The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences) in Valencia, Spain, is absolutely not lacking in wow factor. When visiting Valencia, you can glimpse its towers and domes in the distance when standing on ancient city gates and see the complex’s daunting size when you open your tourist map; the historic core is about the same size the City of Arts and Sciences.
Having very little to do with the remainder of the city, the arts and sciences complex is a huge new economic motor for the city. This practice is not uncommon, especially when the city is simultaneously preparing for an international sporting event—Valencia also hosted the America’s Cup—and allows the city to redefine itself to the world. One part of the complex is called the Oceanográfic, an aquarium done Sea World style with sharks, penguins, and dolphin shows. As I walked through the theme park, I was surprised to see reminders for sustainable behavior on nearly every sign.
In the middle of the shark tunnel, in between descriptions of shark teeth and shark reproduction, was a sign explaining the power of the ocean’s tides and its potential as an energy generator. The simplified description (provided in Spanish, Valencian, English, and “kid version”) for children translated to “Scientists take advantage of the ocean’s energy to make things run without polluting.” Tidal power advertisements for the kids? What was going on? As I walked up the stairs, I passed by reminders to turn off the lights when leaving the room—advice I presume I was meant to take home with me, since I couldn’t exactly turn off the exhibit.
The sustainable behavior reminders continued, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much energy was used to keep Oceanográfic running every day, let alone the City of Arts and Sciences as a whole. At the dolphin show, they announced to the stunned audience that the dolphin pool held 26 million cubic meters of carefully regulated and filtered water. The complex’s expanses of pools, fancy lighting, specific temperature ranges and waste generation certainly could not be considered sustainable.
So I decided to do some research. Once I got back to my Madrid homestay, I checked out the City of Arts and Science’s website, hoping to find some dedication to sustainability in their mission statement. Nada. I easily found what they seem to be very proud of: the resources used in Oceanográfic, including 150,000 cubic meters of concrete and 15,000 tons of steel, in addition to 6,761 square meters of methacrylate (huh?) panels up to 33 centimeters thick. A site as architecturally interesting and as likely to receive worldwide attention as the City of Arts and Sciences couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to add “sustainable” to its list of characteristics. I had to be missing something.
But then I found a hidden, outdated page (2007!) discussing Environment Week that had information on its commitment to sustainability. I had finally found what I was looking for. The refrigeration of Oceanográfic’s installations is done with ocean water obtained from the nearby port to avoid the use of fresh water. They even have a cogeneration plant with three 1 megawatt natural gas motors that takes care of the energy needs for the entire complex. At the time, they were installing a system to manage energy demand and increase efficiency. Finally, they have a sophisticated waste system that prevents contamination between different types of toxic and nontoxic waste. This event, Environment Week, organized conferences and speakers on sustainability and encouraged the educational capacity of the museums and exhibitions in the complex. But why hadn’t I been able to find any of this information easily? And why hadn’t it been advertised at the aquarium itself? It seems to be in an ideal position to publicize the benefits of sustainable technology and show that focusing on environmental concerns does not in any way compromise the creativity of architecture.
Because of the way that the exhibits are set up, the City of Arts and Sciences misses a great opportunity to not only educate, but to demonstrate. The simple addition of a description of how they manage their energy use next to the placard about turning off lights would be a great addition. Or they could actually show where the cogeneration plant is within the complex. While education is a perfectly noble goal in and of itself, I am surprised, retrospectively, that they didn’t make the connection between their own work and their recommendations; they should be proud of their achievements! The exhibits could integrate this information, giving the kids staring wide-eyed at the manta rays the ability to learn about the filtration system that allows them to conserve water. Oceanográfic should get to brag a little, showing its visitors that all this talk about sustainability can actually be implemented in one of the most impressive places in Europe.
Anna Ponting is a junior majoring in Urban Studies and minoring in Architecture and Modern Languages. In the winter she studied in Florence, in the spring Madrid where she enjoyed art, travel, food, and generally exploring. She is interested in the sustainability of the built environment and will be writing an honors thesis on smart cities.