Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Valencia in The Sunday Times Again

Thanks to Hugh Pearman for this article. You can see the full version with spectacular pictures at the following link

There is also another article on what to do when you get here at this link

A few years back, I met an impressive middle-aged lady in an office in Valencia. Her name was Rita Barbera, and she was the city’s mayor. Her office was full of the big drawings and models with which ambitious civic leaders like to surround themselves. You find offices like this everywhere, from the American Midwest to the steppes of Kazakhstan, though Barbera’s, in a converted convent, was a lot bigger than most. She told me how she was going to position Valencia to rival Barcelona, and that she was going to do this through the power of architecture and design. I nodded politely. Everyone always says this.

Yet something told me that Barbera had the determination to carry things through. It wasn’t just that she gave the appearance of being everyone’s favourite auntie. The clue came when I decided, late at night, to wander up the road to where a new Norman Foster-designed congress centre was being built. It was due to open the next morning. The builders were hard at work under floodlights. Gardeners were frantically chucking down soil and forking in plants. Again, normal enough. The difference was that the tireless Barbera was there too. This was no press conference, no photo opportunity. It was after midnight. She was marshalling her troops, leading by example. The building was finished in time. How could it not be? And now, gosh, Barbera has been reelected time after time – she has been in power since 1991 – and Valencia is indeed a destination that can hold a candle to Barcelona, with some astonishing new buildings and public spaces to counterbalance its famous historic ones. What’s the trick?

When it comes to civic spirit in any great city, the politics of the mayor play second fiddle to personality. Observe how, in London, Ken Livingstone, who has far less power than a continental mayor such as Barbera, can enjoy enviable levels of public support so long as he strikes an independent attitude, is not seen as a party stooge, is moderately witty and can plausibly claim that everything that goes wrong – the London Underground, say, or the 2012 Olympics – is someone else’s fault. This is why he must surely fear a lovable rogue of a Tory wild-card candidate in the next mayoral election, a Boris Johnson. He could promise a tax on pickled eggs in pubs to pay for plum-coloured three-cornered hats for street sweepers, and he’d get a lot of votes. Who cares which party Johnson belongs to? After a while, however, you have to start doing real, big things in the centre, coupled with lots of real small things out in the suburbs, to keep voters happy. The most successful city mayors across Europe are those with a firm grasp of detail.

In Valencia, Barbera (from the centre-right opposition Partido Popular) does both. The big stuff is what she is famous for, of course. “The city is a live theatre stage for its inhabitants, a place for everyone,” she says. She means it. It also helps to be on the Mediterranean. It helps to be the place that invented paella. It helps to have a wonderful medieval centre that is a World Heritage Site. It may even help that the cathedral has a little ancient stone cup some believe to be the Holy Grail. But plenty of cities have such attractions. Barbera did not start the cultural-buildings extravaganza you see today – that began under the previous socialist administration, with the 1987 Palace of Music concert hall, designed by the postmodernist Ricardo Bofill – but she immediately grasped the possibilities.
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* Valencia, you must go

She personally signed up Foster for the congress centre, but that is now small beer. The centre of the action is the astonishing, indeed somewhat overpowering, £2bn-estimated City of Arts and Sciences, by the architect Santiago Calatrava. Marching like the bleached bones of dinosaurs down a linear park formed by the 1960s diversion of the flood-prone River Turia, you find a science museum, a planetarium, an opera house and a shady arboretum. The striking opera house, an 1,800-seater designed to stage all the performing arts, rolled out with starry concerts featuring Placido Domingo and Lorin Maazel (now its artistic director) in 2005 and has just finished its first complete season. It has already established itself as world-class.

In person, Calatrava is a small, understated individual of monkish demeanour. Like his hero, the madly creative and equally monkish Catalan architect Gaudi, he sees buildings as organic forms, expressions of nature. The difference is that it’s a lot easier to build mad visions these days – which means it’s a lot easier to go way, way over the top. An architect-engineer who likes to think of himself as an artist and sculptor, Calatrava made his name with some remarkably beautiful bridges, railway stations and airport buildings, but has long since joined the flying circus of international icon-builders. You know you’ve arrived when you’re invited to design the tallest skyscraper in America, and Calatrava has duly provided the giant corkscrew of the 2,000ft Chicago Spire, which is about to be built. He has another famous smaller tower, the “turning torso” in Malmo, Swe-den, based on a spinal column. He is doing another in Man-hattan, plainly inspired by the sculptor Brancusi’s Endless Column, as well as the transportation hub for the World Trade Center site – a sort of giant glass venus flytrap, which is potentially rather good – and much else.

In a sense, none of this matters in Valencia. He is a native of the city, and the fact that Barbera gave him this string of cultural buildings not only recognised his undoubted ability, but helped him to move a big step up in the type of buildings he is now routinely considered for. And the task in hand was clear enough: to cause sufficient fuss, architecturally, to make a significant number of people choose Valencia as a destination, rather than any one of a number of rival olive-belt cities. To judge by the number of budget airlines now flying there, the strategy has worked.

To all this, you must add the other deals Barbera has struck on behalf of her beloved city. The 2007 America’s Cup yachting regatta, a hugely prestigious event, was held there, for instance, after Barbera won the competitive bidding process. In theory, the event should have been hosted by the country of the title-holders, but they were Swiss, which presented a lack-of-sea problem. The Swiss won it again this time, and the chances are that Valencia will hold onto the event. Naturally, there had to be an important new building if Valencia was to host it. So the regatta HQ, a rather fine inverted ziggurat, was designed by Britain’s David Chipperfield.

Barbera hasn’t finished there. She has struck a deal with the svengali of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, to run the European Grand Prix round the city’s harbour for seven years, starting in 2008. No less a luminary than Spain’s own Formula One champion, Fernando Alonso, has expressed bafflement as to why this will be a street race when the city already has a perfectly good motor-racing circuit just outside. He is missing the point, which is that Barbera wants to create a public image to rival that of Monaco. The images of yachts and racing cars will sell her city through television coverage globally. So what’s the point of paying Ecclestone £17.5m to stage each race at a circuit that would give much better racing conditions, but could be anywhere?

Clued-up mayors the world over are wise to tricks like this. Why else was Livingstone so keen to get the Tour de France to start in London? The international audience for these events is huge. That’s why he was there with the flag to wave the cyclists off. We might sniff at such antics – and, from an aesthetic standpoint, Valencia needs a screeching road race about as much as Venice does – but we are in the world of competitive supercities here. Valencia is Spain’s No 3, but it has never forgotten the 15th century, when it was the most important city on the Iberian peninsula.

Building slightly overblown but impressive cultural monuments is all part of the process of clawing back prestige. Valencia isn’t just competing with Barcelona and Monaco, these days it’s battling with Dubai and Abu Dhabi for tourist and trade dollars. If you are a fringe world city, you need someone like Barbera fighting your corner.

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