Much has been made of the ‘Bilbao effect’ over the years, and how the creation of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry put the dour industrial Spanish city right up there on the international tourist trail and boosted its coffers. It was hoped that the same would happen in Valencia where one of its most famous sons, architect Santiago Calatrava, created a 86-acre City of Arts and Sciences in a dried-out riverbed between 1996 and 2005.
The complex encompasses a planetarium shaped like an eye, a science museum, a bridge, a covered walkway, acres of reflecting pools, and what was meant to be the jewel in the crown, a futuristic looking opera house - El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia.
The Palau rises 14 storeys above ground and goes down three storeys below. Under its huge curving roof - some 230m long - the 40,000 sq m building accommodates four auditoriums, the main one being the Sala Principal. This seats 1,700 people and boasts the third largest orchestra pit in the world, being capable of housing 120 musicians.
The budget for the City of Arts and Sciences was originally set at €300m, but the actual cost is estimated to have run to about three times that amount, with Calatrava’s fee approximately €94m alone.
And some people, such as left-wing provincial politician Ignacio Blanco, are very angry about it indeed. He has even set up a website www.calatravatelaclava.com, which translates roughly as ‘Calatrava bleeds you dry’. The website concludes that Valencia still owes €700m for the riverbed complex.
Footing the bill
The city is hardly in a position to pay, with a staggering 28.1% unemployment in the third quarter of 2012 - even higher than Spain’s already alarming average of 25.02%. Many people understandably question why the city needs a colossal opera house when it has no money to build new hospitals and schools.
To make matters worse, El Palau de les Arts has been beset with technical problems since the early days, making the price tag even more galling to some. First the main stage collapsed in 2006, forcing the management to cancel the last performance of La Bohème and all of La Belle et la Bète, which in turn meant rescheduling the remainder of the inaugural opera season. In 2007, the entire complex was hit by a series of floods, one of which wrecked the workings of the complex main stage equiment and caused more yet delays and cancellations.
But the final straw for the provincial Parliament came when the smooth outer surface of the Palau started to develop very visible wrinkles in 2011. According to an article in the New York Times (New Yorkers are keeping a keen eye on Calatrava who is creating the new PATH train station at Ground Zero): “Regional officials have said they expected the responsible party - Mr Calatrava, the construction companies or a combination - to pay for repairs or face a lawsuit. They are working to determine what repairs are necessary.”
For all the disasters and controversy, there will always be those who praise the Palau and the rest of the City of Arts and Sciences for its architectural purity of form and boldness of style. The complex’s own website states that it is ‘the main reason that tourists visit the city of Valencia’. In 2011, regional president Francisco Camps announced that the complex had brought in some 40 million tourists since it opened. Even so, it has never been quite the same architectural and tourist Mecca that The Guggenheim proved to be.
To be fair, The Guggenheim achieved its initial fame in Spain’s halcyon days when notable architects like Gerhy and Calatrava were viewed as almost God-like figures, and people used words like ‘aphrodisiac’ to describe their architecture. Now that Spain’s economic bubble has burst and its people are worried that they’re about to become the next Greece, extravagant, over-budget projects like Calatrava’s Palau attract resentment rather than adoration.
A breath of fresh oxygen for London
But is it ever possible for a building like the Palau to recover its status once it has been branded a white elephant and vilified by the press and politicians? If London’s former Millennium Dome is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
Just before its opening on New Year’s Eve 1999, then UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, grandiosely declared of the £789m project that it would be ‘a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity’. Sadly, it wasn’t. After all the initial hype, the Dome was branded a flop by the British press: badly thought-out, badly executed, and leaving the government with the embarrassing question of what to do with it once the party was over. The Bilbao effect hadn’t worked here either.
After various failed attempts to find a use for it, the original exhibition complex was demolished. All that remained was the famous white outer shell - the ‘Big Top’ canopy designed by Richard Rogers and engineered by Buro Happold - supported by a dome-shaped cable network hung from 12 king posts.
And then, almost miraculously, everything changed. The former Dome was publicly renamed as The O2 in May 2005 in a £6m-per-year deal with telecommunications company O2. The redevelopment was undertaken by the new owners, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), to a design by HOK SVE and Buro Happold at a cost of £600m.
Today, the O2 is the world’s most successful music and entertainment venue. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said of it: “Congratulations to AEG for the astonishing success of The O2. The superb facilities it offers have increased London's ability to attract the biggest music stars in the world and an increasing number of international sporting events. It is without doubt an important addition to local life around Greenwich and, as a world beating attraction, an important part of London's economy as a whole." Bingo.
Struggles in Sydney lead to success
Over on the other side of the world, now one of the most instantly recognisable landmarks ever, the Sydney Opera House also came in for its share of controversy back in the day. Its Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, who famously won a competition to design a new opera house for the city in 1957, hit a wall of spite from politician Davis Hughes. This ultimately led to his resignation from the project in 1966. Utzon later referred to the situation as ‘Malice in Dunderland’. In the same year, he left Australia never to return.
Utzon’s designs were so ahead of their time that many simply didn’t understand that their complexity meant they couldn’t be rushed. Work on the first stage of the new Opera House, the Podium, began in 1959. The government had pushed for an early start, fearing that funding and positive public opinion might dwindle. Work finished in 1963 but the enforced early start led to significant later problems - not least that the podium columns were not strong enough to support the roof structure and had to be rebuilt.
The Opera House was eventually completed in 1973 at a total cost of $102m. The original cost estimate in 1957 was just $7m. The project came in ten years late and fourteen times over-budget. Subsequent redrawing of Utzon’s original plans after his resignation caused their own set of problems, namely poor acoustics and lack of performance and backstage space. Perhaps the new contractors should have stuck with Utzon’s acoustic designs - created with acoustic advisor, Lothar Cremer - as they were later modelled and found to work well.
Regardless, in 2003, Utzon was awarded perhaps the most coveted prize of all, the Pritzker Prize, for his visionary Opera House. The prize citation stated, “There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th Century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world - a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.”
Since its opening in 1973, the Opera House has become the busiest performing arts centre in the world. It averages 3,000 events with audiences totalling some 2 million people each year. It is open 24/7, closing only on Good Friday and Christmas Day.
Frank Gehry, a Pritzker Laureate and Juror has been quoted as saying: “Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinary malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country.”
So might Calatrava’s Palau eventually weather the storms and come good? Spain’s dire economic straits don’t bode well for that…but then again, stranger things have happened near the sea.
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