In Light of the Calatrava Backlash, We Ask: Spain, Will You Ever Learn Your Lesson?

Spain’s leftist Esquerra Unida party just launched (roughly “Calatrava bleeds you dry,” according to the Guardian), an online diatribe against Santiago Calatrava for allegedly draining Spain’s economy. One major bone of contention: the $1.3 billion price tag of his ever-expanding City of the Arts and Science project. The cultural campus, along with the architect’s fee of a cool $130 million, is being funded by the government of Valencia, the region of Calatrava’s own home town.

I’ve always found Calatrava’s quite elegant. (Really. His use of graceful bird references and all-white bring to mind Emily Mortimer’s Avian Bird Syndrome character on “30 Rock” — delicate and beautiful). And this latest project is no exception (just look at it!)

While Esquerra Unida’s anger is understandable during the current state of the global economy, it’s misdirected. As Calatrava faces the backlash for the scale and extravagance of his architecture, we have to wonder: Will Spain ever learn its lesson? The country has had a slew of white elephant projects — dazzling, starchitecture-helmed structures like Oscar Niemeyer’s shuttered performing arts center in Avilés or Peter Eisenman’s stalled City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela  — that proved to cost more than they’re worth. Left unhindered, the cost of Calatrava’s visions tend to skyrocket. But Denver, at least, had the good sense to nip them in the bud. Last year, they pared down Calatrava’s budget for the new terminal of Denver International Airport from $650 million to $500 million, losing some spectacular (but unnecessary, I suppose) flourishes in the process, along with their architect. After Calatrava walked off the project, they hired Gensler and Denver-based AndersonMasonDale Architects to execute a subdued revision.

That’s a lesson in austerity Spain is, for some reason, stalling to learn. Perhaps this building will go against all odds and actually pay for itself. But this seems unlikely. Cities have been chasing the fabled Bilbao effect for years, and there’s little evidence this incident will end any differently. The real question is, will Valencia’s government clip this bird’s wings in time?

— Janelle Zara