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As I set on writing about the City of Culture of Galicia, I was baffled by the amount of papers, articles and comments on the subject and their diversity. I should have seen this coming, as the project's scale, budget and implications have stretched far beyond the initial expectations and urged a furious debate among architects, journalists, politicians and locals.
Commissioned in 1999, after an invited competition featuring a constellation of starchitects (Libeskind, Koolhaas, Nouvel, Perrault, Steven Holl and Ricardo Bofill, to name a few), the winning project of Peter Eisenman originally featured eight buildings (later reduced to six) composed in a complex, three-dimensional undulating terrain merging harmoniously with the environment.
Eisenman himself admits that "there is no question that the Santiago project is a response to Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao...The people short-listed in the competition [...] are an indication that they wanted something out of the ordinary."
Indeed, Gehry's flowing titanium ribbon symphony turned out so economically successful, that it not only provided the once small unremarkable town with an eye-catching postcard image, but even gave its name to the infamous "Bilbao Effect", the idea that one building can transform the fortunes of an entire region. Although Gehry officially deemed it as "bullshit", ever since ambitious cities from all over the world are trying to bag a flashy new building by a starchitect hoping for a similar upturn.
However, the case with the City of Culture proved quite different. Eight years late and - up to now - more than four times the original budget, it was a subject of furious polemics from its very conception. Eisenman's magnum opus (150 000 sq. meters, $581 million estimated cost to complete) was conceived in the right time and the right place: amidst the economical and building boom of the late nineties, in a country that has always laid its faith (and money) in prime-quality architectural works. Ironically though, the complex had to open in a time of global economic deficiency and expectedly, suffered harsh critiques regarding its excessive consumption of time, money and labor which few believe will pay off.
Apart from the economical impact, the "Bilbao Effect" has another, less visible but just as strong implication: it creates images the city identifies with, and as much as "identity" is among those trendy, largely misused words, in the case of architecture, it relates to the connection residents and visitors feel to a place. While a project of such a scale and ambition has the potential to add another layer to Santiago de Compostela's rich and diverse identity, it is crucial that its intention is communicated properly and embraced by the people, who are going to live with it.
While you can find a detailed description of the architectural idea and its implementation in the previously featured post on City of Culture, it's probably worthwhile taking a look at the responses and comments of people. In spite of the media attention given to the project, I couldn't find anything dealing exclusively with the perceptions of locals and visitors. And while forums and article comments present only a tiny and selective fraction of the ones affected, virtual discussions present a relatively democratic alternative for people to voice their opinions: a point of view that seems to have been underestimated.
The cost of the work is worrying me, we all know that our community has large gaps in basic services and are able to spend a huge amount of money in a Pharaonic project... Anyway, the big mortgage to stay in Galicia is the cost of building maintenance, we pay our taxes every month.
Username: Username: boss72, skyscrapercity
Also apart from a generic "city of culture" there was no specific use for the building and was after they started to build it when they tried to find some use for it, just to see that they had to redo half of the project.
... the City of Culture is a window that must be exploited to create, display and attract both tourism and culture in all areas.
Username: Campus, skyscrapercity
If it comes to culture, one would distribute throughout Galicia, I doubt that the citizens of any town in Galicia that does not belong to the catchment area of Santiago [would] benefit from the City of Culture.
Username: boss72, skyscrapercity
Do we need neo-pharaonic caves? Maybe, in 50 years, we will look at it as great architecture pole and as a good attraction for tourists, but Santiago already has a remarkable Cathedral and it's a peregrination point. I fear in 2061 we will consider it a big hole that ate many chances of progress for this country.
Username: Simon, theartnewspaper
The place and buildings are awesome, but here the people are very upset. Only the tourist go there, the local residents (like me) are f*cking bored of watching the unfinished building...
Username: Esbrigol, theartnewspaper
The translation of [the] project to reality does not do justice to the model presented ...(which was the basis for awarding course, [and it] was much better on wood).
The fluidity and plasticity of it is lost and the overabundance of stone everywhere does not help, as it makes the buildings look heavy. The scale also appears much greater than what the models promised.
Username: telco89, skyscrapercity
When it comes to public buildings, it depends largely on how welcoming and inspirational they are and whether they are able to attract not only one-time visitors but ordinary citizens who enjoy using them, even simply hanging out regularly in their environ[ment]s.
Username: mitchellkiwi, The Guardian
What, if anything, does this project have to say about our culture today and the issues that will define our world? So Eisenman twisted and deformed some grids, admittedly on a grand scale. He was going to do that anyway, regardless of program, site or context. But why? And so what! Has architecture been reduced to shapemaking without meaning?
Anonymous, Architectural Record
"Architectural extravagances" are one of the things that makes Spain the wonderful place it is...
Give it a chance.
Username: NormaStitz, The Guardian