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Mons hubris: 2015 European Capital of Culture

The European Capital of Culture title brings the usual disappointment, delays, overspends, and Calatrava boondoggle

If its designation as the latest European Capital of Culture has tempted you to plan a trip to the Belgian city of Mons in the coming months, a word of warning: don’t book that flight just yet. At January’s launch event, journalists were met by a raft of building projects that were still very much works in progress. Five new museums are promised, focused on subjects ranging from Mons’ role in the two world wars to the Doudou, a festival that it has staged every Trinity Sunday since the Middle Ages. However, whether this effective doubling of the city’s exhibition space will be delivered before the year is out remains hotly contested. Meanwhile the city’s flagship project, a new Santiago Calatrava-designed station, is certain to take longer still. The Spanish architect won the commission in 2006 only to see work delayed by a campaign to retain the existing station, which was designed by René Panis in the 1950s. The opponents were ultimately unsuccessful but completion of Calatrava’s building has now been put back to 2018. An escalation in cost to four times the original budget has done little to persuade locals of its merits.

Visitors arriving in the city by train, therefore, currently find themselves in the midst of a building site. The one project that has been completed in time for the deadline, a new conference centre designed by Daniel Libeskind, stands alongside, but in the absence of the Calatrava bridge by which it will be linked to the old town it remains stranded on what is emphatically the wrong side of the tracks. The demolition of a €400,000 installation by the Belgian artist Arne Quinze in the week of the opening − it had been condemned as an unsafe structure − only compounded visitors’ sense of disappointment.

‘It is time the Capital of Culture programme dissuaded candidates from including building projects as part of their bids’

The Capital of Culture programme’s 30-year history presents no shortage of examples of such broken promises. Liverpool secured the title in 2008 on the basis of a bid which included a fantastical Will Alsop-designed project, dubbed the Cloud, which was subsequently abandoned as a result of its budget spiralling to an eye-watering £320million. The scheme’s waterfront site was ultimately occupied by the Museum of Liverpool but that project scarcely proved happier: beset by legal battles and a change of architects midway through construction, the building didn’t open until three years after the Capital of Culture celebrations had finally concluded.

Do the missed deadlines matter? In the end, perhaps not. The 2008 cultural programme still succeeded in drawing 9.7 million visitors to Liverpool − an increase of 34 per cent − and the events staged that year were widely credited with transforming perceptions of a city that remained, in many outsiders’ minds, synonymous with little more than urban deprivation and the Beatles.
And yet, year-on-year, cities bidding for Capital of Culture status place the promise of flamboyant new buildings at the core of their submissions. The artificial timeframe for delivery rarely favours a considered outcome and has frequently resulted in projects that turn out to be expensive white elephants.

Given that the Capital of Culture programme nominally serves to celebrate Europe’s cultural diversity, it is also striking how utterly alike so many of the buildings that it has generated have turned out to be. Looking at projects ranging from the Museum of Liverpool to Stefano Boeri’s Villa Méditerranée, built in Marseilles in 2013, to Mons’ buildings by Libeskind and Calatrava, you cannot help but notice the prevalence of a strain of kitsch, monumental expressionism entirely lacking in connection to any local culture. When I voiced my disappointment to the hapless Mons 2015 press officer over the incompletion of the Calatrava project, she advised me that if I wanted to know what it would look like I could stay on the train to Liège where he has built an altogether similar design. Surely it is time the Capital of Culture programme started dissuading candidates from including building projects as part of their bids. Or, at least cities might be advised to hold off for a year − after 12 months of celebrating their indigenous cultures I would like to think that fewer would be inclined to call Calatrava.

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