Rekindling the passion

Tim Rich made merry at this year’s Las Fallas in Valencia – a festival he interprets as a potent cultural metaphor that the creative industries can learn much from

I recently visited Valencia. The obvious design story there right now is local government’s ongoing investment in exciting architecture. The much-admired Congress Centre (1998), designed by Lord Foster, is one example.

Down on the dry river-bed you’ll find a group of even more impressive new buildings dreamt up by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. They include the eye-like Hemisferic cinema and planetarium, the stunningly skeletal Museum of Science, a low-rise oceanographic centre and (under construction, but already breathtaking) an oval concert hall. Add these developments to the Baroque, Gothic and Moorish wonders in the old town, and the assorted bridges across the absent river, and there are many reasons for a visit. But I wasn’t there for buildings, not of the permanent kind, at least. I was there for the five days of mayhem known as Las Fallas.

Fallas is a festival of spectacular proportions. First, there are the daily fireworks, from the booming 8am wake-up call to La Mascleta at 2pm – a firecracker and mortar symphony that makes your innards quiver and fills your head with the addictive smell of gunpowder. Later, around midnight, the fireworks go fully multimedia, with staggering colours, shapes, movement, sound and smells.

During the day, bangers compete with the brassy rasps of the bands that accompany local groups (Fallas Commissions) as they parade around the city. Wearing traditional costumes and carrying flowers, the peripatetic commissions finally reach the Plaza de la Virgen, where their flower offerings are placed on to the wooden frame of a 37m-high effigy of the Virgin Mary and Christ. After two days of offering, the frame has become a huge gown of petals beneath two beatific faces.

And then there’s the fallas – hundreds of gigantic papier mâché and wood tableaux depicting scenes from local, national and international life. Created by people from each barrios working in association with craftsmen, they’re a triumph of popular architectural self-expression.

Over the days and nights before La Crema – the last night of the festival – people promenade around the city, admiring, discussing, criticising and laughing at the fallas. Some of the works are gentle or subtle; others political, social or delightfully lewd. Then, on the night of the crema, the strangest thing occurs. Every fallas is torched. Within minutes the giant structures spit, crackle, then crumble to the ground. As the fallas smoulder, smoke ghosts through the narrow city streets, ushering in an unsettling melancholy. No more firecrackers or crowds, just small groups of people strolling home.

The merits of the burning are felt the next day. Spring has sprung. The old makes room for the new. There’s fresh vigour in the way folk go about business. I yearned to get home and crack on with life.

So, what’s the point of this postcard from Valencia? Well, it’s to pay homage to something rather fragile that often gets trampled in our constant sprint toward deadlines, financial targets, awards and the next big client. In a word, it’s about renewal.

We’re part of ‘the creative industry’, but at times work can feel a lot like industry and less like creativity. Any consultancy needs a flow of work, but, like an individual, it also needs time to step back from day-to-day pressures and refresh its approach. Workflow can become a tyrant in the studio – sometimes killing off creativity and the pleasure of work.

A similar problem affects the wider corporate world. Management and staff are often so busy doing today’s tasks they don’t have time to invent and imagine. Then the company loses direction and spirit, and has to turn to solutions such as ‘re-engineering’, ‘culture change’ and ‘transformation management’. This need for drastic change would surely happen less often if regular periods of individual and organisational renewal took place.

How people refresh their minds and regenerate their energy is certainly essential to the success of any genuinely creative company. But how many devote significant management time to addressing this before it becomes a problem? I wonder. Yet, many groups claim ‘creativity’, ‘people’ and ‘culture’ are their most valuable assets. A strange anomaly.

Feeling jaded? Perhaps we should have a Fallas for the design community. Think of all those rushed projects, client rejections, failed pitches, studio arguments, unsettled invoices and other paraphernalia of frustration going up in smoke every spring.

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