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Olive belt boomtown: Valencia boasts Calatrava, Foster, Chipperfield, Bofill and a mayor with a mission.

A few years back, I met a impressive middle-aged lady in an office in Valencia. Her name was Rita Barbera, and she was the city’s mayor. Her office was full of the big drawings and models that ambitious civic leaders like to surround themselves with. You find offices like this everywhere from America’s Mid-West to the steppes of Kazakhstan, though Barbera’s, in a converted convent, was a lot bigger than most. She told me how she was going to position Valencia to rival Barcelona, and that she was going to do this through the power of architecture and design. I nodded politely. Everyone always says this.

But something told me that Mayor Rita had the determination to carry things through. It wasn’t just that she gave the appearance of being everyone’s favourite auntie. The clue came when I decided, late at night, to wander up the road to where a new Norman Foster-designed congress centre was being built. It was due to open the next morning. The builders were hard at work under floodlights. Gardeners were frantically chucking down soil and forking in plants. Again, normal enough. The difference was that the tireless Rita Barbera was there, too. This was no press conference, no photo-opportunity. It was after midnight. She was marshalling her troops, leading by example. Of course the building was finished in time. How could it not be? And now, gosh, Rita has been re-elected time after time – she’s been in power since 1991 – and Valencia is indeed a destination that can hold a candle to rival Barcelona, with some astonishing new buildings and public spaces to counterbalance its famous historic ones. What’s the trick?

When it comes to civic spirit in any great city, the politics of the mayor play second fiddle to personality. Observe how London’s Ken Livingstone – who enjoys far less power than a continental mayor such as Barbera – can enjoy enviable public support just so long as he strikes an independent attitude, is not seen as a party stooge, is moderately witty, and can plausibly claim that everything that goes wrong – the London Underground, say, or the 2012 Olympics – is someone else’s fault. This is why he must surely fear a lovable rogue of a Tory wild-card candidate in the next mayoral election, a Boris Johnson. Boris could promise a tax on pickled eggs in pubs in order to pay for plum-coloured three-cornered hats for street sweepers, and he’d get a lot of votes. Who cares what party Boris belongs to? After a while, however, you have to start doing real, big things in the centre, coupled with lots of real small things out in the suburbs to keep the voters happy. The most successful city mayors across Europe are the ones with a firm grasp of detail.

In Valencia, Mayor Rita (from the centre-right opposition Partido Popular) does both. The big stuff is what she’s famous for, of course. She says: “The city is a live theatre-stage for its inhabitants, a place for everyone.” She means it. It helps, of course, to be on the Mediterrranean. It helps to be the place that invented paella. It helps having a wonderful medieval centre that is a World Heritage Site and it may even help that the cathedral has a little ancient stone cup that some believe to be the Holy Grail. But plenty of cities have such attractions. Barbera did not start the cultural-buildings extravaganza that you see today: that began under the previous socialist administration with the city’s 1987 “Palace of Music” concert hall, designed by postmodernist Ricardo Bofill. But she immediately grasped the possibilities.

She personally signed up Foster for the Congress Centre, but that is small beer these days. The centre of the action is the astonishing, indeed somewhat overpowering, £2 bn “City of Arts and Sciences” by architect Santiago Calatrava. Marching like the bleached bones of dinosaurs down the linear park formed by the 1960s diversion of the flood-prone River Turia, you find a science museum, planetarium, opera house and shady arboretum. Calatrava in person is a small, understated individual of monkish demeanor. Like his hero, the madly creative and equally monkish late 19th century Catalan architect Gaudi, he sees buildings as organic forms, expressions of nature. The difference is that it’s a lot easier to build mad visions these days – which means that it’s also a lot easier to go way, way over the top.

Calatrava – an architect-engineer who likes to think of himself as an artist and sculptor, and you rather wish he didn’t – made his name with some remarkably beautiful bridges, railway station and airport buildings but has long since joined the flying circus of international icon-builders. You know you’ve arrived when you’re invited to design the tallest skyscraper in America, and Calatrava has duly provided the giant corkscrew of the 2,000-foot Chicago Spire, which is about to get built. He has another famous smaller tower, the “turning torso” in Malmo, Sweden, based on a spinal column. He’s doing another in Manhattan, plainly inspired by sculptor Brancusi’s “Endless Column”. Plus the transportation hub for the World Trade Center site – a sort of giant glass Venus Flytrap, which is potentially very good – and much else. There is a huge new hagiography of a monograph just published on him, which goes a bundle on his big, rather naïve paintings of charging bulls and the like.

In a sense none of this matters in Valencia. He’s a native of the city, and the fact that Rita Barbera gave him this string of cultural buildings not only recognised his undoubted ability, but helped him move a big step up in the type of buildings he is now routinely considered for. And the task in had was clear enough: to make enough of a fuss, architecturally, that a significant number of people would make Valencia their destination rather than any one of a number of rival olive-belt cities. To judge by the number of budget airlines now flying there, the strategy has worked.

To all this you must add the other deals that Barbera has struck on behalf of her beloved city. The 2007 America’s Cup yachting regatta, a hugely prestigious event, was held there, for instance after Berbera won the competitive bidding process. In theory the event should have been hosted by the country of the winners last time, but they were Swiss, which presented a lack-of-sea problem. Remarkably, the Swiss won it again this time and the chances are that Valencia will hold on to the event. Naturally, there had to be an important new building involved if Valencia was to host it. So the Regatta HQ, a rather fine inverted ziggurat, was designed by Britain’s David Chipperfield. It’s a candidate for this year’s Stirling Prize.

Barbera hasn’t finished there. She has struck a deal with the Svengali of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone, to run the European Grand Prix round the city’s harbour for seven years, starting in 2008. No less a luminary than Spain’s own Formula One champion, Fernando Alonso, has expressed bafflement as to why this will be a street race when the city already has a perfectly good motor-racing circuit just outside. He’s missing the point, which is that Barbera wants to create a public image to rival Monaco.The images of yachts and the racing cars will sell her city through TV coverage globally. So what’s the point of paying Bernie £17.5m every year to stage a race at a circuit which would give much better racing conditions, but looks like it could be anywhere?

Clued-up mayors the world over are wise to tricks like this. Why else was Livingstone so keen to get the Tour de France to start in London? We might not watch it much, any more than we watch the America’s Cup much, but the international audience for these events is huge. That’s why Ken was there with the flag to wave the cyclists off. We might sniff at such antics – and from an aesthetic standpoint, Valencia needs a screeching road race about as much as Venice – but we’re in the world of competitive super-cities here. Valencia is Spain’s No. 3 but it has never forgotten the 15th century, when it was the most important city of the Iberian peninsula.

Building somewhat overblown but hugely impressive cultural monuments is all part of the process of clawing back prestige. They’re not just competing with Barcelona and Monaco these days – they’re fighting for tourist and trade dollars with Dubai and Abu Dhabi. If you’re a fringe world city these days, you need someone like Barbera fighting your corner.

Text © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, July 15, 2007. Images courtesy of the architects.