In Praise of White Elephants

Though easy targets for fiscal hawks, public architecture that’s luxurious and dramatic — even excessive — should be ours as a right.

According to Santiago Calatrava, there is a Communist conspiracy against him in the Valencia City Council.

The hometown of the world-famous engineer-architect is littered with his structures, which have become tourist calling cards — here he has designed the City of Arts and Sciences, a multi-building arts complex, along with metro stations and bridges. The conspiracy, if it is one, has emerged because of the huge expense involved in the upkeep of those structures, which a cash-strapped council is no longer able to undertake to the architect’s exacting specifications.

While most “icon” buildings are demonstratively useless — often galleries and museums whose form is of far greater importance than their functions — what Calatrava specializes in is infrastructure, or rather, making things that should be entirely functional utterly useless. He is not a particularly original designer. His railway stations are visibly inspired by the faintly kitsch futurism of the high Cold War era, evoking especially the “organic” concrete structure of Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal for JFK Airport. Calatrava’s railway stations in Zurich and Lisbon, or the incongruously immense (and frankly, breathtaking) Guillemins Station in the Belgian steel town of Liège, are intended to give the effect of an immense organism into whose concrete ribs you are plunged in order to buy your ticket and get your train.

The organic metaphor is ubiquitous and deliberately played upon by the architect — the concept is the metaphor, and the metaphor is an advert, an easily remembered cliché. Here, Calatrava is a truly heinous offender — his description of the new station for the World Trade Center site in New York as “a dove released from a child’s hand” deserves pride of place in the annals of architects’ bullshit. There’s also no doubt his stations need a huge amount of maintenance to keep their sheen. Although his designs make great play of their structure, making a spectacle of their bone-like frames, these are invariably painted a gleaming white, as nothing is loathed — especially by urban regenerators — so much as bare concrete.

But that constant maintenance is only one of the problems with Calatrava’s work. For a trained engineer, he has notoriously little interest in economy of structure. As a rule, since the mid nineteenth century, the aim in bridge design has been to achieve the greatest structural feats with the scarcest of means — to do “more with less,” in Buckminster Fuller’s phrase. That line probably reached its peak in recent years with Norman Foster’s Millau Viaduct, which spans a vast canyon with little more than thin spindles of concrete and steel. For Calatrava, though, organic metaphor trumps all, and the structural purpose of his bridges — in Dublin, Salford, Dallas, Venice and elsewhere — is subordinated to their rhetorical purpose, as sweeping statements of the transformation of industrial docks and canals into showpieces of real-estate speculation. They must billow, swoop, and spiral, because otherwise they wouldn’t be eye-catching as advertisements. The preference for shiny cladding leads to some literal pitfalls — his bridges in Venice and Bilbao both have tiles which, it’s been claimed, are too slippery to walk on. The resultant lack of interest in economy is now rebounding on the architect, although he could fairly plead this is what he was hired for.

The city of Valencia evidently has very good reasons for wanting to prosecute Calatrava. But as the monuments to the neoliberal boom become white elephants, we should not get too carried away with schadenfreude (though come to think of it, one can easily imagine Calatrava designing an airport “inspired by the form of the bones of a white elephant”).

The UK, for instance, now faces the question of what to do with a legacy of large and dramatic arts centers, galleries, and museums built in post-industrial cities outside the capital. Like Calatrava’s work, they are a matter of rhetoric and regeneration, obvious signs that “something” was “being done” for these stricken towns: the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield by Nigel Coates; The Public in West Bromwich by Will Alsop; the New Art Gallery in Walsall by Caruso St John; the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art by Erick van Egeraat; and Urbis in Manchester by Ian Simpson, among many others.

Most of them were at least partly funded by the National Lottery, and a tax on the poor to fund the arts is not admirable. Many, if not all of them, are as architecturally vacuous as Calatrava — one-line architectural blipverts. Some, like Sheffield’s “pop centre,” were abandoned within a couple of years of their opening. Others, like Urbis or The Public, are shifting their functions toward something less arty. Though there’s truth to the argument that this money could have been better put toward, say, an industrial policy, or research and development, rather than buildings that offer few tangible benefits to the towns in question other than jobs serving coffee and “outreach” to local schools, it is conservatives who see no reason why provincial cities should have arts centers in the first place. Such things are for London — why should the plebes want to see installations?

But that same argument is used against public infrastructure spending. During the boom, Spain — in great contrast to Britain — poured money into public transportation, with a post-industrial city like Bilbao building a Foster-designed Metro system. The exorbitance of the Athens Metro, extended for the purposes of the Calatrava-designed Olympic complex, is often used as an exemplar of the foolishness with which Greece spent before its financial collapse.

The Left should be very careful here, as this is an austerity argument — an argument against public space and the public good. An argument, essentially, that we cannot have nice things — that bridges, railway stations, and art galleries are somehow dubious means of spending “taxpayers’ money.” The twisted right-wing mutation of social democracy that dominated Europe during the boom seldom had the public interest at heart, and every concession to it had to be balanced by something profit-making. But for its conservative successors, the public interest is entirely nonexistent.

Public buildings and structures that are luxurious, dramatic, even excessive — if hopefully less whimsical and egotistical than those of Calatrava — should be ours as a right, not as a reservation for the wealthy.

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