The 'White Elephant' Problem: Unused Public Architecture


Besides my penchant for architecture and anything of the sort, I have always had a fascination with aviation. Civil aviation to be more precise. I like to fly, and it is often the best part of any trip that I take. Whether it is the plane, the view at 36,000 feet or the bustle of an airport, I enjoy this facet of our society. For anyone who knows me, these experiences become the more tranquil parts of my life. More recently, I began to have a curiosity about the economic dystopia occurring in the European Union. I like to keep apprised of the issues arising from the economic crisis, how it is affecting various E.U. nations and how it impacts our economy here at home. I came across an article this weekend on NPR: "Financial Woes Keep Spanish Airport Grounded" by Lauren Frayer on NPR that really piqued my interest.

It ties together the continuing difficulties within the E.U. and the excitement of opening a new piece of public architecture – one large and expansive as an airport. The focus is the new Castellon Airport near Valencia, and its significance of the debilitating financial situation in Spain. The airport sits unused. No airlines are contracted to use the airport nor is there any government approval allowing planes to use its runway. In a related article published last November, the airport was said to be “one of the better-known examples of Spain’s so-called 'white elephant' problem.” Throughout the E.U., but especially in Spain as a consequence of the building boom, many grand-scale and overly expensive projects are complete and sit vacant or depressingly underused. These are the 'white elephants' referred to by many politicians, officials and the public for their symbolism of corruption and overzealous spending. For the Valencia region, the looming question is whether or not its 'white elephant,' the Castellon airport, will ever be used.


If the answer appears to be 'no,' then what should be done with the airport? In general, what shall be done with all the 'white elephant' projects? Shall they be demolished? Many of these projects are still highly valuable and demolition will just add to overall costs.(1) On the other hand, is there another use for these places? Can we turn the 'white elephant' into a 'phoenix from the ashes'?


A similar scenario took place many years ago, here in North America. Some may say there is still no resolution, but it gives us food for thought. Like Castellon, it is another airport, this one near Montréal, Canada. Montréal-Mirabel International Airport was a mid-1970's product of visionary planning and a desire to provide another international gateway into Canada. Only a portion of the original plan was built; however, the completed phase is quite large and extensive. For years, the airport was highly active, serving as the gateway for all international flights in and out of Montréal. Another airport nearby, Montréal's Dorval Airport, became used solely for domestic flights. Today, the airport sits nearly vacant, another 'white elephant.'(2) The reasons differ from those of the Castellon Airport: changes in attitude towards city planning in the 1980's and 90's, the travel distance from the city center, and upgrades to Montréal's Dorval Airport were all contributing factors. Nonetheless, Mirabel sits today as a vast expanse of runways and hangars with few aircraft using the facility.

However, Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is not entirely unused. It has become an example of how to alternately use large public architecture. The airport is used as practice grounds for new aircraft built in Canada, for cargo operations and even as a movie set. Has anyone seen 'The Terminal' with Tom Hanks? Some scenes were filmed here (better than shutting down JFK for a movie shot). In 2006, plans were even announced to transform part of the airport into an amusement park.(3)

This brings me back to the story of Castellon Airport near Valencia, Spain. Although hundreds of millions of euros were spent to build this large public piece of architecture, there is still some hope. If the original plans to be an airport ultimately fail, the regional officials and public must step up and be creative. What can spaces like an airport terminal, swaths of concrete and asphalt, and precision-tailored landscapes provide? A movie set? An amusement park? Or maybe an unconventional park or nature preserve? Urban explorers may get a kick out of an unused airport. These 'white elephants' are not simply embarrassments to be ignored, but each one is an opportunity for a second chance at creating great public architecture - to become a 'phoenix from the ashes.'

Posted by Kenneth Miraski

(1) Herman, Marc. "Spain's Vacant Airport Typifies European Woes," Miller-McCune, last modified November 18, 2011
(2) Krauss, Clifford. “End of Era Near in Montreal for White-Elephant Airport,” New York Times, October 3, 2004.
(3) "Mirabel Airport to be turned into amusement park," CTV News, last modified February 21, 2006