Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Devil in the Detail

Pardon me slipping into the Valencian for a moment but the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciènciese (the City of Arts and Sciences) is possibly Europe’s most beautiful architectural achievement of recent decades.  Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and completed in the late 1990s, it is a collection of monumental buildings spread along the abandoned bed of the River Turìa in Valencia.  These are giant, organically elegant structures that not only embody purity of form but serve a cultural purpose too.  Concert halls, cinemas, museums and galleries are enclosed within outstandingly elegant exteriors whose overall design is rightly applauded across the world.  I adore the overall look of the place. 

But the devil is in the detail and something is amiss in the City of Arts and Sciences.  

The colossal size and shape of Calatrava’s structures mean each is recognisable from far away.  Yet what if a visitor en route to the Planetarium needs to visit the lavatory? How are the locations of such lesser amenities to be identified?  A signage system is required. 
Many visitors will come to experience the whole site for itself.  Some form of transportation will be needed to assist them to travel around, because this vast project covers many hectares and an hour’s walk in the debilitating heat of the Valencian summer is out of the question. Also, all that heat means refreshment will required, so some form of catering facility will be needed. 

Did any of this appear on Calatrava’s brief?

These are all minutiæ that make up - and, in fact, finalise - the successful execution of a project envisioned to capture the engagement of the general public. We can assume that if Calatrava had been responsible for the design of such minutiæ, they too would incorporate an iconic allure consistent with the rest of the project. 

But he wasn’t.

Someone else was. Someone who hadn’t a clue.  As a result, these almost inconsequential aspects of the appearance of The City of Arts and Sciences are now as glaring in the valley of the Turìa as a wart would be on the nose of the Mona Lisa.

The sign system is reminiscent of a holiday camp: sticky letters on arrowed board featuring a questionable graphic interpretation of what walking looks like.  If the cinema can look like a giant eye, why can’t the walker look like he can walk?
Transport around the glistening ethereal arena is in plastic railway wagons, pulled by a noisy diesel-powered replica 19th century Wild West steam locomotive.  
The cafeteria is of a style reminiscent of a East London dog track.  Rubbish bins stand sentinel to a crate-laden fast food stand around which are scattered chairs and tables. It is tucked into a niche at the base of the Science Museum like a grimy rash of mould on an uncleaned bathroom floor. 
Yet the organisation's management appears to be unbothered with these incongruities and its official publicity appears impervious.  To what extent do these component flaws contribute to the the “bold strokes” and the “futuristic image” of the design of this iconic City of The Arts and Sciences?  Signage is blunt, crude almost.  The train is the antithesis of “avant-garde” (or "21st century") and the catering stall spectacularly fails to “harmonise” with the “architectural complex of exceptional beauty” it seeks to serve. 

It is bewildering that those responsible for permitting the design of these aspects can remain insensitive when they are immersed in the workings of such a fabulous project. Confidence and imagination oozes from every square millimetre of their surroundings. 

When did the inspiration run out?
"... like mouldy grout on an uncleaned bathroom floor".

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