Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences was built to lure visitors. Instead, it's caused nothing but problems.
Spectacular and reviled in equal measure, Valencia, Spain's City of Arts and Sciences has proved to be the proverbial gift that keeps on taking. Despite a budget that quadrupled to over €1 billion, the huge museum and arts complex, completed in 2005, just never attracted the predicted stampede of visitors. Designed by Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava, the complex itself is filled with bone-like constructions that recall a gargantuan dinosaurs' graveyard. The cemetery comparison isn't actually that far off—as I've commented before, this was one of the sites where the Spanish boom years' trend for grand urban projects came to die.
The project's star fell even further after the 2008 financial crisis saw Valencia’s economy crumple, a slump in which mega-projects like the City played a not-insignificant role. Housed in a cash-strapped city whose region required a €4.5 billion bailout from central government two years ago, you might think that things could hardly get worse for the complex. It seems, however, that they have. Just over seven years after completion, parts of the complex are already falling apart.
The complex's main problem is the centerpiece Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, an opera house whose silhouette is somewhere between a bird’s skull and a stormtrooper's helmet. It's this helmet resemblance that is actually the problem. The theater has a metal shell that tends to buckle as it expands and contracts in Valencia’s daily temperature extremes. Such buckling might just give it a beat-up look—unwonted but not unattractive—if it weren't for the thousand of tiny mosaic-like tiles that cover the metal sheets. These have started to ripple into wrinkles, transforming what started out looking like cool, pristine enamel into something closer to well-used bed sheets.
Last week, a panel of experts confirmed the worst – the tiles will all have to be removed. Not only will this cost around €3 million, it has to be done fast. With a new opera season set to debut due in late February, workers will soon be taking pickaxes to the tiles. As some have already come off in high winds, they need to ensure opera-goers aren’t greeted with a shower of deadly confetti.
Valencia is now suing Calatrava for the flaws in his design. Calatrava, meanwhile, says that it is poor construction that is causing the problems, not defects in his blueprint. This assertion might cut more ice if the architect wasn't already in hot water elsewhere. He has been sued for a Spanish winery's leaky roof and lambasted for an inaccurately budgeted Venice bridge with no wheelchair access and a perilously slippery surface.
Still, any attempt to pin Valencia’s woes all on the architect won’t do either. The region has been lavished with failed or underperforming projects partly to initiate a shower of kickbacks, including an unnecessary airport at nearby Castellon from which no plane has ever departed. In finding an architect who created a splashy but poorly thought through design that gobbled up millions, it’s arguable that Valencia’s authorities should have been more careful what they wished for. Meanwhile, the complex's latest troubles underline the lesson every city that wants to lure visitors with a massive project has been learning recently: Just because you build it, it doesn’t mean they'll come.