Shane Ferro
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OBJECT LESSONS: Architecture & Design News

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

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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

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  1. I would have to disagree with you. Yes, you’re right that Spain needs to learn its lesson and stop looking for big projects. But does that let Calatrava off the hook? Of course not. Every architect bears an enormous amount of responsibility when they choose to take on a project. Why does he need to perpetuate his aesthetic language of costly and so predictably expressive architecture in such distressing times for Spain? He has a choice, yet he does what he knows he can get away with-and at ridiculous profit, at that.

  2. Spain is being as responsible as a father handing his teenage daughter his credit card and sending her to the mall. If an architect is known for his extravagance, there are plenty of other choices there who have proven their ability to show some restraint. And the bigger picture here is, why throw money at what is essentially a showpiece anyway?

  3. Nice article.

    I completely agree with you. I love Calatrava’s work, especially the City of Arts and Sciences, which is amazing. But blaming Calatrava for his massive income is ridiculous. It is up to the city to reign in their spending wherever possible. Why on earth would you pay billions of euros for something when you end up cutting on necessities like education and health care?

    But there is another side of this as well. First, construction on the City of Arts and Sciences started way before the crisis hit and, two, the landmark now brings in more visitors to Valencia than to the Prado museum in Madrid. So there is something to be said for building this massive structure because it has had a major impact on Valencia’s tourism in a very positive way.

    But all in all, yes, Calatrava is one very rich man at the expense of our tax euros…

    Welcome to Spain

  4. [...] permanent collection gallery. A glossy new 8,000-square-foot, $5 million (a paltry sum compared to what Calatrava might have charged) atrium clad in glass with a ceramic screen would extend the Kahler building by 200 feet, as well [...]

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