The new list of today’s Wonders of the World is about to come out. I found it bizarre that the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia wasn’t one of the contenders. Machu Picchu, Petra, Taj Mahal, the Great Wall – all undoubtedly wonders of the world, but how about thinking a little outside of the box?
Does a Wonder have to be ancient? This contest is an exciting project amongst the now enormous travelling community, however, it does take after the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. As far as I remember, most of those Wonders were contemporary to the historians who recorded them. They were an embodiment of progress and contemporary civilisation, not a time machine.
Embodiment of progress and contemporary civilisation
I think the City of Arts and Sciences of Valencia would fit in with that concept quite nicely. It isn’t just one of the most stunning, amazing, impressive (whatever other superlative you can fit here), structures I have seen; it is also a fascinating twist, a truly original idea, no less than an entire paradigm shift.
Everyone has seen Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic architecture – how much of it can you take before they start looking the same, yet different? Huge ruins such as Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu impress mainly due to their size, or how difficult it was for their creators to build them without today’s machinery. But here is a thought: we have recently come back from a trip where we thoroughly enjoyed 23rd century architecture – something unique, isn’t it? The courage and ambition of the idea is enough to get one’s attention. What do you do if you don’t have an impressive complex a few hundred years old? You build one – a few hundred years away!
The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia is an enormous futuristic leisure complex designed by the renowned superstar of futuristic architecture, Santiago Calatrava. Calatrava happens to be one of Valencia’s sons, so his most marvelous creation is his gift to his home city. His gift lies in the Turia Gardens – a river bed which was transformed into nine kilometers of lush greenery, following the diversion of the river course after a particularly bad flood in 1950s. It is truly a city within a city – once you are here, you leave Valencia; you find yourself on the grounds of some distant space base. Huge constructions of white frameworks and glass, in most curious shapes, are surrounded by clear blue open water reservoirs and designer lawns.
The City of Arts and Sciences is composed of five elements. As you approach, the first thing that comes into your view from far, far away is the flagship of the complex – Palau de les Arts. At 70 metres high (an average 20 to 25 storey building) and in the shape of a giant eye, it is an awe-inspiring prototype of alien Big Brother. As you come closer, the glass foyers underneath, reminiscent of spaceship decks, finalise your arrival into science fiction. The Palau is, in fact, an opera house with four auditoriums for classical music and stage arts.
Behind the Palau, in the blue vastness of water, lies the Hemispheric – a smaller glass-flaked dome with sides that slide open, covering with its framework a perfect white ball, like a storage container for a nuclear core material. The aerodynamic shape of the Hemispheric and a few decorative wings make it look like an all-terrain space vehicle. The core of the Hemispheric is an IMAX cinema theatre. It is followed by the Museum of Sciences – a giant intermesh of frames with claws and thorns sticking out of it in tidy rows. At 50 meters high, this structure houses three huge floors of interactive science exhibitions.
These last two structures are bordered by L’Umbracle – a tube of a futuristic greenhouse with a tropical promenade inside, and rows of decorative ceramic vents all along it. It is good to know where we will keep the remaining greenery in two or three hundred years.
Last comes the Oceanographic – a complex of smaller structures that loosely resemble giant seashells, grouped around and across a water reservoir. Oceanographic is a marine park, with thousands of species from all marine ecosystems of the world. The bulk of the complex is actually underground (or, rather, underwater), while the buildings serve as entry points, infrastructure containers and some also display surface ecosystems.
As a matter of fact, a sixth structure is being planned, which is why the area is still not totally clear of construction. It will be an auditorium for fairs and social events, roughly speaking a high dome, but this is as far as I can go as I have run out of words to describe Calatrava. On this particular point, I simply have to give up.
You may have noticed, the City of Arts and Sciences is more than a pretty face. The Palau has not only a futuristic look, it also holds cutting-edge acoustics. It is quickly becoming one of the most prestigious venues for the opera world. The Museum of Sciences is the biggest science museum in Spain. It is fascinating in its interactivity: everything inside is to be pulled, pushed, twisted, touched, experimented with. The Oceanographic has the largest collection of marine fauna in Europe, and a state-of-the-art ambience where you get sharks swimming right over your head. The Hemispheric shows some of the most amazing three-dimentional movies – all affordable and in many languages.
In addition, Valencia makes full use of the City of Arts and Sciences for various public events – from New Year celebrations to music festivals. The incredible light shows match the architecture, making it an unforgettable experience. When the crowds gather amongst these strange white shapes that reflect the sounds of music in all directions over the water reservoirs, while stunning the eye with futuristic light shows – they get a true glimpse into the cyber-race of tomorrow.
Your fantasy runs wild when you walk around this educational and entertainment complex. This is what the Earth might look like in a couple of centuries. It can also easily be a base somewhere on a distant planet, way after the initial landing – the Museum does look like it could be an artificial biosphere, the Hemispheric – a media/research centre, the Palau – a command tower and the Oceanographic – a complex of living quarters.
Those fantasies are not even nearly as wild as what you start seeing when you know one curious fact about Calatrava; the architect bases his designs on skeletons – both human and animal. When you look at the City of Arts and Sciences with this in mind, your imagination turns free and wild. The perfectly white regular frames glisten in the sun; everything makes sense now, but what are these creatures whose remains you see on this intergalactic graveyard?
The Oceanographic must be what it first appears – a handful of mollusk shells that could easily swallow a truck.
The Museum of Sciences, with its tubular shape and rows of short claws at regular intervals, turns into a half-ribcage thrown on the ground. At 220 meters in length and 50 meters high, which creature would have such a ribcage, and which would have broken it up into halves?
The Hemispheric resembles a shell of some gigantic turtle-like creature and the Palau – the Palau is most definitely a skull, albeit from such a strange creature that it is hard to imagine what it would look like. It would have eyes on the sides, like a rabbit, but taking up most of the head. It also has a crest over the top of the head – the skull is 70 meters high – whatever this creature is, it could crush T-Rex with a flick of its little finger, if it has any.
Visiting the City of Arts and Sciences is a thoroughly satisfying experience for any type of traveler. That most luring human craving, the "never seen before" factor hits you with so much force that the crater of the impact will remain in your memory for a very long time, whoever you are.
That is why I am a little disappointed the City if Arts and Sciences wasn’t selected for the Wonders of the World Contest. The Sydney Opera House has, yet it doesn’t have half what the City sports. But then, I’ve just remembered – when they were selecting, the City of Arts and Sciences still had some bulldozers on site. Well, never mind, I guess in a couple of millennia, it may get another opportunity. It will probably win, by then, it will be sufficiently ancient. "The first-ever Wonder of the Cyber-Age", if it doesn’t get bombed by aliens first.
Alex is the webmaster of Valencia Travel Information – an independent resource on travelling in Valencia, Spain