Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Vulgar Magnificence of Neoliberal Architecture



Dr John Crossan, University of Strathclyde, International Public Policy Institute (IPPI)




I recently returned from a few days’ holiday in the Spanish city of Valencia. I have visited the city many times. The restaurants and bars that lead off from the Plaza de Virgen, and the promenade that stretches the combined length of La Arenas, Malvarrosa and El CabaƱal beaches, are some of my favourite haunts. The city’s Jardines Del Turia (The Turia Gardens) is where I spend most of my visits. The gardens run from West to East some nine kilometres on the former river bed of the Turia, whose course was altered in the late 1950s to prevent constant flooding. Jardines Del Turia boasts an itinerary of palm, pine and orange trees; fountains; playparks; floral labyrinths; numerous sports facilities, cafes, bars and public monuments. The real charm of the gardens cannot be found in a single location but in their use. The citizens of Valencia, the great and good, can be seen in significant numbers meandering along the contours of this beautiful public place.


This scene comes to an abrupt end towards the Eastern stretch of the gardens. The grounded, understated and at times quietly eccentric earthy urban commune of Jardines Del Turia is shattered by the vulgar magnificence of the Palau Des Arts Renia Sofia (Palace of Arts). Designed by the Valencian-born and internationally known architect Santiago Calatrava, the building, opened in 2005, rises 14 stories above ground and includes three stories below ground. The building’s height and metallic, expansive shell-like roof structure, 230 m in length, speaks a visual language that comes from a distant place somewhere between science fiction and the type of mega yachts owned by the super-rich. The aesthetic and spatial language of the complex could not be further removed from The Turia Gardens or from the city centre of Valencia more broadly. Look through the many online city marketing images of the building and you will notice that people are missing. I asked a few of my friends who have, like me visited the city on numerous occasions, if they had spent any time in or around the building. Like me, they had not. The Palau Des Arts Renia Sofia and its grounds do not invite human engagement. Critically, this is not a piece of architecture removed from the emotional landscape of Valencia’s communal urban charm. Rather, it disturbs that landscape by being plonked upon it.


Palau Des Arts Renia Sofia in Valencia falls under the category of neoliberal mega-project. These are large-scale architectural projects and city events such as the London Olympics or Glasgow Commonwealth Games. A recent paper in this journal by Amparo Tarazona Vento (2017) has a particular focus on Valencia’s mega-projects, including the Palace of Arts. In the paper, Vento shows how Valencia’s mega-projects, designed to generate economic activity and employment, have had an adverse effect, helping to propel regional government towards financial crisis. He writes:  

The most evident results of Valencia’s urban policy, besides the physical transformation, were social inequality, underinvestment in social services and fiscal crisis, in short, a net transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector through the built environment (Vento 2017: 80). 

Vento also highlights the depoliticizing effects of such projects. There is an artful deviance at play in the depoliticizing process. It is presented as a participatory exercise in democratically motivated city planning. The managerial expertise of the state partners the entrepreneurial skills of a private sector eager to fulfill its responsibilities as corporate citizens. This partnership is then extended to the broader citizenry, via public meetings, participatory design charrettes, and the obligatory interactive project website. “In practice” writes Vento “only a limited group of professionals and members of the elite – architects, planners, developers, financiers and business leaders” – make the decisions. Attempts to present a more critical challenge to these projects are often curtailed by restricting access to relevant information and data that is deemed too sensitive by the elite partners for public consumption (Swyngedouw et al 2002).


De-politicization becomes both cause and effect of a dual process of political and social exclusion. In the first instance, certain publics and their ideas are excluded from the planning process because they are deemed reactionary by ‘experts’ who tightly stage-manage the political process. In the second instance, certain publics are excluded by hard and soft forms of neoliberal discipline. By hard I am referring to the brute control of those publics that do not complement the sanitized mega-project aesthetic. By soft I am referring to more, subtle, but no less effective forms of discipline that work through a process of ideological saturation, whereby spatial symbols, prompts and cues of the dominant ideology are imposed upon the contours of a city.


John Allen (2006) refers to this soft form of discipline as ambient power. Ambient power is the affective component of a ‘decided finality’ that cannot accommodate difference because its diameters are always already set. The tight choreographies of the mega-project limit our ability to think these places could be anything other than what they have become. Resonating with Walter Benjamin’s remarks on the nineteenth century Parisian arcades, the ambient power of the mega-project works to suppress our critical awareness and, along with the political power that facilitates such projects, manufactures a depoliticized environment. Douglas Spencer, author of The Architecture of Neoliberalism, writes “the neoliberal eye does not apprehend, calculate or gauge”. Rather, it “surfs the field of vision, revelling in the sensuous freedoms offered up to it”. Those sensuous freedoms are the freedom to disregard context, to ignore the social life of the city, to be ruthless.


Architects have an important role to play in re-politicizing the city. The architecture that will help this process need not be conservative, but it should acknowledge and respect its surroundings. Crucially its focus must be on the human-scale.


References (without hyperlink):
Benjamin W (2002) The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Spencer D (2016) The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance. London and New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.