Costly white elephants
history museums and art galleries do. With a taste for something abnormal, I hire a car and decide to go on a road trip with a difference – rather than looking at great triumphs from the guidebooks, I’ll be looking at great monumental tragedies in the real world.
My journey will take me up Spain’s east coast. Benidorm is my starting point: the town itself has shed its toxic reputation for loutish behaviour. Its seafront has been rebuilt, crowned with a sinuous promenade that sweeps up and down like a wave. Its beach is clean and child-friendly, its town centre is tacky but welcoming. It’s not as bad as I feared. Yet, those huge tower blocks are oppressive. And the 47-storey Edificio Intempo is the most sinister of the lot. Its oddness fuelled critics to speculate that the ‘11’ and ‘M’ many claim you can see on the front of the building is a macabre memorial to the terrorist attack carried out in Madrid on March 11, 2004 – where 191 people were killed when a bomb exploded on a train in the capital. If true, it’s a reminder many resent. Today Spain’s economy is in meltdown and many Spaniards blame the city, regional and national governments for spending too much on white elephant projects.
Up the AP-7 motorway in Spain’s third city, Valencia, Euros have been burned through left, right and centre. The Valencia street-racing circuit hosted prestigious Formula 1 races, the last of which was last summer. The circuit twists and turns around the port and allows spectators to get up close and personal with the action as never before. Yet today, the circuit is barren and empty. There was a plan on the table to share the Spanish Grand Prix on alternating years with Barcelona, but at the moment it looks like Valencia’s street circuit will never see another F1 race. Spanish newspaper Marca reported earlier this year that thieves have stolen anything of worth and that the pit buildings and access tunnels are being left to fall apart.
Nearby is the City of Arts And Sciences. When I visit, it is empty. Wind whips in across the eerie, flat, former bed of the Turia river, which was re-routed in the 1950s. This is where architect Santiago Calatrava was allowed to indulge his every whim. And it possibly teaches us that no single architect and no single city planner should be allowed to have everything they want, all at once.
If you eat too much at the buffet, you feel sick. To look at the City of Arts And Sciences is like a space station – super-modern on one level, and yet the excess of sand-blasted concrete harks back to an earlier, post-War age. The shapes of the huge buildings evoke horrifying giant insects – like the Edificio Intempo this is architecture that’s probably not suitable for kids of a sensitive disposition. The complex comprises a science museum, greenhouse, aquarium, opera house and Imax cinema – though what’s inside is not really the point. The point, for Calatrava, was to construct a world. A world of his own. Its size and scope certainly impresses. But the rationale behind it? Not so clever.
Its construction costs have left city and region alike in dire financial straits. There’s a regular tour run by the city’s ‘indignados’ – the upset protesters – which takes in Valencia’s white elephants, with the City of Arts and Sciences as the coup de grãce; the finale of fiscal folly. Ask a local what they think of this place and the chances are they’ll be so furious they’ll risk choking on their paella.
I press on north, through low hills, over green and orange