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Spending a year as a ‘European Capital of Culture’ gives a city a wonderful opportunity to reinvent itself. This year, Turku in Finland has been awarded the accolade. Fleur Kinson looks at a triumphant EU scheme and some of the cities it has most recently tried to boost


Perhaps the best-known and most popularly appreciated of all EU initiatives, the European Capital of Culture programme is high-profile, colourful and fun. In short, it’s everything the EU is often deemed not to be.

It was the inspired idea of a Greek actress as she waited for a delayed flight in Athens airport in 1985. Glamorous Melina Mercouri, then working as Greece’s Minister of Culture, had the idea for the annual scheme while chatting with her French counterpart Jack Lang. Seven months later, Athens became the first ever European City of Culture. (The ‘City’ in the title was changed to ‘Capital’ in 2001). It has snowballed ever since. To date, 44 cities have taken up the mantle, each chosen only after intense bidding and fine toothcomb assessment. Selection criteria have mutated over the years but the most essential – and elegantly paradoxical – requirement remains the same: the city must celebrate Europe’s cultural diversity and its cultural unity. How is the city distinctive, and how does it link with a wider Europe?

Cities aren’t chosen for what they are, but for what they’re going to do. A UNESCO World Heritage Site counts for nothing compared to an inspired set of ideas for events and long-term development. The city must organise a thunderous year-long programme of arts and cultural happenings, and retain a legacy of cultural infrastructure and social improvement beyond its single year in the spotlight. A pretty tall order. Do all the cities ultimately pull this task off? Most of them do, yes, according to independent evaluations.

The benefits to cities holding the ECOC title are readily imagined – massive investment in building and renewal projects, plus golden a opportunity to re-brand > themselves under a sudden blaze of media attention. The EU also benefits from getting its different member states’ citizens excited about each other. Excitement breeds tourism, business deals, and pride in being part of a colourful, united continent. Some cities have made more of their opportunity than others. Notable triumphs include Glasgow, whose 1990 ECOC year rejuvenated a struggling metropolis and sparked off an enduring tourist industry.

Antwerp’s stint in 1993 is said to have diffused extremist political tensions in the city. While Thessaloniki’s spell as ECOC in 1997 revived theatres and transformed old warehouses to leave Greece’s second city with a particularly lavish set of cultural venues.
Not every city has such a smooth time of it, of course. How have more recent title-holders managed? Here’s a look at the seven very different cities to have been a European Capital of Culture in the past three years…

Linz (Austria), 2009

Austria’s industrial capital is a protean city, adept at transformation and self-redefinition. A little trading town until the mid-1800s, Linz ballooned in population and importance with the advent of heavy industry – proper manly stuff like shipbuilding, train-engineering, steelworks and armaments factories. By the mid-20th century, it was a dirty, dull, industrial city squatting beneath a foul cloud of air pollution. So from the 1970s onwards the city burghers began a clever, determined programme of cultural enrichment – the establishment of art schools, an orchestra, an electronic arts festival, museums and so on. Plus strict limits on emissions. These days, the third largest city in Austria, Linz is a lively, progressive place that has successfully carved out its own identity.

This isn’t the Austria most of us know. Linz straddles the Danube amidst the pastoral landscapes of Upper Austria – a world away from the classic, jagged mountainscapes further south. Culturally, Linz shines differently to plump, bourgeois Salzburg or Vienna – celebrating modernity and industry rather than Mozart or waltzes. The city’s Ars Electronica museum, for example, showcases the creative possibilities of new technology and remains one of the most genuinely innovative museums in Europe. As the beloved childhood home of Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann, Linz has every reason to reject the past and embrace the future.

Linz’s stint as European Capital of Culture aimed to underscore the city’s status as a place of dynamic, contemporary creativity  a forward-looking place in an often conservative country. More than three million people attended almost 8,000 events and exhibitions. One project, ‘Hönerausch – High Altitude Euphoria’, drew more than 270,000 visitors and was the most successful contemporary art event ever staged in Austria. While other Austrian cities saw a drop in visitor numbers that year, Linz enjoyed a 10 percent increase in overnight stays (although, disappointingly, tourism dropped by 15 percent the following year). Several projects, such as Linzer Charta and the Kepler Salon, are ongoing.

Vilnius (Lithuania), 2009
A delirium of Baroque architecture, Vilnius sits in a gentle valley surrounded by pine-covered hills. Its myriad domes and belfries bloom above winding alleyways and charming cobblestoned squares. On the south side of the river, the slick towers of commerce point their silver shapes into the sky – including the Europa Tower, the tallest building in the Baltic states.

Vilnius was the first city of the former-Soviet-Union countries to be named a European Capital of Culture. It was a fitting year to do it too, as 2009 was a millennial year in the city’s history. (The first-ever mention of Vilnius was in a medieval manuscript from 1009.) The ECOC selection panel were impressed by Vilnius’s monster enthusiasm to hold the title and by the city’s obvious optimism in considering its new, post-communist future. Vilnius scored big points with its strong inter-European dimension too, having longstanding links with Poland and large numbers of Poles among its citizenry.

Vilnius had lots of clever ideas for its year-long programme of arts and cultural events, and did especially well in involving artists from a wide range of other EU countries. Several of the ECOC events have now become stalwarts of the city’s calendar every year, particularly the chilly winter night-time jollity of ‘Culture Night’. But Vilnius’s 2009 programme suffered greatly from the onset of the recession and subsequent cuts to the organisers’ budgets. Several building projects and events were curtailed.

Being such an attractive city and one that was unfamiliar to most Europeans before its year as an ECOC, Vilnius definitely benefitted from the exposure the title conferred. Many of its 2009 visitors came back, or spread the word to others about the city’s charm.

Essen for the Ruhr (Germany), 2010
Despite being the birthplace of the great guidebook publisher Baedecker, Essen is no tourist city. The unofficial capital of Germany’s industrial-powerhouse Ruhr region, Essen sees a thicket of office towers rising above teeming shopping streets. Yet there are attractions for the visitor here – great nightlife, some extremely handsome early-20th-century commercial buildings, and a wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site to the north of the city. The retro-futuristic Zeche Zollverein is a cathedral of industry, a vast Bauhaus-style 1930s coal mine and coking plant now sprouting museums and artists’ studios. It’s one of many old factories in and around Essen cleverly transformed into art-spaces.

According to EU rules, only cities can compete for the Capital of Culture title. But Essen cheekily found a way to act as figurehead for a whole region. Marketed as ‘RUHR.2010’, Essen’s year in the limelight was a thoroughly well-organized affair. The German media lavished attention on the city and the region, and the marketing of RUHR.2010 was acclaimed as ‘Cultural Brand of the Year’. The organizers faced a tricky balancing act, celebrating the Ruhr as a whole while also strengthening the identity of each of the 53 individual towns and communities involved. One valuable legacy of the year’s events appears to be a new spirit of collaboration between towns which previously had long-standing rivalries and only acted in self-interest. Now new networks bind them closer together.

In the run-up to 2010, around €1bn was invested by public and private sources in large-scale building and development projects in Essen. During the year itself, 10.5 million people enthusiastically attended 5,500 cultural events – including one of the most spectacular ECOC events of recent years, the ‘picnic on the motorway’. The tragic loss of 21 lives in a crush at the Loveparade in Duisburg cast a shadow over this otherwise highly successful year.

Istanbul (Turkey), 2010
When Turkey’s biggest city was announced as a European Capital of Culture, it came as a shock to some. Not only is Turkey not in the European Union, it isn’t even in Europe. But Istanbul, ever a place of exceptions and paradoxes, enjoys a unique position as the only city in the world to straddle two continents – being partly in Europe and partly in Asia.

Physically and culturally bridging East and West, Istanbul (a.k.a. Byzantium and Constantinople) has been in its time the capital of three world empires – Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. The city offers a dizzying mix of ancient and modern, with millennia-old architectural treasures vying for attention with glossy shopping malls and super-stylish nightlife. The Capital of Culture year came during a boom-time for Istanbul.

Prosperous and expanding, the city was already welcoming new international businesses, casting up new luxury hotels, spawning new suburbs, and watching its property values climb. With a population nigh on 16 million, some independent evaluators asked: would an ECOC year of events even be noticed by most citizens?

Keenly aware that being a Capital of Culture could boost Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership, the organizers put in a very polished and well-structured original bid for the title – emphasizing Istanbul’s huge historical significance to Europe, its liberal stance on religion, its power for cultural exchange, etc. As 2010 approached, the organisers increasingly had to wrangle with politicians who tried to take over, and eventually did so.

Building projects to mark the year included a new concert hall, a new library, new museums, and the restoration of many ancient monuments – including the old city walls. A lively programme of cultural events filled the calendar, with a significant number of activities addressing the status of women – a key area in which Istanbul can be said to lag slightly behind other European cities.

Pécs (Hungary), 2010

A centre for arts and culture since medieval times, pretty Pécs sits contentedly on a series of gentle hillsides in the southwest corner of Hungary. Its delicate townhouses and restrained Baroque buildings flank Roman-era remains and striking pieces of Islamic architecture relics from 150 years of Ottoman occupation. Dubbing itself the borderless city, Pécs certainly has a multicultural past and present. Yesterday’s Magyars, Turks and Balkans have ceded to today’s harmonious mix of Hungarians, Croats and Swabians.
The first university in Hungary – also one of the first in Europe – was founded in Pécs in 1367. The city has sprouted others since. Today Pécs’s modest population of 150,000 includes a whopping 35,000 students, ensuring a youthful buzz in the cafés and on the streets. In fact, Pécs has a relaxed, convivial vibe in general. It’s hundreds of miles from the sea, yet visitors often remark that the place has a vaguely Mediterranean atmosphere.

Pécs had a strong record for hosting festivals and cultural events long before becoming a European Capital of Culture. In securing the title, the city’s main aim was to fund the building of new artistic and cultural spaces. It built a slick combined concert and conference centre, all warm-coloured wood and clever acoustics. It revamped and refitted the various museums on Museum Street. And it revived or improved more than 70 parks or other public spaces – including the entire city centre. Problems came with political change in the city and the late arrival of funding. Thus several of these infrastructure projects weren’t completed until well into 2010. Perhaps most disappointingly, the centerpiece project of the ECOC year – the regeneration of an elegant old factory into the ‘Zsolnay Cultural Quarter’ – still isn’t quite finished.

Tallinn (Estonia), 2011
Before taking up the title in 2011, this Capital of Culture already had lots of cultural capital. One of the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, Tallinn is a tourist gem. Visitors are wowed by this unspoilt, fairytale city of cobblestone alleyways, red roofs and needle-fine steeples. But this living museum is also the commercial and political heart of Estonia, whose economy has famously been one of the fastest-growing in the EU since it became a member state seven years ago, having thrown off its USSR shackles in 1991.

Big on IT and communications industries (Skype originated here and Ericsson has a major production facility here), the New York Times once called Tallinn ‘the Silicon Valley of the Baltic’. It’s an energetic, hard-working place, purported to generate about half of Estonia’s total GDP. Business parks throw shiny new buildings against the sky, while designer boutiques and trendy lounge-bars beckon from modern, prosperous streets.

Tallinn is lucky it had so much going for it, because its original presentation bid for European Capital of Culture was wobbly. The selection panel found it all a bit vague, and lacking in ideas for long-term development. Tallinn sought to highlight its ‘mystical charm’ and its ‘everlasting fairytale’ element, and the EU powers-that-be said “OK, but you need plenty of good contemporary, inter-European stuff too.” The Tallinners went away and did some more plotting…

Now that the year is underway, Tallinn’s Capital of Culture programme will count as the biggest cultural event in Estonia’s history, with something happening every single day.

Following the lively calendar of art activities, concrete legacies of 2011 will include an extension to the Tallinn City Theatre, improvements to the important Tallinn Song Festival grounds, and the re-development of an old power station into an arts centre.

Turku (Finland), 2011

Sitting in Finland’s lovely southwest corner, beside a vast archipelago of islands stretching halfway to Sweden, Turku is Finland’s oldest city. It was the original capital, too, until Russia seized the country in the early 1800s and moved the capital to Helsinki – which was at that time “just a fishermen’s village with six huts” as any Turku native will delight in telling you.

The city’s 800-year history aside, today Turku is famed for its hi-tech industries – especially bioscience and IT. Cholesterol-reducing foodstuffs were invented here, as was technology that enabled the development of wi-fi. The Turku Science Park area is home to more than 300 companies as well as various research and teaching institutions. Turku benefits from Finland’s particularly generous spending on R&D, which is the second-highest in Europe in terms of percentage of total GDP. Turku is also big on academia generally, with a fine clutch of universities in the city. Above all, it’s a safe, clean and thoroughly pleasant place to be. Turku’s citizens enjoy a high quality of life, and love nothing more than to sail off into the serene, unspoilt Aland archipelago at the weekend – a dreamy wonderland of swimming, cycling and summer cottages.

The opening ceremony to Turku’s ECOC year was spectacular, attended by 60,000 people well wrapped-up against the cold in scarves and fluffy hats, their cherry-cheeked kids in tow. The chief hub of the year’s events is the Logomo centre, a re-developed former engineering workshop in the old shipbuilding part of town. Inter-European communication will be a recurrent theme for the year – which is only fitting for a city that’s officially bilingual, in Finnish and Swedish, and unofficially tri-lingual, with English almost universally understood. Perhaps the chief legacy for Turku will be international exposure. Few Europeans have previously heard about this secret gem of a city.

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