2011 Valencia Travelogue

In this article published in Perspective Magazine Summer 2011 I describe in text and sketches the city of Valencia in the context of the RSUA bi annual field trip:

The curved mast of the 'Assut d’Or', Calatrava's latest bridge in Valencia, acted as a guiding beacon on our route to the hotel. Standing 125 metres tall, the bridge has a span of 180 metres crossing a river that no longer exists. Calatrava and the Turia River are the main players in the recent history of this Spanish city founded by Roman soldiers in the second century BC.

The bi annual RSUA Study Tour has come around again. In these difficult times the viability of the trip was debated but ultimately President Norman Hutchinson nominated Valencia. A reduced band of architects and cohorts assembled but it was sad that in these times younger members were not able to make it. Perhaps the age profile influenced the decision to issue all with bus passes (!) and so armed, and with an article copied by Paul Crowe, we hit the streets.

Valencia is a city of just over 800 thousand people located some 185 miles south of Barcelona. It is the third largest city in Spain. The city had been prone to flooding from the Turia and following the floods of 1957 a decision was taken to divert the river around the southern suburbs. The drained river bed has ultimately been converted to a 4 mile park which skirts the historic centre and leads to the port.

Architectural interest naturally divided into three distinct areas:

The historic centre; The City of Arts and Sciences and The Port Americas Cup.

The historic centre is notable for it's early twentieth century art nouveau surrounding the older area at the cathedral and nearby streets which still contain many of the city's inhabitants. Chair lined streets were the order of the day during our visit for festivities around The Holy Virgin of the Helpless who is the patron saint of the city.

The 1910 Mercado Central proved an essential stop on the first morning. The importance of the market as a commercial and cultural focal point was evident. All manner of foodstuffs could be bought under this 19C roof teaming with the local populace and a sprinkling of architects. This is a building displaying the essential relationship between the fabric of the city and the vitality of the activity within that fabric.

Opposite the market the gothic 'La Lonja' is a perfectly preserved sixteenth century silk market. And carrying on the market theme the Mercado de Colón was an exemplary conversion of another art nouveau market.

A tropical downpour on Saturday afternoon forced all, including the locals, to run for cover. As we were to find, the culture of the siesta continues with knock on effects on eating times. Civilised eating doesn't commence before 9.00pm and so late nights were the order of the day. Respite from a shower in a tapas bar can expose the leisurely lunch the siesta affords.

The archaeological museum proved to be another worthy visit for a few, but overall such historic cores are about streets, squares and urban form in general.

The City of Arts and Sciences is constructed on the bed of the river halfway between the historic centre and the port. Begun in 1996 the last major component, the Palacio de las Artes, was completed in 2005. The area is an assemblage of the works of Calatrava together with the Oceanográfic aquarium by Félix Candela. Our hotel was located adjacent to this area so opening the curtains in the morning meant immediate delight or distain depending upon your architectural disposition.

The role of the river as a park through the centre of the city has clearly influenced the appropriateness of the programme for the buildings within it and so the public and cultural uses rather than commercial. Architecturally the emphasis is on object in landscaped gardens rather than buildings to enclose external space.

These buildings provoked mixed reactions. The 1.00pm tour of the Palacio de las Artes proved to be a must and a gathering point on each of the trip days. Our tour guide made clear the reverence with which Calatrava is held in his home city. 'Every detail was designed by Calatrava personally' and so it was, the grand spaces to the sculpted door handles to the leather of the auditorium seats usually found in a Ferarri. And Calatrava was not just an engineer and an architect but also a gifted artist, and so even the mural at the rear of the main auditorium was by his hand.

The redeveloped Port Americas Cup was the third major location, a short bus trip from the hotel. Team 'Pavilions' and promenades define the area.

As was the case with Calatrava's opera house David Chipperfield's 'Veles e Vents' evoked mixed reactions. Constructed as a viewing platform and pavilion for the 2006 America's Cup it it now stands largely empty. Saturday was a dull day and Sunday was sunny and so it was that opinions on a building whose aesthetic relies on contrast and shadow could on one day be considered tired and abandoned while on the following day be sharp with simple elegance. This is a building which can only realistically be judged on its performance against the brief and in the climatic and event conditions for which it was designed.

There were other individual buildings which were variously visited. Some made their way to the Foster Congress Centre but the new Valencia must be defined not by any individual building but by its relationship with the riverbed and its new use as a park. The park reinforces reasons for urban living.

As usual the trip was concluded by the generously sponsored Erco dinner and thanks go to Colin Mitchell for hosting it and for his good company. As was fitting in the area that invented paella we departed en masse in taxis to our cool beach side paella restaurant a few miles down the road (failing to arrive en masse).

The Erco dinner was an important part of the trip allowing all to assemble and reflect.

Calatrava's insertions were the first big impression of this city. All arrived with views on his works and it was difficult to leave without those being reassessed. I would sum up in a question;

Is it okay to build science fiction?