Spain has a folly problem. Mayors here are constantly pitching shiny, expensive projects—museums, conference centers, bridges, and useless novelties—to secure their legacies and one-up other cities. Attracting tourists and stimulating economic development are the nominal justifications, but everyone here seems to understand that the real motivations are ego and greed. These projects are frequently ill-conceived or redundant, and always over budget. In Galicia, Santiago de Compostela built an artificial mountain of exhibit halls, then couldn’t think of anything to put in it. Ciudad Real spent a billion euros on an airport to serve a population of fewer than seventy-five thousand, then never finished it. Everyone wants a near-identical bridge or concert hall from Santiago Calatrava, despite or maybe because of the tendency of his projects to run over-budget by hundreds of millions. (Don’t say anything about the cost—he’ll sue.) Maintenance never seems to be part of the plans, so a few years on the glamorous structures of previous administrations tend to sit, mouldering.
Most foreign observers attribute the Spanish addiction to unnecessary and extravagant projects to the Bilbao effect and the mistaken assumption on the part of politicians and planners that the city’s economic resurgence was brought on by the construction of an extravagant art museum in 1997 and not the massive investment in urbanist infrastructure that came with it. And while the Guggenheim’s success definitely inspired the ambitious cultural constructions of Valencia, Santiago de Compostela, and many other cities hoping to draw tourists and advertising shoots, I think there’s something more fundamental at work. After a week of poking around some seemingly forgotten corners of Sevilla, I’ve come to believe that Spain’s drive to build white elephants goes back way further than the ’90s—maybe all the way to the very beginning.
I was thinking about this national tendency to erect and neglect on very hot afternoon walk along the west bank of the Guadilquivir river. The river divides the center of the city from the more bohemian Triana district and the remains of the 1992 Universal Exposition. On the east bank, there is a pleasant, dingy but well-maintained path frequented by dog-walkers, runners, and cyclists, running 8 kilometers from the port on the south end of town to the park that plugs the river at the north. (The main course of the Guadilquivir now runs west of Triana to control flooding and ease ship traffic; the course that runs through the center of the city is a vestigial stump.) The west bank has a very nicely paved bike and pedestrian path that is difficult to access and overgrown. The path is intermittently interrupted with fencing and offers no wayfinding at all I walked on it for an hour and saw only five other people: four on bicycles, and one asleep under a bridge. Someone built this thing, spent an enormous amount of money on it, and then forgot about it.
The path isn’t the only ruin in the area. Although most of the larger buildings from the $8 billion ’92 Expo have been repurposed as government offices, research facilities, or cultural spaces, large parts of the 531-acre grounds remain abandoned twenty-seven years later. The monorail is a series of concrete stumps, the Canal of Discoveries is a wide river of grass, and the Mexico pavilion is an empty shell.
The strangest thing about the semi-abandoned state of the expo grounds is that the people of Sevilla have gone through all this before, and within living memory of the ’92 fair. In 1929, the city hosted the Ibero-American Exposition in the sprawling María Luisa park on the south end of the old town. National pavilions were erected throughout the park, and the delightfully silly Plaza de España was built alongside. Today the remaining buildings are all in use, including the excellent archaeological museum and the Colombian consulate, but large parts of them look underused and dusty.
Given the arc of the city’s history, it’s no surprise that civic leaders remain addicted to big, showy buildings. Just look to the Cathedral: in 1401, according to oral tradition, local religious leaders gave their architects a brief to “build a church so beautiful and so grand that those who see it finished will take us for mad.” They got what they asked for. The church is so huge that it slips past Gothic grandeur into the uncanny vastness of an empty basketball stadium. And the cathedral was hardly the biggest of most ill-advised project of the era. Between building thousands of churches and a series of ever-larger palaces, Spain managed to spend all the riches stolen from an entire continent without meaningfully improving the lives of most of its citizens.
Maybe the mania goes back further still. Some 2000 years ago, Sevilla was the Roman city Hispalis. Nothing remains standing from those days, but if you go out of town a ways to the neighboring city of Italica, you’ll find a massive theater and amphitheater—enormous buildings, dedicated to the glory of empire.