Valencia: New horizons

A succession of stunning buildings is redefining Valencia – and one of the city's favourite sons is masterminding the transformation. Adrian Mourby explores a remarkable vision

I'm just sitting down with Helga Schmidt when the news breaks that Santiago Calatrava is in the building. The arrival of the great architect generates excitement and apprehension in equal measure. "There are things he is still not happy with," says Mrs Schmidt, the intendant of Calatrava's extraordinary Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia.

It's an iconic structure if ever there was one, a great white-beaked spacecraft covered in trencadis (small broken tiles) that seemingly floats on top of a shallow lake. Inside this monumental building, Calatrava has built a concert hall, an opera house, several recital rooms and now an underground theatre. The Teatro Martí*i Soler wasn't in the original plan, but Calatrava decided that the building deserved an extra auditorium for small-scale works – so he went ahead and designed one. "This is my present to you," he told Mrs Schmidt. Now the golden boy has more plans.

Calatrava is one of those architects you don't say no to, especially given that he is Valencia's local boy made good. Born near Valencia 56 years ago, Calatrava made his name with sweeping sculptural buildings such as the gorgeous Auditorio in Tenerife, the 54-storey "Turning Torso" tower in Malmö and the Milwaukee Art Museum. He is currently designing a new transportation hub at Ground Zero in New York City. Likened by some to a bird being released from a pair of hands, it is one of the few buildings on the World Trade Center site liked by everyone.

In Valencia, however, Calatrava has a whole new city to play with. In the Sixties, having grown fed up by frequent flooding, the Generalitat Valenciana diverted the River Turia south to the sea, leaving the old medieval city centre encircled by a large dry river bed. Various ad hoc attempts were made to do something with this empty space; parks, statuary, a football pitch and a stylish sea-life museum called Parque Oceanográfico by Felix Candela were constructed. Then, in 1996, Calatrava was brought in to design a communications tower and the project grew into a grand enterprise called Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (City of Arts and Sciences). It's a whole new Valencia.

So far there are four buildings, with work underway on a fifth. On first sighting, these radical white structures give the impression that the 22nd Century has arrived early in Spain. El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía dominates the complex. Inside here, Mrs Schmidt runs a programme of concerts and operas featuring talents such as Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim and Lorin Maazel. Calatrava's work attracts top names.

It's obvious why everyone defers to him. The Palau has been likened to a supermodel in that it has no bad angles. It is a 17-storey sculpture designed by a master artist, inside which other artists go about their business. The structure is topped by a great 750ft plume and is linked to the rest of Valencia by a Valhalla of a bridge. The vast creation is wholly symmetrical, which appealed to Calatrava, though people say it can be disorientating. Sometimes it's hard to know which side of the building you're in.

To the south of the shallow azure lake below the Palau, Calatrava built El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe, an interactive science museum with all its supporting ribs on the outside. El Hemisfèrico is in the middle of the lake, seemingly submerging like a submarine, but designed to resemble a great eye peering out of the water. It contains an Imax Cinema, a planetarium and laserium.

Perhaps the most remarkable structure in this part of the complex is El Umbracle, which resembles a long white conservatory with its panes empty of glass. Inside this metal canopy, palm trees line a walkway. The structure is actually sited atop an underground car park and is quite unnecessary, but you don't expect Calatrava to be utilitarian. For example, running along one side of the science museum there is a broad gantry 40ft in the air that is served by two grand staircases 30 feet wide, one at each end. It has no practical purpose unless you want to walk up at one end and come down the other. No one uses it, but it looks fantastic.

The project is far from finished. There really ought to be a restaurant, several in fact, from which you can sit and marvel at all that has come to pass. Worse, transport around the mini-city is currently by one of those twee trains on pneumatic tyres, when this complex absolutely cries out for Calatrava's take on the monorail.

At the moment, Calatrava is building a 6,000-seat open-air auditorium called Agora on the other side of this road bridge, and has begun his own pedestrian bridge to span it (Calatrava's bridges are always something to behold). When Agora is finished, Calatravaland will link up with Parque Oceanográfico to create a futuristic complex longer, if not yet wider, than the old walled city of Valencia that stands to its north. He is also intending to build two blocks of apartments. Knowing Calatrava, he will design every aspect of them and go wonderfully overbudget. Consider the doors at the Palau: not many architects would go to the length of sculpting blue ceramic torsos as door handles.

His splendid new bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice has trebled in price over the last 10 years and is still not finished. But costs are a mere practical consideration. The boy from Valencia is all about vision – and he has that in spades.

Meanwhile, Mrs Schmidt breaks off from discussing the Palau's summer music festival to consult on the latest changes required by her architect. One thing is certain: he hasn't come up with ways of saving her money.

As I kill time outside, I gaze down over the City of Arts and Sciences towards the sea. The complex looks good in all weathers and at any time of day, but what I really like is the way that it acts as a link from the old Valencia to the harbour area. So many of these dockland redevelopments – Cardiff, Oslo, Copenhagen – are detached from the parent city, isolated by derelict interstitial space that is neither city nor marina. The Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències is using up this space. I reckon in another 10 years Calatrava will have brought the two areas together via a series of amazing buildings – assuming Valencia continues to come up with the money. Personally I hope it does.

Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss