The job is something akin to "tiling the hull of a ship, it's very complicated." So complicated, in fact, that authorities have decided to simply rip off the 8,000 square meters of trencadís (a ceramic mosaic made from tile shards, first used by Gaudí and other Catalan modernists) covering the enormous façade of the Palau de les Arts in Valencia.
The performing arts center and opera house was designed by the prominent architect Santiago Calatrava, who also created New York's World Trade Center Transportation Hub, scheduled to open in 2015, as well as many other international projects. His work is known for its airy, curved designs that suggest a symbiosis between architecture and sculpture. It has also proven controversial in recent years because of ballooning budgets and technical glitches.
The Palau, which cost 478 million euros to build, opened eight years ago. A recent analysis by the Construction Technology Institute (Aidico) concluded that there is a "generalized failure of the ceramic covering's adherence" on 60 percent of the surface. The Valencian government commissioned this report after a section of the mosaic fell off on December 26, forcing the opera house to shut down and cancel performances.
When all the tiles are pulled off the Palau, which is part of the landmark City of Arts and Sciences complex, the exposed steel dome will be painted white, making it look like a ship that ran aground, to borrow the nautical simile from Máximo Buch, the Valencian economy commissioner who described the building's problems.
The problem is caused by a "faulty design and selection of materials, or a faulty execution, or both," reads the preliminary report. To complicate matters further, the metal dome and the ceramic covering have different coefficients of thermal expansion and they are subjected to notable temperature changes, all of which has resulted in lumps and wrinkles forming visibly on the façade.
Several experts consulted by this newspaper nearly a year ago had already warned that this was a serious problem.
The Aidico report notes that the same trencadís that covers concrete surfaces inside the Palau "does not present any problems." But the experts conclude that the outer damage is "irreversible" and that immediate action must be taken.
Yet the Palau has become an icon of the cityscape and a movie setting
Ripping off the tiles will cost an estimated three million euros. To this figure must be added the 624,000 euros that were lost following the cancellation of Puccini's opera Manon Lescaut, which was going to be directed by Plácido Domingo beginning on February 1.
Commissioner Buch said that the Valencian government will advance the money for the repair work, then claim it back from the architect Calatrava, the builders Dragados and Acciona, and the engineering consultancy Intemac. The Valencian attorney's office is already working on official complaints against all parties involved.
For now, the goal is to resume the opera performances on February 23 with Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri. Authorities have already hired a work crew to bring in their picks and extend a safety net around the building to protect public access on the south side, the sunniest and most badly affected by the wrinkles.
Buch also noted that Calatrava had phoned him the day before, marking the first time he did so since the Palau tile controversy first broke out months ago. The star architect spoke in conciliatory tones and was willing to find a solution to the problem, said the Valencian official, who would not say whether Calatrava was blaming it on the design or the construction.
This is the third major crisis at the Palau de les Arts. First the performing stage caved in, then the entire premises were flooded below the level of the former riverbed of the Turia river, where it is located.
Even its construction was controversial because of the ballooning costs. Calatrava's studio charged 44 million euros for designing and directing the building work. When the center was inaugurated, it turned out that dozens of seats had obstructed views of the stage.
Yet at the same time the Palau has become an icon of the Valencia cityscape and a setting — along with the rest of the City of Arts and Sciences — for futuristic commercials and movies. The latest example is Tomorrowland, starring George Clooney, who is set to begin shooting here later this month.