Concrete may not be the most glamorous of materials, and is not usually thought of as a big draw for tourists, but it might just do for Valencia what titanium has done for Bilbao, with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum. I have always been really surprised that the City of Arts & Sciences has not had more of an impact outside Spain but that may change now it has featured as a futuristic location in Doctor Who on BBC One – I don’t think we’ll be seeing any emoji robots toddling around there in real life though.
The complex has previously been used in the film Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, featuring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie and Britt Robertson – as well as tons of car adverts.
The City of Arts & Sciences is a startling string of structures that has transformed a neglected part of Valencia between the centre and the sea. The elegant scheme was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who was born in the city and has clearly thrown his heart and soul into this astoundingly ambitious project, which is a 21st-century version of the great medieval cathedrals. It goes without saying that it has also attracted a lot of controversy, what with the eyewatering, vastly-over-budget expense and ongoing construction problems, but that is another story.
Architecture that looks spectacular in photographs can be a bit of a disappointment in reality, but every time I go to Valencia – and I have been observing the development of the City of Arts and Sciences since the late 1990s – I just stand there, gawping slack-jawed at the structures sparkling in the sunshine, looking more like sculptures than buildings.
The first section to be built was the planetarium, called the Hemisfèric, which opened in 1998. The structure is like a human eye, with the auditorium in the eyeball. Visible as a semicircle by day, at night it is reflected in the surrounding white mosaic pool to form a perfect sphere.
Next was the Science Museum in 2000, a lopsided pavilion that seems to be just light and air, held up by a zigzagging mesh of tautly-strung white ribbons. It looks like the skeleton of a dainty prehistoric monster. It is clear that Calatrava was inspired by Gaudí, as chevrons, parabolic arches and fragmented tiles feature throughout the complex, which also includes an opera house and the Oceanogràfic aquarium, the latter designed by Félix Candela.
The opera house, the Palau de les Arts, is contained within a diamond-shaped frame, with a curving spine arching over the top of the structure like a gigantic fish bone. It is hard to believe that concrete can look so soft and light, but that is the genius of Calatrava. The Klein-blue semicircular structure is the Ágora, which is used for sports and other events, and alongside it is one of the architect’s signature bridges.
See The City of Arts & Sciences for details of what you can see and do there. If you fancy going to Valencia, have a look at Visit Valencia, where there is tons of useful information, and my Valencia destination guide in the Telegraph.