Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Manchester's architectural debt to the man accused of 'bleeding Valencia dry'

It has the fifth busiest container port in Europe; it hosted Formula 1's European Grand Prix from 2008-2011; its football team reached the finals of the Champions League in 2000 and 2001(but later had to sell David Silva to Manchester City, David Villa to Barcelona, and Juan Mata to Chelsea); it's Spain's third biggest city and it's the birthplace of one of Europe's top architects, Santiago Calatrava. Now leftist critics of Valencia's local government are accusing Calatrava of 'bleeding the city dry' after it was revealed that he has charged €100m to design a futuristic culture zone. The City of the Arts and Sciences certainly looks impressive but, as Spain struggles to cope with rising unemployment and huge public debt, such ambitious projects risk looking out-of-touch and over-priced.

The scale of Calatrava's latest project is huge compared to the bridge he designed to cross the River Irwell, which opened in 1995. Trinity Footbridge (pictured above), which connects Manchester and Salford, was the city's first example of showpiece 'postmodern' architecture, and laid the groundwork for everything that followed: the Hulme Arch (1997), The Lowry (1999), The Lowry Hotel (2001), Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North (2002), Ian Simpson's No. 1 Deansgate (2002) and Urbis (2002), Tadao Ando's Piccadilly Gardens pavilion (2002), the Manchester Civil Justice Centre (2007), the Beetham Tower (2007), 1 The Avenue in Spinningfields (2009), MediaCityUK (2011), and 1 Angel Square as part of the Co-op's 'NOMA' development (2012). Salford Quays and Manchester City Centre itself have changed beyond recognition in the last fifteen to twenty years and whilst there are many factors involved (the failed Olympic bid, Euro 96/the IRA bomb, the Commonwealth Games in 2002, strong civic leadership), we can credit Calatrava's simple design in this quiet corner of the city with providing the impetus for the glass-and-steel renaissance we see around us today. Manchester has been described by architecture critic Owen Hatherley as 'the archetypal New Labour boomtown', a place that's lost its cultural edge. But with its two football clubs about to finish first and second in the Premier League, the National Football Museum about to open in the Urbis building, and tourist numbers rising as a result, things are looking good for the city (even if there is an increasing amount of nostalgia for how things were, as the success of the Stone Roses reunion has shown). One wonders whether Valencia (or indeed Liverpool) will be able to match Manchester for the sustainable progress it's made so far.

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