One Permanent Exhibition / Theme Park Inside Another

Calatrava’s Agora seen in context of Calatravaland theme park.

How many architects have an exhibition of their work permanently on display at a cultural institution, replete with nearly full-scale models of works they have completed? Not very many, if any. But architect Enric Ruiz-Geli now has one at CaixaForum Valencia, an exhibition venue he designed inside a zeppelin hangar-sized hall designed by Santiago Calatrava that stood empty after its completion in 2009. Typical Calatrava; typical Valencia.

Ruiz-Geli’s refurbishment of this white elephant consists of a low-key pedestal containing exhibition spaces as well as several “pavilions” scattered on top and adjacent. In a rather blatant inside joke, three of these pavilions can be likened to previous built works by Ruiz-Geli: Villa Nurbs is revived here as an educational space, the El Bullí Foundation is a restaurant (duh!), and STGILAT Aiguablava is a gift shop. The pavilions amount to an unofficial permanent exhibition of Ruiz-Geli’s work; a show-stealing move of shameless self-promotion. Typical Ruiz-Geli.

CaixaForum Valencia gift shop

The huge Agora hall itself forms part of Calatravaland, a theme park dedicated to Valencia’s beloved son. It was built as a multi-purpose hall at a cost of about 100 million euro, accommodating only a tennis tournament before being abandoned. With the opening of CaixaForum Valencia, some new life is finally brought to this overpriced folly, with Ruiz-Geli engaging in some Calatrava-style folly himself.

In true Ruiz-Geli fashion, the pavilions are half-truths and cover-ups. Take the gift shop pavilion, which imitates a house he built on the Costa Brava whose “Catalan vaulting” is a superficial interior finish on a concrete shell. The pavilion’s tell-tale detail is at the edges, where thin bricks can be seen to have been stuck on to another material. Something similar happens at the base of this elevated pavilion: while it appears to have been built out of CLT (cross-laminated timber), the vertical structure contains steel. It’s pure greenwashing: an ecological appearance (Catalan vaulting and CLT) held up by reinforced concrete and steel.

Gift-shop details: imitation Catalan vaulting above steel-reinforced CLT

The restaurant pavilion is another tour de farce. It’s an imitation of a restaurant he built for a famous chef that is itself somewhat an imitation of –naw, let’s say it’s a hommage to– the “Friendly Alien” by Peter Cook in Graz, Austria, but covered in vegetation. The restaurant’s only openings are some skylights, meaning diners enjoy no outward views; only views of an interior resembling an intestinal tract.

CaixaForum Valencia restaurant interior

With its pavilion follies resembling other works, CaixaForum Valencia is essentially an Enric Ruiz-Geli permanent exhibition inside a Calatrava theme park. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: a theme park inside an permanent exhibition? In any case, what is evident is that architecture-as-spectacle is still alive and kicking in certain backward corners of the world. How quaint.

CaixaForum Valencia restaurant pavilion: at least the plants are real.
The pedestal features “interrupted stairs”

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