Out of the Mangler: A Monumental Embarassment

A truncated version of this piece appeared on May 25, 2012 in Taki's Magazine. The original is given here to clarify the intentions and political affiliation of those who perpetrated the acts of egregious folly described in the article, especially in Castellón and Teruel, and indicate what went drastically amiss in Ciudad Real, and why.

Welcome to Spain, ladies and gentlemen; it’s a pleasure having you on the tour as you get acquainted with our land and its people. I understand some of you were hoping to take in a few monuments along the way. You probably were thinking of the breathtaking beauty of the Alhambra, the Escorial monastery in all its austere majesty, the treasures of the Prado museum, the incomparable cathedrals at León, Seville or Burgos, that sort of thing.

But let’s get real -- who needs all that historical hooey? We’re modern, we’re European, thank you very much, and it’s long past time to turn the page on El Cid and the rest of that lot, along with any lingering notions that Spain, the country they helped bring into being, should retain and perfect a common cultural identity and polity all its own.

So we’re going to examine some public structures that attest to the current state of progressive civilization on the Iberian Peninsula, starting on the eastern Mediterranean coast, with the desalination plants that our dear leader, the recently retired José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, ordered built to counter the droughts that cyclically assail Spain.

You see the conservatives who were in power in Spain from 1996 to 2004 decided to divert water from the Ebro river, which slices through the fecund fields of Aragón, La Rioja and Navarra, far to the north. Farmers feared “their” water would end up irrigating golf courses and beachfront condos of the southeast, rather than the orange groves and plasticulture farms it was supposedly destined for.

To make everyone happy, a Socialist speciality, former Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ordered 51 desalinization plants built at a cost of 5 billion euros. At present, 17 of those are up and running, supplying just 16% of the projected output. Turns out removing the salt from seawater is an energy intensive business, and the price of energy has, well, gone up a bit. So the regional government of Murcia has been sounding out Gulf Arab countries about taking a dozen or so off their hands.

In Castellón de la Plana, a not excessively attractive provincial capital seldom visited by travellers en route to colorful Valencia, no more than an hour’s drive away, regional authorities had the notion that all that was needed to attract upscale tourism was an airport. “Build it and they will come.” Well, they did, only they didn’t.

It seems the builders had assumed the 150 million euros of construction costs in return for a contract to operate the airport as a for-profit concern. Oh, wait, there’s this small print clause that says if in any given year the number of passengers falls below 600,000 (Six. Hundred. Thousand) the builders get paid six euros per no show, courtesy of Spanish taxpayers.

Maybe somebody took out a calculator, or an abacus, and did the math, because a year after the ribbon ceremony, the airport remains boarded up, unoccupied except for feral cats and yawning security guards, supposedly because the permits are held up in Madrid. Authorities admit they have been unable to get a single airline or tour operator to commit to their airport. 
Meanwhile, yearly maintenance is running upwards of 35 million euros. Roads accessing the main coastal highway have yet to be built, but live hawks and ferrets were acquired at a cost of 438,000 euros to prey on lesser birds that might fly into engine housings and cause non-existent planes to crash. On the traffic circle outside the terminal, you can see a bronze statue looking like a monstrous Mr Potato Head rising 25 meters in the air. Locals say it resembles the local political boss who ordered the airport built, but there can't be any truth in that, I'm sure you realize.

What is this thing about airports, anyway? Fifty airports for a mid-sized country seems generous; another ten are currently under construction. Well, why shouldn’t Teruel, pop. 35,000, have its own airport? You got a problem with that? The Basque capital, Vitoria, not only has an airport of its very own, there are five more within a 100 km radius (Logroño, Pamplona, San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander with number six set for Burgos).

As airports go, the one at Ciudad Real is certainly impressive. It has a huge terminal and a runway long enough (4 km) to handle the world’s largest aircraft, in the event that the world’s largest aircraft might ever want to land in Ciudad Real. It cost 1.1 billion euros, but the Socialists who were running the show in the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha from 1983 until this past November, didn’t want to look like pikers.

They built it big to accommodate an expected two million passengers yearly – possibly a tad optimistic, given that Ciudad Real, left mostly to its own devices in the vast emptiness of La Mancha, has a population of 75000. The difference was supposed to have been covered by air travelers avoiding the congestion at Madrid’s Barajas airport by hopping on and off the high-speed AVE trains that pass through the city.
Even though they tried for a time naming their airport “Madrid South,” the Spanish capital is still 235 km distant, high-speed trains are very expensive, and air travelers hate having to make extra connections. In the meantime, Madrid airport doubled its capacity by building a huge new terminal and linking it to the center of the Spanish capital with frequent commuter train and metro runs. That settled it for Ciudad Real.

Unlike the facility at Castellón, however, this airport actually got to open for business. With balance sheets comforted by millions of euros in taxpayer subsidies, three low-cost and regional airlines flew out of here from 2008 until just after Easter Week this year, when huge yellow crosses were painted on the tarmac warning pilots not to land at what used to be “Don Quixote International Airport.”
Yes? Um...that's correct. Don Quixote was insane. Any other questions?

If airports without airplanes seem an odd thing on which to lavish public money, you ought to see what art museums look like when there’s no art in them. (Answer: empty). Spain’s self-governing regional authorities have been more concerned with building lavish temples of contemporary art than with furnishing them. There’s ARTIUM at Vitoria, MACBA in Barcelona, CGAC in Santiago (you’re nobody in today’s art world without an acronym), while Castilla-León has even got a pair of them, at León and Valladolid.

Sure, a container without contents is no big deal, so be it known that there is some outstanding architecture out there, like the Santiago showpiece designed by Portugal’s Alvaro Siza, or the building at León that playfully mimics tablets of water colours in a paint box. Also worth a close look is the problem-solving virtuosity of Es Baluard in Mallorca, a structure that seamlessly fuses with the sixteenth-century fortifications that rim Palma’s harbor.

Inevitably though, the permanent collection – if there even is one -- is very much a work in progress and seldom fully on display. That curatorial reticence is probably because the acquisitions have been guided by considerations of bulk, rather than quality, with a strong suit in the recent and overhyped. Usually you’ll find a lot of photography and something representative of this or that other big bow-wow in the commodified world of contemporary art.

Taking things to extremes, not knowing when to let go of a good idea turned bad is nothing new in the land of Don Quixote. Like the luxury-class yacht marina at Laredo, in northern Cantabria. A year after the workmen went home, not one of its 1200 berths is occupied. Or the hospital complex at Toledo that was going to be Europe’s largest one-stop medical facility, with over 1250 beds. Millions of bricks were laid before the incoming conservatives halted the project pending its "rational re-dimensioning." 
Oh, and I almost forgot: we’ve also got prisons without prisoners for you. Construction wrapped over a year ago on the huge Puig de les Basses penitentiary near Figueras, in northeastern Catalonia, but the facility has yet to receive any of the 750 inmates it was designed to hold. There’s just no money budgeted by the Catalan government to make it operational, hire personnel, purchase supplies. Or even to fill up the swimming pool.
Yes, of course we have swimming pools in our prisons! You mean to say you don’t?

Pool or no pool, Spanish taxpayers are certainly getting soaked under a deal in which the builders of Puig de les Basses assumed all the upfront costs for labor and material, 109 million euros, and are to recover their investment at the rate of a million a month over the next 30 years. So by all means, come and see monumental Spain. Just don’t expect to find the politicians who ordered them built cooling their heels poolside at the penitentiary.


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