idenitities. This cultural awareness was achieved, as Miguel Iribas has pointed out, through “the integration of [existing] towns into the general [tourism] system,” unlike the “ghetto type schemes” of tourist development in competitor countries. (Iribas, 1998, p. 108)

This policy of introducing culture to visitors by having them participate in the fiestas and cultural life of Spanish towns and cities has turned out to be so successful, that cultural tourism is now a more important industry in Spain than beach tourism. The 1990s saw a spectacular boom in the construction of cultural institutions, especially museums, throughout Spain; Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry being the most celebrated example. In a so-called “Bilbao Effect,” museums and other cultural institutions come to play important roles in the regeneration of cities and, as is also the case with the CCG, in the re-tooling of regional economies. No longer mere repositories of artefacts for the cognoscenti, museums have become multi-faceted and dynamic places of learning, research, and interaction–even fun and games–while also becoming internationally recognizable iconic symbols of cities themselves.

The size of the City of Culture of Galicia is the very indication of its internationalist ambition. As with the Cathedral of Santiago, the CCG is far too large to serve Santiago’s own citizens only. It is evidently intended as a meeting place for global and local cultures to cross-pollinate. This is reflected in Eisenman’s design of the CCG, which incorporates both “local” and “universal” patterns and grids such as a scallop shell (the symbol of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage way), the topographic lines of the Monte Gaiás hill, the plan of the historical centre of Santiago, and a “universal” Cartesian grid. At the same time, the topographic architecture of the CCG conflates the figure-ground dualism of traditional urbanism, visually blending buildings with landscape instead of positioning them upon it as figures or icons. The architecture of the City of Culture of Galicia intends, in a way, to integrate itself with the land and culture it is sited in precisely so that this land and culture is also “in the world.”


[i] Peter Eisenman interviewed by Rafael Gómez-Moriana, klat interviews #4, autumn 2010, p. 76

[ii] We could of course also add the immortalization in stone of Fraga’s memory to this wish list, but that is incidental to the topic. See Sudjic, 2005, p. 295.

Texts cited:

Bennett, Tony: The Birth of the Museum , New York: Routledge, 1995

Florida, Richard: Cities and the Creative Class, New York: Routledge, 2005

Gómez-Moriana, Rafael: “Interview with Peter Eisenman,” klat interviews #4, autumn 2010

Green, Keith Evan: “Cathedrals of Commerce,” Proceedings of the 4th Savannah Symposium, Savannah, Georgia, USA, 2005

Harvey, David: The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1989

Iribas, José Miguel: “Benidorm, Instructions for Use” in Winy Maas, ed.: Costa Iberica, Barcelona: ACTAR, 1998

Sudjic, Deyan: The Edifice Complex, London: Penguin, 2005


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