Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sightseeing in Valencia - with Cardiff in mind (1)

By the time we were breakfasting, overlooking streams of traffic from the first floor dining room of the hotel, streets were dry and sweepers were out. Valencia's Grand Vias are two lane roads in each direction, with tree filled central reservations, equal in width to the four carriageways - perfect for joggers, cyclists, pedestrians. They cut across the classic city street grid. Traffic was heavy, fast moving, noisy. What was different about this picture? I asked myself, watching others work, as I breakfasted. No hedgehog vehicles, just people sweeping methodically with large brooms. No litter, just leaves and small branches after the storm.

As the day passed, I couldn't help noticing how clean it was wherever we went, and continued to puzzle over why. There were plenty of public litter bins. Each street had its ensemble of communal bottle banks and big bins for sorted rubbish from apartment dwellers. These were in areas cordoned with guard rails. Efficient, clean, but ugly. Well used, but not yet integrated decently into the city-scape. It was less chaotic and more disciplined than arrangements in Cardiff city centre. Modern waste management in both cities is in transition, responding to new city policy developments involving re-cycling, reflects commitment, but not yet investment in the re-design of street surfaces to sink waste management receptacles underground, as seen in Granda's barrio d'Albaysin.

We took the bus, but had to walk another quarter mile to visit the 'Oceanographic', a large glass walled compound containing huge aquaria representing oceans of the planet, an outdoor theatre for dolphin displays, a spherical aviary, white, 50 metres in diameter, several eateries, plus a five star exclusive restuarant with huge inhabited fish tanks as living decor. The variety in building shapes and layout suggests it looks interesting on a map, from the air, or the top of tall building of which there are plenty nearby. We decided to delay a full visit until we'd seen all the notable buildings.

Right next door walking 'up river' is a construction site containing a four lane road bridge and a clamshell shaped edifice a 100m high, still being built. The work in hand, is a spectacle on its own to my eyes. There was nothing to inform passing visitors what what being built or why. There was nothing in the literature to tell us either. Hats off to Cardiff's SD2 Partnership for their information displays on all site hoardings. The bridge is a link in the network of Grand Vias. When it's open and in use it'll be another specatacle. It has one tall column from which the roadway is suspended. This is shaped to convey the appearance of a Greek lyre, 120m high in white, against a blue sky. There wasn't a cloud in sight after those night rains, and the temperature, 24 degrees.

We walked further on above the bridge building site to the Palace of Sciences, a grand complex of buildings 250m long. Closest to the road, is the Umbracle, an avenue of palm trees enclosed for its entire length within a succession of tall fine white hoops, making it resemble a fishbone from afar. Next to it, a shallow pool 50m wide, then the Palace itself, with two theatrically wide staircases leading up 20m to a second storey balcony running the pool's length. I discovered later that this beautiful structure was the emergency exit route from the top floor. It was closed to the public, thus unavailable as a neighbourhood viewing platform. No emergency exit for anyone on wheels was apparent. Being with someone who finds steps challenging made me see things differently.

The working building is a two storey structure sitting within the elaborate glass and concrete tent shaped exterior. This creates a cool environment, without need for air conditioning. The south side has a view over the pond, the north side an array of offices, restaurants and other facilities built into it, simply laid out, making it easy to welcome large groups of visitors. It's a science museum, a colossal equivalent of the more modestly styled Techniquest down in Cardiff Bay, and the place was busy with school parties by the time we arrived. We stopped long enough for a drink and vowed to return earlier next time. A marvellous cathedral of empiricism in concept, with its soaring arches and light pouring in, airy and cool. From outside, without the title of the building as guide, you'd have a fine time guessing its purpose and function. Unlike Techniquest, where you can look in and have the building communicate its purpose to you. This Palace is an architectural wonder, yet as it fails to convey its purpose - unless you want the world to think that science is something arcane.

Last port of call in our morning's walk, the Palace of Arts and Culture, towering over another new Calatrava road bridge. This building looks like a giant fish, beached in the dry river bed. It must be 100m high. It has terraces in its flanks big enough for tall leylandia trees. The open mouth of this creature has panoramic windows spanning several floors of the interior. Its skin is made of mosaic in white glazed pottery shards, used on most external surfaces, pavements, benches. It's reminiscent of Gaudi's use of this material in Barcelona. Again, the working building hides within the iconic exterior. For once I feel I can use the much abused word 'iconic' as the building's shape actually represents something. But, what it has to do with the building's function is not evident.

Our approach to any entrance to the place was barred by security cordons placed 50m from the doors, with guards on duty. We were told there was no possibility of visiting except when there was a performance on. This was how we got the clue that the fish enclosed the city's Opera House. There were no signs or information boards near the building advertising its purpose or activities. It wasn't still a construction site. Every bus shelter carried an advertisment for the current performance - 'Parsival'. Even tourist literature was inexplicit about the function of this and other new buildings we'd seen. Not much tourist promotion effort here. What a contrast to our home grown Millennium Centre, full of people and activities all day every day, whether or not there's an opera running, lots of information, always accessible. I wonder if Calatrava thinks justice is being done to his designs? Getting great buildings to serve a city requires more careful thought and collaborative enterprise.

Having walked a mile and a half in the heat, we decided to explore more of the city by bus, and have an air conditioned sit down. We took a route which followed the river bed out into suburbs constructed since the sixties, saw modern tower blocks and shopping centres that serve them. Somewhere I picked up the stray piece of information that the department store chain 'Il Corte Ingles' has eight branches in Valencia. Most of the ones I noticed were pretty big. Then we headed back to base, hungry. We returned to the same restaurant, eating well from the menu of the day at half last night's price, before taking a siesta.

Refreshed by sleep we went out again, and took a bus down to the Port in search of another award winning building by English architect David Chipperfield. When the Swiss won the Americas Cup in 2003, they nominated Valencia to host the 2007 competition, stim ulating a regeneration project which transformed unused areas of dockland into leisure sailing facilities for the competition, to be useable afterwards. The Metro was extended to link the Port with the Airport directly. Chipperfield's building is distinguished by its long balconies at second and third floor levels, offering viewing platforms, overlooking the channel into the marina, and wide enough to accomodate exhibition booths and restaurant tables. A view out to sea would be possible from the upper levels. Certainly striking in its modernity, set amongst older 19th century port buildings, it was surprising to see signs of wear and tear in its fabric, not yet two years old - loose decking, rust streaks across white painted facades. Maybe fixable during the winter maintenance period - but so soon?

We took the bus back up town in search of the old quarter, stopping at the Estacion de Nord railway terminus,with its single arched span roof enclosing six platforms, a palatial grand entrance. The booking hall was finely decorated with mosaics using fruit and flowers as motifs, and picture panels of bucolic scenes, similar to the Marquet de Colon. This is characteristic of the region, celebrating its rich agrarian economy. Next to the station is the brick built bull-ring, a circular amphitheatre, Roman style, though probably no older than the station. A popular venue and the means to deliver the masses to it, side by side. To the eye of a stranger these two imposing edifices, contrasting with their modern neighbours, made an incongruous pair.

As darkness approached we returned to the hotel. Rather than eat out again, I went hunting for a sandwich. Wandering the streets of the local barrio, I was impressed to see just how many bars and restaurants there were in every street. It's certainly a residential and well as business district, so there are plenty of clients, twice daily. Valencia certainly gets its second wind after nine in the evening, and the morning starts later. Scores of restaurants, but only a handful of fast food joints anywhere to be seen. Finally the penny dropped. The lack of litter is explained. I don't recall seeing anyone eating or drinking on the street. These things are done socially, and the impact on the public realm is very evident.

So we want a cleaner Cardiff? We'll not succeed until we change eating habits, until we ban take-away places, street eating and give people incentives to sit down and eat socially. A real culture shift. Would that be a bad ting? What a lot of money would be saved if we did.

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