Curves and Tension

Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences
Mid-morning and not another person in sight

“It’s so quiet. Stunning architecture, but where is everybody?”

Our main reason for visiting Valencia was to see “starchitect” Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences, the reason we assumed many other tourists go to this Spanish city that’s as sensuous as its melodious name, Valencia. We wondered why so few people were there in late September, prime tourist season.

Born in Valencia, Calatrava (also an engineer, painter and sculptor) is world famous. We prairie people have seen his Peace Bridge in Calgary, just one of the many extraordinary bridges he’s designed around the world. In North America, he’s famous for the Oculus, the new transportation hub on the former site of New York’s World Trade Center at Ground Zero. Maybe you remember the roof he designed for the Athens Olympic stadium or saw his Turning Torso in Malmö or the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janiero.

Set in the dried-up river bed of the Turia in the backyard of the old city of Valencia, the City of Arts and Sciences is gargantuan—a complex of six buildings and promenades covering the equivalent of 1,350 tennis courts.

Here, Calatrava’s artistic structures—white in colour—appear airy and light as a swan’s wing. Architectural Digest describes his award-winning style as “distinctly neo-Futurist for its innovative use of materials and sleek, forward-thinking aesthetic.” Concrete and steel transformed into lissome curves.

“You can see his training as a structural engineer,” said Magellan, an engineer who considered studying architecture. “And like Gaudi, he’s got a biomorphic style—that building looks like an eyeball.”

“You could call this the city of white elephants,” I said after we’d wandered around for a few hours. “What a pity so few people are here.”

At the far end, we came to the Àgora. It was open, free and where everybody in the City was gathered.

On display as part of Valencia’s Fashion Week were samples from up-and-coming designers. After buying myself an ecru linen-and-silk summer dress with a chunky zipper all the way down the back (for a ridiculously small amount), the designer, Amabel García, gave us tickets to a fashion show that was about to begin in another section of the Àgora.

“I’m liking this place more and more,” said Magellan as we watched sleek models parade the latest fashions down the small runway. He even caught some original footage of a model tripping on her dress! “That fashion show was like Calatrava’s architecture,” he said this week while working on the video, “all curves and tension.”

In the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead writes that “Calatrava’s engineering is like the interior tailoring on a couture gown: you can’t see how it works, but it looks gorgeous, and it costs a fortune to produce.” And maintain.

Talking to the locals, we learned that Valencians are paying high taxes to support the City of Arts and Sciences. And we learned I wasn’t the first person to call it a City of white elephants. Soon after our visit, it began to appear in news headlines, like this one from the Telegraph: “Valencia Sues Opera House Architect as White Elephants Rot.”

All the more reason to see one of Calatrava’s most ambitious projects. You’ll be helping the people in this gracious old city, which has so much to offer. We didn’t see the inside of any of the buildings except the Àgora—but you’ll be smarter. Like us, you may encounter pleasant surprises: a concert, a special exhibit, a fashion show. Go for the architecture alone—its impressive artistry awakens your senses to the brilliance of human imaginaton.

I read that when Calatrava was only 16 years old and considering becoming an artist, he went to Paris to check out l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

I visited Notre Dame at 11 in the morning and the sun was entering through the south rose window, it was so impressive. This is when architecture can be king and give people sensations, like music.


Architectural Digest has a good article on Calatrava’s designs worldwide.

You can find out more about The City of Arts & Science here.

Fast Company did an article on how Calatrava’s buildings marry engineering and biology.

Here are two pieces from the Telegraph, the first a good Q&A with Calatrava, the second about the rotting white elephants.

4 Responses

  1. I just checked out the Peace Bridge in Calgary online.
    Not sure I could tolerate the 25 million price tag if I was a tax payer in Calgary, I am not, so a non issue.
    I applaud the bridge design, no pillars in the water, a very good thing, structurally appears very strong. Too bad they did not think about how foot and cycle traffic meets Memorial Drive, rather a dead end road blockage.
    Very poor planning.
    Functionality needs to coincide with practicality, we often talk about Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, does not happen here, especially for $25,000,000
    Cheaper, but my 2 cents, ?

    1. Many Valencians likely feel the same about the cost of the City of Arts and Sciences to taxpayers. It’s a catch-22 because the entry cost for many of the facilities is a bit steep. Would more people be there if it was lower? Are starchitects’ fees too high? When buildings fail because the construction corners are cut is it their fault? So many examples of the around the world, Olympic venues at the top of my list. And yet civilization has always craved beautiful buildings…

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