What A Spanish White Elephant Says About the Use of Art

Over at The Atlantic Cities Feargus O’Sullivan had on Monday an interesting piece on the fate of one of Spain’s many white elephants. This time, it’s Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, where it seems nobody quite thought through the implications of putting metal sheets out in the sun:

The complex’s main problem is the centerpiece Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia…The theater has a metal shell that tends to buckle as it expands and contracts in Valencia’s daily temperature extremes. Such buckling might just give it a beat-up look – unwonted but not unattractive – if it weren’t for the thousand of tiny mosaic-like tiles that cover the metal sheets. These have started to ripple into wrinkles, transforming what started out looking like cool, pristine enamel into something closer to well-used bed sheets.

How is that something that gets overlooked in the planning process of a project with a budget of a billion euros? It seems literally unbelievable that nobody saw a design involving sheet metal, Southern Spain, and adhesive tiles and thought, “perhaps this is a thing that really shouldn’t be a thing.”

I’m very sympathetic to the idea that there exist in the world potential outcomes which are both completely plausible and yet exist outside the parameters we’re using to frame our analyses. The 9-11 Commission Report contains a solemn example; it took a Tom Clancy novel to make senior policy makers even remotely aware of the possibility that terrorists might hijack a plane and turn it into a piloted missile. For most analysts, such a scenario existed outside their guiding frame of reference. And given terrorists’ then relatively consistent modus operandi in the realm of plane hijackings, that’s almost understandable.*

Back in Valencia though, it seems like the thermodynamic properties of metal in a Mediterranean climate should, no matter what, be pretty high on the list of concerns for at least somebody affiliated with a construction project in a city located on the Mediterranean coast. So who blew it? Calatrava, the chief architect? His roofing guy? The chief engineer? Surely somebody did.

There is an idea that literature, art, music; creative endeavors in general serve as useful media for understanding the world around us; that a novel can teach us something about politics, or a painting about human nature. I’ve never quite bought it. If I want to know about the former, I’ll read a political scientist, and if I want to know about the latter, I’ll read a philosopher. I don’t see why we need to add fake characters to the equation.

But as the 9-11 Commission Report and the Valencia theater illustrate, the professionals (the political scientists and the philosophers above, or in these examples, the intelligence officers and the architects/engineers) can be shockingly unimaginative, and with tragic results. So perhaps there is something to the idea of literature, art, and music as loci of understanding the more “practical” world around us. Or at least as the source of a perpetual, “what if?” That said, I don’t think the problem in Valencia was a dearth of novels about roofing techniques. Whoever built the place are just crap engineers.

*They usually wanted hostages, money, or both. So your best bet was to let them take control of the plane, let them land it somewhere, and then try and shoot or pay your way out of the mess