Since the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía opened in 2005 as the final jewel in the cultural crown, the City of Arts and Sciences has become as emblematic of Valencia as Frank O. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum is emblematic of Bilbao. Valencianos’ chests swell a little bigger as they inform you that Valencia didn’t have to go overseas for a great architect. It already had native son Santiago Calatrava, the engineer-architect previously known for visionary bridge designs. His construction innovations played a large role in creating soaring vistas and seemingly weightless structures in the 36-hectare (89-acre) site south of the city on the dry riverbed created by channeling the Río Túria underground. Félix Candela, the Spanish architect who had spent most of his career in exile, contributed one of the structures, and his technical expertise with thin-shell concrete was critical to Calatrava’s designs for the other three major buildings. The complex makes a great family outing, and if you plan to visit more than one major structure, check for discounts on combined admissions.
The first building to open (1998) was Calatrava’s L’Hemisfèric, a structure that resembles a giant eye and eyelid and contains a massive IMAX theater, a planetarium, and a laser show.
El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe has a similarly playful construction. The interactive science museum resembles the skeleton of a whale. The exhibits tend to be “gee-whiz” amusements (superheroes, the science of sports, etc.) more than truly educational exhibits, and much of the ground level is now devoted to a basketball court. If your time is limited, this building is perhaps best admired from outside.
Candela’s chief design contribution, L’Oceanogràfic, is the largest oceanographic aquarium in Europe. He designed it in the shape of a water lily, and used an exaggerated parabola to maximize the ability of the concrete structure to support itself without buttresses. As a result, it is both graceful and otherworldly when viewed from a distance. Within the enveloping structure, the individual displays of marine habitats seem intimate and immediate. The areas are connected by underwater glass walkways.
Panoramic elevators and stairways connect the multiple levels at the airy Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, a 14-story glass-and-metal opera house and performing arts structure. The “palace” contains four massive rooms for performances and is surrounded by walkway plazas and a landscape that contains as much open water as solid ground.
The entire complex is a favorite of skateboarders, who find the angles, ramps, parallel walks, and other features terrifically challenging. It is also popular with fashion photographers, who find the abstraction and grand scale of the architecture a particularly dramatic setting. The “city” also serves as the site of the annual Festival Eclèctic, part of the Feria in July. It features four to five free outdoor concerts and several days of free performances by acrobats, martial artists, and street performers.