What inspired the Spanish to undertake so many grand projects? Was it the success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao? Orviedo in Asturias has Calatrava’s Space Age Palace of Congress, already showing its age, and Santiago de Compostela has its City of Culture, a well-intentioned project conceived in another time before the financial crisis of a decade ago and one that is located in the wrong place. Both projects have one thing in common, according to media reports – both ran substantially over budget; indeed work on the City of Culture was stopped a few years ago.
The basic idea of the City of Culture is a good one – bringing together a number of cultural and enterprise functions including the Gaias Centre Museum, the Library and Archive of Galicia, a Centre for Entrepreneurship, a centre for new technologies, an international performance and music centre and a top restaurant showcasing local cuisine, to be located in a superb location at the top of Mount Gaias with viewpoints across to the old historic city and cathedral towers of Santiago, and surrounded by parks and gardens to explore. And, taking the example of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, you have an architectural competition to have a stellar design that will put Galicia on the international map.
So, what went wrong? It has to be said that the architectural design by American architect Peter Eisenman is amazing. The basic layout of the building is based on the scallop shell of the pilgrims who travel to Santiago and the sweeping, curving buildings covered in stone reflect the landscape around and in due course will become part of the landscape at the top of the hill. No-one seems to have learnt the lesson of the Scottish Parliament about the cost and complexities of such innovative and varied buildings thus, not surprisingly, the project has gone over budget and, after a decade of construction, work on the performance and music venue was stopped in 2013, which is rather a pity as, if anything, this should have been built first to bring people out to the complex. On a windswept day, the Museum was empty and the Archives and Library was not particularly building, though the City does run events such as open air concerts to attract people. The key mistake, however, was its location. The lesson from projects such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao and from the new Central Library in Helsinki is to have them in the heart of the city, not out on the edge where no-one wants to go to, plus the project seems to rely on car usage – I did not see any public transport, which is not how you would do it today. Comparisons were made by politicians to the Sydney Opera House and to the Getty Museum in LA, but people go to the latter for the art collection, not for the building.
To its credit, the enterprise spaces were well-used and this is perhaps the secret to how the City will earn its keep in the future with the final phase under construction replaced with the Fontan Building at what seems a ridiculously low construction cost of ‘more than 12.2 million euros’ for a new 11,700 sq m facility for the three universities to share including the University System Quality Agency and the Inter-university Consortium of Galicia, which jointly managing Galicia’s three universities, with academic activities including a centre for studying Galician heritage and the Camino de Santiago. Even then, there will only be 140 people working here, though the new building will include an auditorium for 750 people and a rooftop conservatory that can also be used as an exhibition space.
While these will no doubt have academic links with the Galician archives and library, I cannot help but think that what is needed are business, enterprise and management faculties that could support the entrepreneurial activities here, but at least this will hopefully bring new students and new life to the hilltop.