Heineken's Urban Regeneration | icon 031 | January 2006

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photo: Tom Oldham photo: Tom Oldham

words Justin McGuirk

Beer companies don’t normally do urban regeneration. But in October, Heineken transformed a row of crumbling grain warehouses in Valencia into an exhibition space and concert venue.

By turning a barren piece of the city’s harbour into a vibrant creative hub, Heineken hopes to create a template of branded regeneration that it can export around Europe. But Heineken greenspace has an unavoidable corporate agenda: it is a new model of urban renewal as marketing.

The only reason we’re here is because Rem Koolhaas is here, and that must be exactly what Heineken calculated. Because in most respects this is just a worthy piece of local cultural regeneration. There’s an exhibition of competition entries by young Spanish designers, but otherwise not much to look at except big, empty spaces that will eventually contain studios and other creative facilities. However, with Koolhaas judging one of the competitions, and a host of international music stars – including Sonic Youth, Anthony and the Johnsons and Gilles Peterson – flown in to perform over the opening weekend, Heineken has whipped up a media frenzy.

“I hate the word brand,” says Koolhaas at the suggestion that his credibility is being used to promote the Heineken brand. He plays non-committal: “The important thing is to realise that my presence here is at this point very modest. Because I’m realising that I’m an actor in a script that has been written by others.”

It is not instantly obvious what Koolhaas has to gain from lending his support, apart from his fee. It transpires, though, that he is here to see “what kind of actions we could unleash” with this hybrid model of regeneration-marketing.

Heineken is already looking at taking the concept to other second-tier European cities. Koolhaas himself sees the potential of greenspace as a force for regeneration in the
Third World.

“This, in my eyes, shows that there is perhaps a new moment where corporations are, or want to be seen to be, generous or unilateral, and it will be interesting to see what you can do with that,” he says.

With the “star” promoters attached, greenspace could also be seen as just another example of a corporation buying some cultural kudos (like Becks and Bombay Sapphire in London’s art and design worlds). The question is whether the underlying image consciousness in any way mars its social aspirations.

“There’s a certain sort of scepticism that goes with anybody’s assumption that a brand is out purely for its own gain,” says Adrian Caddy, greenspace’s creative director. “Maybe that’s true but how can that be different from a regional government building an opera house? I can’t see that anyone could perceive that this was anything but a fantastic gift.”

Caddy’s account makes it sound like a cultural version of corporate social responsibility. “We describe it actually as a sustainable marketing venture, which is not the same as CSR in the general understanding of the concept,” he explains. “There’s a negotiation that’s going on here between the local council that wants a vote, Heineken that wants to maintain a market share and young people who want to create.”

“I think it’s about a sense of space, and the fact that we’re providing social spaces in the city to allow this type of creativity to happen,” adds Heineken’s project leader Jeff Povlo, who thought up the greenspace concept and then, with Caddy, picked out the municipality of Valencia to approach with it.

Valencia itself is in regeneration and marketing overdrive. As greenspace opened, the city was hosting its third art biennial and preparing for the arrival of the America’s Cup in 2007. Meanwhile, a short walk from the port is the City of Arts and Sciences, designed by local hero Santiago Calatrava and completed last year. It represents the now rampant model of cultural regeneration as urban spectacle. Greenspace, which falls into the warehouse model prevalent in Berlin and Rotterdam, cannot hope to attract the same kind of attention to the city as Calatrava’s phantasmagoria. Yet greenspace’s organisers hope that theirs is a more meaningful intervention in offering needed facilities for local creatives rather than a just city logo.

“The overwhelming response to greenspace from the audience [of the lecture Koolhaas gave], who have just come out of art school, is that this is more meaningful to their lives,” says Caddy.

Koolhaas is absolutely clear which model he endorses. “Somehow the whole project has been defined in a very clever way, because there is no possible criticism of it. And of course the [City of Arts and Sciences] can be criticised from any … thousands of angles.”

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