Valencia’s herd of white elephants

The City of Arts and Sciences is over budget, unfinished, and plagued by scandals

The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.
The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.Bernardo Perez

Occupying just under two kilometers of the dried bed of the Turia river, Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences (CACSA) was inaugurated in 1998, in an ambitious and expensive bid to make the city a world-class tourist destination.

But in April 2015, it’s hard to find many visitors to a site populated by huge, futuristic buildings on the edge of the city. A few tourists gaze through the glass panels of L’Agora, the impressive 70-meter-high construction designed by Valencia-born Santiago Calatrava, the same architect behind the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York City.

As if it didn’t have enough problems, the CACSA has also been hit by scandal

It’s said Calatrava made the first sketches for L’Agora after a meal with Francisco Camps, the former head of the regional government of Valencia. Camps, who would later resign over his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal, apparently wanted to add another building to the futuristic complex, and the architect, who along with Félix Candela had designed the other four, was only too happy to oblige.

The multi-functional events venue, as L’Agora is described on the CACSA website, covers an area a little smaller than a soccer pitch, sitting between the Prince Felipe Science Museum and L’Oceanográfic – Europe’s largest sea aquarium. It was inaugurated, still unfinished, four years ago, €45 million over budget. Today it’s closed. Along with the puzzled tourists, I peer through the smoked glass into a vast empty hall that has barely been used.

I move on to L’Umbracle, 17,000 square meters of gardens covered with 18-meter-high arches dedicated to the flora of Valencia, with more than 50 species of flowers and tropical plants. It ran over budget by around €17 million, and most of it is closed. The only sign of life is a bar due to open in May.

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Conceived as the entrance to the City of Arts and Sciences, L’Umbracle leads on to the vast Prince Felipe Science Museum, which looks like nothing so much as a spinal column made out of white concrete, the embodiment of Calatrava’s fascination with incorporating human and animal anatomy into his architecture.

It was originally budgeted at €62 million, but soon ballooned to €154 million. Among the many problems that sent costs spiraling were sound and lighting issues, as well as the need to add two staircases to the south façade to meet fire and safety regulations that the architect and planners had overlooked. Since its opening in 2000, the museum’s management says around 30 million people have visited it, although there are no official figures to back up the claim.

But despite the declining numbers of visitors in recent years, the cost overruns, and the repairs that had to be carried out on some of Calatrava’s buildings, Professor Joaquín Maudos of the University of Valencia and assistant director at the Valencian Institute for Economic Research (IVIE), argues that it has brought benefits.

“The city of Valencia is a before-and-after story. [The CACSA] is now a must-see landmark,” he says. Maudos carried out a study of the economic impact of the CACSA as well as a cost-benefits analysis between 2000 and 2011, although the findings have not yet been published. No viability studies were carried out before construction began, which Maudos admits was a mistake “for a project of this scale.”

While Maudos sees the so-called Guggenheim effect of the CACSA – in reference to the urban regeneration that the Frank Gehry-designed art museum inspired in Bilbao in the late 1990s – as positive, Joan Romero, a specialist in human geography and author of a new book on the emerging city model in southern Europe, calls the CACSA “a neo-liberal city with just one route map: available land. It was conceived as something on the margins of the real city, like an island, and we have been paying the consequences for years. It seems to me like an opaque model, a waste of money and of questionable benefit to the people of the city,” he says.

A worker cleaning the pond at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.
A worker cleaning the pond at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.B. P.

Tito Llopis of architects Vetges Tu, which has come up with its own proposals for regenerating the area around the CACSA, is highly critical of the project: “In the first place, the area around it has been left unfinished, and is littered with rubble, while at the same time, all kinds of buildings are being put up, competing with each other for space. There is no order. We came up with a plan that required a combination of parkland and housing on either side of the CACSA. I think the days of these big-name architects are over and that the time has come for public works budgets to be respected.”

The Palau de les Arts opera house and performing arts center, also designed by Calatrava, ended up costing more than €337 million, almost four-and-a-half times the original budget. Ignacio Blanco, a United Left deputy in Valencia’s regional parliament, has worked hard in recent years to gather information about the contracts and costs related to building the CACSA, despite the regional government’s refusal to release its files.

Blanco has made public the contract in which Calatrava and the two construction companies that built the Palau de les Arts less than 10 years ago agreed to restore 20,000 square meters of mosaic that began to fall off in late 2013. The repair work is still ongoing. Two winters ago, flooding caused damage worth €17 million.

As if it didn’t have enough problems, the CACSA has also been hit by scandal: in January, Helga Schmidt, the director of the Palau de les Arts, was arrested and questioned over financial irregularities at the center. Furthermore, five senior officials, among them three CACSA director generals, face corruption accusations.

Meanwhile, at the end of April, a decision will be made as to which of three private companies will be awarded the running of L’Oceanográfic, L’Ágora, and part of the Prince Felipe Science Museum.

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