Destinations Magazine

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

By Nothemingwaysspain @nothmngwysspain
Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia One of the perks of writing a blog are the unexpected social connections one makes, such as when readers reach out to me with questions about Valencia or Spain and in the process teach me something about it I hadn't known or thought about before. This past April I was contacted by a British architecture professor who was bringing a group of university students to Valencia to look at its architecture and to explore the city as a lived space. I was intrigued by the visit, and in particular by her statement that "we have described Valencia as the city of contrasts" (how true!), so I offered her my services as a local guide, or as she put it, "someone who could give the students an idea of how Valencia was experienced and understood by locals".
Now I am by no means an expert on, nor even an amateur student of architecture, but I keep an eye open for interesting buildings and know how to read up and synthesize historical information about a place. So I used their visit as an excuse to read up a bit on Valencia's architecture, and to blend that with what I've learned about the city over the years listening to locals. To start, I found this absolutely incredible online resource, "Guía de arquitectura de Valencia", which lists in chronological order many (if not most) of Valencia's principal architectural landmarks, each with a "ficha" summarizing the landmark's history. (Okay, in truth I was tipped off about the guide from some Valencia Twitter friends who I knew were experts on architecture.) The visiting students already had a planned tour with someone else to cover the City of Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. the "CAC"), so I prepared a tour for the city center, starting at where they were stay, the Purple Nest Hostel.
Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia
The map above shows you the walking route we took. My basic plan was to first take them down Career de la Pau, which as I will explain in a moment was an important Modernist artery, and is marked at both ends by two buildings I like, Monforte (1895) and Bolinches (1903). Then I took them through Plaza de la Reina to the Plaza Redonda (1837), to say a little something about urban planning. (Again more on this below.) Next we visited the Mercat Central (1910... opened 1928) (the professor had seen from my blog that I was a regular there, and wanted me to talk about local food), and on my insistence we went into La Lonja (s. XV), to talk about medieval trade, secular architecture, and Mudéjar influences.
At this point, I asked if they wanted to take an extended tour into El Carmen and look at street art, my personal passion. Yeah, I took them in the Iglesia de San Nicolás (s. XV), to see its breath-taking frescoed interior, and I pointed them to the Palau de la Generalitat (s. XV). But mostly I wanted them to really think about this idea of a "city of contrasts" and the ways that street art, for example, reappropriates crumbling, poorly maintained buildings and public spaces, transforming them into canvas and provocation. (There was, I thought, I bigger lesson here to make than the just buildings, about the ways that buildings and cities are living, breathing places, so to speak, constantly decaying, being reborn, and registering their use and "misuse" by a public.) Finally, I walked them back towards the Plaza de la Virgen, ending where it all began at L'Almoina (s. I BC), which my architecture friends insisted to me was "a must see" for visitors because it marked the city's ancient roots and was quite a significant archeological find.
One doesn't need a lot of history to see the ways that the past shapes the present. But a little bit of history goes a long way. Drawing inspiration from the Annales School of history, I wanted the visitors to consider the "longue durée" of the city, to understand how several broad themes or currents have shaped and reshaped Valencia over two millennia… 

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

I let them keep my notes on broad trends in Valencian architecture and
city planning, so I took this photo of them for my personal reference.


So I came up with five theses that help explain Valencia's architecture, urban planning, and overall layout and vibe. I list them here in loosely chronological order:
I. A port city defined by trade In the beginning, Valencia was a settlement on the Mediterranean sea, effectively a port city... an island city, in fact, since the Río Turia surrounded the settlement on its way out to sea. What this meant and what it means still today is that Valencia is first and foremost a city defined by trade. In the Medieval period this trade was with the East, principally for silk and china. In the 19th century, Valencia's strength in agriculture and location on the coast meant it would become an important exporter of agricultural "exotics" to elsewhere in Europe and abroad (yes, think oranges!). And today Valencia's port is the second busiest in Spain in terms of actual cargo moved in and out, and the busiest Spanish port in terms of trade on the Mediterranean. (Barcelona's port is economically much less important by comparison.) Yes, Valencia's port also accommodates a growing cruise ship tourism, but I think visitors often fail to connect the dots with how central and significant Valencia's more serious sea trade is today. While the city's port is not as sexy as its beaches, it does define the city's economic importance globally.

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

For most Valencians, and most visitors, the cargo port is simply that
eye-soar that one sees off on the horizon while sunbathing at the city beach.


II. 1491, or my personal thesis about Valencia's relationship to Spain I vaguely recall learning as an undergraduate in history of science that in Medieval Europe there were two port cities that were the center of intellectual vibrancy, because they were the two places where important ancient scientific ideas were being reintroduced into Europe from the Arab empires. One of them was in Italy, I can't remember where (maybe Pisa?). The other was Valencia. Yep, for about a century, the 15th Century (a.k.a. the "Siglo de Oro Valenciano") to be precise, Valencia was a center of sorts of cultural power in Europe, and arguably the most economically powerful city in Spain.
Okay, maybe I'm overstating myself, but I have a personal theory about Valencia that I call "1491", which is the year just before Spain discovered the "New World" and started to look West to build its empire. Why? Because before 'Columbus sailed the ocean blue', a geopolitical revolution that would catapult first Sevilla and then Cádiz into the economic limelight, Valencia was Spain's main port to the East. And it was the East that held all those treasures Europeans wanted. This is how Valencia's most infamous family, the Borgia, gave the world not one, but two Popes (1455-58 and 1492-1503), exercising enormous and economic influence.  (Indeed, it was Valencian bankers who lent funds to the Queen for Columbus's 1492 journey!) This is why so many of Valencia's impressive buildings were built in the "s. XV": the aforementioned Lonja, Palau de la Generalitat, and Iglesia de San Nicolás, as well as the wheat depository Almudín (s. XV) and the Borgia's city estate, today the Palau de les Corts Valencianes (s. XV), to name a few. (And if you take my Tower Tour of Valencia, then you will note that the Puerta de Serranos was built in s. XIV, the Puerta de Quart in s. XV, and the Miguelete initiated in s. XIV and finished in XV.)

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

The formidable Palau de la Generalitat, built during Valencia's Golden Age.


If anything, the Lonja is testimony to how it takes years, sometimes centuries to see the dramatic changes in power structures taking place. The city initiated construction of the Silk Exchange as early as 1469, in recognition that the silk trade in Valencia had grown beyond the humble means of its existing ad-hoc marketplace, though the first stone wouldn't be placed until 1482. By the time the building was (mostly) completed in 1498, Spain's royalty was greedily looking West, not East, for treasures; however, Valencian silk traders would continue to enjoy substantial economic success for another century, even as the locus of economic power was gradually shifting westward away from Valencia to Andalucía. (Perhaps this shift is what would give birth to the "Hemingway paradigm" obsession with that region, instead of with Spain's "Levante".) The Lonja is also of interest to connoisseurs of architecture because it is a distinctively secular building from this heavily religious period, and you can find clues that its financiers had their issues with the church. (Bare in mind that silk traders made money off exchange rates, a kind of earthly profit that at times had been frowned on by the Church.) Its "portal de los pecados" door, for example, is marked with figurines in highly suggestive states of sin, pushing the boundaries of propriety in a way that could be interpreted as a snub of clerical prudishness. A final interesting point about La Lonja: a Valencian architect who joined our tour noted that Calatrava claims this building as an importance influence on his work.
To restate the hypothesis: economically and culturally Valencia peaked at 1491, and has only begun to again reclaim its former Mediterranean glory in the past couple of decades.

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

One of Valencia's most extravagant buildings is this Art Deco one, in Russafa next to the Plaza de Toros
which is unfortunately overshadowed in tour books by Calatrava's more mammoth contributions.


Digression: I'm skipping over some important late Baroque architecture in the Valencia, specifically the Palacio de los Marqueses de Dos Aguas (1740) or the interior of the Iglesia de San Martín (s. XIV).
III. Urbanization and modernization, 1850–1950 If you want to talk about one major trend in the last two centuries, at least from an architectural point of view, it would be the rise of cities. Urbanization has changed us in so many ways that it's hard to catalog them. With the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century, Valencia like so many other cities, was transformed by urbanization and modernization (the latter of which furthermore left a distinctive Modernist mark on the city's architecture):
     1) Urbanization

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

Plaza de la Reina as seen from the Cathedral's Miguelete Tower.
Imagine. For over four centuries this would have
overlooked housing!

Urbanization has had a lot of interesting consequences for Valencia's layout and landmarks. As you can read on historical placards nearby, the aforementioned Plaza Redonda, built in 1837, replaced the former "matadero" or slaughterhouse square. In this respect its foundation signaled the growing public sanitation interest in urban spaces with moving the messy, stinky, unhygienic slaughtering of animals away from city meat markets and out onto city peripheries. Another plaza that was opened up in this period was the Plaza de la Reina (1878), created by the destruction of a couple of blocks of houses that had been there since the medieval period. One curious consequence or trace of this recent history of the Plaza can be found on the Cathedral door. If you look at the statues on the main door facing the square you will notice they all look downward rather than outward. This is because when the door was constructed in 1713-1728 there was no Plaza de la Reina and no viewpoint of the entrance from further than 5 meters away.
Expansion and acquisition is the other big trend in urbanization. So it boggles the mind to think that the Plaza de Toros (1857) was built on what was then the edge of town. Russafa, today a vibrant central neighborhood of Valencia, was an independent town up until 1877. It is for this reason that the streets here resist the rectilinear rational pull of the L'Eixample area that sprung up around it, and you can still find windy, confusing roads that loosely follow the older settlement. Benimaclet, a district to the north, was a town that joined the Valencian city in 1882, though its integration into the city didn't really pick up until the 1950s. With the city creeping northward, one wonders how long it will be before the pueblo Alboraia is consumed subsumed.

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

The Correos building on the Plaza de Ayuntamiento an exemplar of Modernist style.


     2) Modernist architecture

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

Snapped this Instagram of Carrer de la Pau back in February.

Modernization (an socioeconomic and technological process) and modernism (a cultural, aesthetic and artistic movement) usually get treated separately... but shouldn't. (For a brilliant, very readable book that argues for blending socioeconomic and cultural history, I point you to Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts Into Air (1982).) Much of the modern cityscaping of Valencia from the mid-19th century to early 20th century reflected that Bourgeois prerogative of seeking public spaces for conspicuous consumption... boulevards, arcades, covered passages, etc. In other words, bulldoze those disorganized medieval, crowded, windy street neighborhoods to put in more linear, open streets for storefront zones and terraced cafés. (Think Haussmann's renovation of Paris or Le Corbusier rational simplicity.)
Carrer de la Pau (1868) was created along these lines to create a clean linear view of the Torre de Santa Catalina, and is home to many fine examples of modernist architecture (a couple of my favorites mentioned above). There is also the Pasaje Ripalda (1889), emulating the popular passages couverts de Paris. The L'Example district of Valencia, annexed in 1877, and the Gran Vía  Marqués de Turia (1907) strongly resembles Paris and also have dozens of magnificent Modernist (many of them Art Nouveau) buildings, too. I like the Chapa (1909) wavy-top building at Cánovas. (I told the visiting architect students that they should spend at least half a day wandering through the L'Eixample district admiring the buildings and their impressive façades... and maybe a night or two, also, to admire the hopping nightlife there.)

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

While strolling around the city center, be sure to look up
so as to see the impressive decorative façades of buildings
like that of the Banco de Valencia seen here.

Many other quirky and cool buildings that populate the city center were built in this period, evidence of the city's growing prominence, before the Civil War doused those dreams. Two marketplaces, my beloved Mercat Central and the Mercado de Colón (1914), were designed and constructed in the early 20th century. The Estación del Norte (1906) has a similar kitschy modernist vibe. An Apple Store recently took over inhabited the elegant Ylario (1889) building in the Colón shopping zone. The bordering-on-gaudy Banco de Valencia (1934), and the Correos (1915) building on Plaza del Ayuntamiento has the hallmark use of steel (think Eiffel Tower). You'll also find many exemplars of Art Deco, such as the Rialto (1935) the old cinema theater on Plaza de Ayuntamiento.
IV. A river runs through it – the Río Turia I have written elsewhere that, in my opinion, the most beautiful, wonderful feature of Valencia is its Río Turia riverbed park. The river ran through the city, and for this reason alone is important for understanding the shape of the city and its layout. This is why it there is a fountain celebrating the River like a god on the Plaza de la Virgen. For millennia, this river would have been central to the city of Valencia for its role in watering the region's acclaimed "huerta". The Alameda riverbed area was a popular site in the 19th century for festivities. In short, it's a big deal. But I also mention it because of the interesting story about how the city river became the city's green belt and signature parkland.

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

Keep an eye open around town for these waterline markers,
evidence of the destructive potential of the 1957 flood.

That transformation happened in three stages. Stage 1 was the great flood or 'Gran Riada de 1957'. You can find many accounts of the flood elsewhere. I recommend a blog entry written by Graham, Valencia real estate agent and fellow expat blogger, aptly titled, "Why Does Valencia Have the Biggest Garden in Spain?" This is one of those floods that became legend. You can ask older people about it, and get great personal recollections. And you can find markers all throughout town which show the waterline at frighteningly high levels above the sidewalk. Stage 2 of the transformation we'll call "how the authorities almost f**ked it up, until the people rose up to put some sense in them". Following the flood, all agreed that the river had to be moved south of the city. (It even had a catchy military-like name: "El Plan Sur"!) And between 1958 and 1973, the city worked and eventually succeeded in rerouting the water. What was left to decide was what to do with the new space. City officials decided the riverbed would be ideal for highway. Yeah, they'd just cement it all up and make way for more polluting cars and urban disgustingness. Brilliant. Fortunately, protesters and concerned citizens of the period prevailed. Holding "manifestaciones", Valencian protesters demanded that this space be put to public use, and by the end of the 1970s officials came around to the idea that it could become parkland rather than pavement. 

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

Above the head! This tourist took a picture of the waterline marker...
next to the must see Casa de los Gatos in El Carmen.


Bringing us to Stage 3, the building of the Jardín del Túria (1985–2010), a massive and in my opinion masterful urban landscaping, much of the initial design by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill. It more or less ended with the addition of the Parque de Cabecera (2001), though the riverbed park is still experiencing renovation and reinvention with smaller projects around the Pont de Fusta and CAC. With the placement of the Bioparc at one end and Calatrava's folly, the City of Arts and Sciences, at the other, the Río Turia park is, for me, what makes Valencia Valencia as much as its Mediterranean beaches.

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

Long before Calatrava worked his havoc magic upon the Rio Turia park
there was the Palau de la Música (1984), a favorite feature of my runs in the river.


V. The important role of controversy and civil disobedience in urban planning Now, Camps and Rajoy the powers that be would like us all to think that cities like Valencia were designed with simple, visionary planning and harmoniously executed without public dissension, but nothing could be further from the truth. As I mentioned above with the example of the Río Turia —rescued by a protesting public from the shortsightedness of city planners— the only way to understand some of Valencia's most prominent landmarks is to recognize their contestedness and the controversy surrounding them. This could be a more general truth: when urban historians say that cities grow organically, what they mean is that popular protests and contestations consultation also form an important element to how a city is built and evolves. With the sad exception of Brasilia, cities usually do not emerge from the head of Zeus fully formed.

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

Valencia rewards the attentive tourist.
You can spot this interesting façade detail at the
Cortina II, a.ka. Casa de los Dragones (1901),
located in the heart of the Colón shopping district.

In the case of Valencia this presents the opportunity for a different kind of architectural tourism, what some have playfully called, "La ruta del despilfarro", or the tour of wasteful overspending. The first thing I asked my visitors was whether they had heard locals complain about Calatrava's folly, the City of Arts and Sciences (1991-2009). It's difficult to convey the intense ambivalence that locals feel about it... that it is visually magnificent, beautiful, elegant... but also that it is a mammoth waste of money that suddenly the city doesn't have for more important things like teachers, doctors, and scientists. And there is the tragic irony that locals, and probably most visitors, can only really afford to enjoy the buildings from the outside. Entrance tickets into the CAC museums are expensive, given that their contents are often not as world class as the flashy exterior. But the controversies don't stop there. The Valencian government has been in a legal battle with its native son, Santiago Calatrava Valls (1951–), over whether he overcharged them for the CAC. It doesn't help that, much as is the case with many of Calatrava's other works and works by other contemporary celebrity architects, the buildings have serious design flaws: leaks, overheating caused by excessive use of glass windows, and more. On the one hand, the CAC reflects an inspired moment – Valencia aspiring to be a world symbol through architectural greatness. On the other hand, it reflects a kind of excess and hubris, a wound in Valencians' side that smarts as they suffer a protracted and ugly economic crisis.
The real complaint behind "La ruta del despilfarro" goes beyond the CAC, and is about the democratic nature of urban planning and architecture more generally. Critics are rightly upset about whether the government adequately consults with its public about such plans, and whether such projects reflect a style of governance that is flashy and showy rather than investing in solid longterm resources. And here we have two further landmarks to consider. The first is the Veles e Vents (2005) building at the port, a quite beautiful symbol of the Valencian government's repeated strategy of courting big global entertainment events as a way to raise the city's worldwide prestige. The building was commissioned to mark Valencia's host role for the 32nd America's Cup in 2007. The city used the America's Cup to execute several admirable, yet expensive projects: linking the port to the airport with a metro line, renovating one part of the port with fancy boathouses and new shops and bars. While few locals complain about these building projects, the America's Cup is listed along with the MTV Winter Festival, the Pope's visit in 2006, and Formula One European Grand Prix as another example of flashy, unsustainable events that the city supported with public money which have now moved on and left the city in financial ruin.

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

The Torre de Ripalda, a.k.a. La Pagoda (1967) is a more recent,
striking architectural landmark in Valencia, near my beloved Viveros park.


A second controversial project involves the Paseo Blasco Ibáñez (1888). This elegant avenue was built during the heyday of modernism, and even then was initially conceived of as the "Paseo al mar", intended to be a city avenue that led to the sea. The problem with this 'manifest destiny' was that its passage led right through the humble but proud fishermen's village of Cabanyal. Locals resisted urban planners' dreams and Cabanyal remained. Yet in recent years the Valencian government has revived these dreams, drawing on the Bourgeois fancy urban planning example of Barcelona's La Rambla as a model for the real estate bubble opportunity in having a city avenue that meets the sea. The result is an open legal war between city officials wanting to bulldoze parts of Cabanyal, and citizens of Cabanyal fighting for recognition that their quaint, modest, but in some cases quite tiled beautiful fishermen houses represent an architectural heritage worth protecting. (I'm inclined to agree with Cabanyal; why not use Barcelona's Barceloneta as an urban revival model? or L.A.'s Venice Beach?)
So I encouraged the visiting British architect students, and I encourage you to think these three examples, but also the five general trends more broadly when making your study of Valencia as a city of contrasts... a city that was and continues to be built on political and economic hubris and humility, excess and simplicity, and the old and the new.

Cityscape: An Architectural Tour of Valencia

This was the list I made of my favorite buildings in Valencia for the tour,
but it was not comprehensive. So go explore! There's a lot to see!


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