Michael Hammond explores the enigma of Spain’s third largest city
This summer sees the arrival of the America’s Cup sailing challenge in Valencia, Spain’s third largest city and home of Santiago Calatrava. The high profile glamourous event has been heralded by many as the catalyst for another Barcelona effect or even worse, a Bilbao effect. However Valencia is no ordinary provincial city and holds many surprises for the unprepared visitor.
Next week sees the start of the Fallas de Valencia, a fiesta to end all fiestas where the whole city goes mad. Literally. Each district spends up to six months constructing huge surreal effigies depicting bawdy, satirical scenes and current events (politicians and Spanish celebrities are all fair game). Constructed from cardboard, wood, papier-mâché and plaster, these fantastic installations, some costing over US$75,000 can be three stories high are placed (often craned) at over 300 key intersections in and around the city and its parks. After five days of celebrations and round-the-clock fireworks, the effigies are set alight in a wild night of fire and fantasy.
The America’s cup was in fact not won by Spain but Switzerland (ahh no sea!) so Valencia plays host in 2007 by proxy as it has lots of sea. But it’s ironic that water is the source of the world’s new interest in this provincial Mediterranean city, as Valencia has a love/hate relationship history with aqua. In the middle of the last century, the city literally had its heart ripped out. In 1957, after suffering devastating floods when the river Turia burst its banks, the city powers took the bold step of diverting the river, the very source of its being. The unprecedented step of turning its back on the river has created an urban enigma for Valencia with the river Turia having been re-named the Jardine Turia or the “green lung” as it is sometimes (rather optimistically) known. The engineering aspect of this desperate move was clearly a success but from the urban planning perspective, less so. Something is missing. Who knows the darker Feng Shui implications of taking away the life source of the city but it’s obvious to a casual onlooker that the Jardine Turia is no Central Park.
At the tail end of the last century, when Barcelona was thriving and had embraced (capitalised?) Gaudi’s architecture the Valencia city fathers realised that they were missing a trick. Or two to be precise. Firstly their very own offspring architect, Calatrava has become a world celebrity and was busy creating iconic buildings around the world and secondly the dried up Turia river bed was an under-utilised ‘brownfield?’ land resource. And hence began another urban experiment – almost more bizarre than the river removal. A series of Calatrava designed iconic structures began to spring up in the lower end of the river bed at its widest part before it met the sea. The latest of these Calatrava offspring is a massive opera house looking to all intents like a huge ocean liner berthed in the river. The buildings comprising the city of arts are magnificent in a standalone kind of way. No attempt however seems to have been made at any kind of contextual communication with the surrounding city…
The removal of the river had another effect on Valencia. For centuries the Turia had provided the city with a connection to the sea. Once diverted however, the city became two disjointed parts, the commercial centre and the port. The green lung does not flow to the sea but stops short. A perplexing and disappointing fact for the armies of cyclists and joggers who arrive at a large barrier almost within earshot of the sea….
Despite these staggering examples of “un-joined up” thinking, the enigma that is Valencia today is well worth a visit.
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