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Mushrooms and more palaces

May 24, 2010 – 12:07 pm

New buildings in cities, particularly those as historic as Seville, are always very controversial. Even in more modern metropolises, such as New York, the design of a contemporary edifice can provoke reactions as much emotional as cerebral – for example, Freedom Tower, Daniel Libeskind’s 541-metre building which is currently being erected in Ground Zero. This is, and will always remain, a sacred place for New Yorkers, scene of such dreadful carnage. I visited it a few years ago, and felt moved by the atmosphere of the place. The latest news is that they’re trying to erect a mosque near the site, part of a 13-storey Muslim community centre, which is provoking much consternation. The same fate befell the planned mosque in Seville – after three proposed sites, it is on hold again. In both cases, in each possible location, protesters say the same thing, “I’ve got nothing against them, don’t get me wrong, but why here?”

Anyway, I digress from my original point (what’s new?). Modern buildings in ancient cities. Bridges are fine – the Barqueta and the Alamillo in Seville are both much-beloved in this deeply traditional city, probably because their backdrop is sky, rather than beautiful historic buildings.

But some new projects have not caught the public’s imagination in quite the same way, or won its affection. The “mushrooms”, for example (officially called the Metropol Parasol), designed by German architect Jurgen Mayer, have garned such almost unequivocal animosity that in all the conversations I’ve had about them over the years, with friends, neighbours, hoteliers, taxi drivers and local shopkeepers (always up for a chat, always have an opinion, never afraid to express it), only one person has ever had anything positive to say.

And it’s not financial, even in these hard times (and even for a 50-million-euro project that has gone nearly double over its budget, and, of course, behind schedule. This is Spain, after all). Everyone agrees they are a) ugly and b) out of place in an ancient city. Now I am not one to be against a modern project per se, just because it’s not in a 17th-century baroque palace, which are ten-a-penny here in Seville. Clever contemporary design can sit successfully alongside original buildings, such as the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, and I’m a fan of both Santa Justa (OK, in a more modern area) and the bus station, Plaza de Armas, both simple buildings with clean lines. Even a hotel called the Posada del Lucero, near Plaza Cristo de Burgos, has a contemporary facade which perfectly blends in with, and complements, its neighbours.

But these are just plain ugly. The six 30-metre high, er, stuctures, are supposed to house a restaurant, a “Skywalk” (“May The Force” etc etc) with amazing views over the city, an air-conditioned market and performance space, as well as an underground “antiquarium”, where visitors can view Roman and Almohad remains (discovered when a car park was being built, as was originally planned). The latest media coverage, back in February, claimed that, due to a planning error in Mayer’s original scheme, the mushrooms could not be built, as the columns are not strong enough to support the 2,000-tonne wooden beams which will make up the grid-like rooves – it will/would be the largest timber-framed structure in the world. Whoops!

This, er, alleged mistake, was mentioned in a report by Ove Arup, the project’s engineers (bit late, no?) – apparently the architect didn’t do enough tests, and the Ayuntamiento knew about the, er, problem, from May 2007, so say the Seville newspapers. The ever-optimistic Ayuntamiento claim that they have found a way to complete the project (read: to save their skins). “We have a suitable technical solution, and have had since a year ago,” they squeaked. This new modification will be debated in the Andalucian Parliament on 31 May, and a new completion date has been issued, of the end of this year. Hmmm. Call me cynical, but I find that hard to believe.

So, financially and practically, it’s not looking good. Now the Metropol Parasol project is in the news again, as more money (a piffling 150,000 euros – a drop in the ocean, comparatively speaking) has been approved for a visitor centre, and the archaeological museum. The press here doesn’t need much of an excuse to lay into the poor old fungi, as they’re such an easy (and popular) target.

On a more positive note, a palace (not just another old casa-palacio, two more of which have opened as hotels in the last couple of months; we’re talking a real, whole-block palace here) in the centre of Seville is being converted into a hotel for a mere five million euros. The Palacio del Conde Torrejon will take two years and will have 72 rooms, with heaps of original features such as doors, floors and ceilings. That’s jobs for builders, engineers, hotel staff… just as long as they don’t try and put a 2,000 ton swimming pool on the roof of the building, part of which has lasted since the 15th century, then they should be fine. Keep an eye on the architect – wonderfully creative people, whose ideas are often innovative and inspiring, but can be a tad short on practicality (remember the wobbly bridge?).

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