Sunday, September 29, 2013

Valencia and Flint, Michigan Attempt to Iron Out the Design Wrinkles

Repairs have begun on Santiago Calatrava's opera house in Valencia, Spain to smooth out the wrinkles on its white exterior. (Photo by Samuel Aranda for The New York Times.)

 If it makes you feel any better, we are not alone.

Valencia, Spain's third-largest city, has been hard hit by the recent worldwide economic downturn. Like Flint, it has an unemployment rate pushing 30 percent. And like the controversial "floating house" in the Vehicle City, it has a high-profile design project in the heart of the city that is unexpectedly wrinkly.

Granted, Valencia's troubles are on a much grander scale. The City of Arts and Sciences is a new multi-building cultural complex in Valencia that includes "a performance hall, an opera house, a science museum, a covered walkway and acres of reflecting pools," according to a recent article in The New York Times. It is the work of architect Santiago Calatrava, who is known for his stunning vision and, lately, his cost-overruns and design flaws. The City of Arts and Sciences was originally priced at $405 million. The pricetag is now inching toward $1 billion.

Modest by comparison, Flint's controversial "floating house" resides in a downtown parking lot and is the winning design in the international Flat Lot Competition sponsored by the Flint Public Art Project. The house — designed by a London- and Madrid-based firm called Two Islands — has been criticized by some residents for its $40,000 pricetag and its wrinkled Mylar exterior. Calatrava's work has drawn similar criticism. Suzanne Daley of The New York Times reports: 
Here in Valencia, the regional government’s spending spree and Mr. Calatrava’s work are being dissected and disparaged regularly as local politicians fight over who is responsible for the project’s pile of debt. Regional officials had hoped that the complex would transform this city into a tourist destination, in much the way that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao put that city on the map, and they continue to defend the investment. But they appeared to draw a line last year when the smooth skin of Mr. Calatrava’s opera house — some call it the Darth Vader helmet — began noticeably wrinkling just six years after the building opened.
At least critics of the floating house can take solace in knowing that it has sparked a vigorous debate over the impact of public art in civic life and fostered intense discussions about the esoteric nature of beauty in a city normally consumed with tackling blight and abandonment. It was privately funded. And unlike Flint's seemingly intractable economic problems, the floating house is a temporary structure. It will soon disappear, wrinkles and all.

Flint's wrinkled public art project has drawn complaints from some locals.


  1. The argument that the Floating House did it's job as a work of art because it sparked conversation is lame. It is just plain bad. Admit it. Besides, 99 out of 100 people saying "this thing sucks" while a few downtown stakeholder apologists try to defend it isn't a conversation.

    Maybe a lesson was learned. Flint is weary of people over promising on miracle projects. The neighborhood parades and community gardens are pretty great. Restoration of Spring Grove is wonderful. Art walks and festivals are vital. The key is to promote more doable small scale projects that many of us can actually participate in- projects that extend beyond the interests of downtown. The city can't afford to be goofed on yet again due to another major flop.

    I'll take Calatrava's wrinkles over the Reynolds Wrap House any day of the week.

    One more thing, that photo showing a smooth sparkling Floating House was photoshopped. C'mon, the ONLY photo showing the Floating House in it's ideal state was one snapped by a professional photographer? Everyone has a camera nowadays. Where are all of the other pictures of a pristine Floating House?

  2. Frank Lloyd Wright's houses had all sorts of design flaws. They leaked. They were most comfortable if you were very short, like the architect. But there are going to be flaws when you push the design envelope. Progress — creative and otherwise – requires some failures. I think that concept really applies to Calatrava. Maybe he doesn't have the master builder that FLW often had who could go behind his back and fix the things that would really cause problems without the genius knowing it. As for the floating house...really seems like they just didn't have the money to do it right, which is also a design flaw on the part of the designer. And the concept seems a little off. Flint had already fallen off the cliff decades before the foreclosure crisis. The concept should have been based on GM job loss and deindustrialization, not a real estate bubble.

    1. "there are going to be flaws when you push the design envelope"
      "Progress — creative and otherwise – requires some failures"

      I call BS on this. This is an all too common attitude with todays architects and designers and is extremely arrogant. What makes producing good architecture an artform is in fact all the constraints that have to be satisfied while still producing a space/place that is beautiful/awe-inspiring/etc. Ignoring the constraints eliminates most of skillset needed in producing good architecture from the process and replaces it with photoshop-savvyness and sweet-talk.

      I've pretty much had it up to here with my field of profession due to this attitude. Many architects simply ignore laws of physics, the reality of economics and their own lack of understanding of how a proper building works on the most basic levels such as water tightness, thermal bridges, etc. They then manage to sell their vision to a client, that may or may not realize that the vision all too often is a pipedream compared to what they will end up with in the end. The saddest part of all this is that this leaves a lot of important design decisions, that will heavily influence the overall outcome of the building, in the hands of other professions that may or may not be competent or even care about aesthetics, future occupants, impact on local community, etc.

      / M.Arch & M.Struct. Eng.

    2. Stationed as you are on the front line, what specifically have "you" done to further the cause?


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at