The Valencians Have A Problem: The Falles, Culture vs. Environment

valencia design week les falles photo by manuel molines

Burning Falla. Photo Credit: Manuel Molines

During the Valencia Design Week, the organisers of the FEED, the international bloggers meeting, took us to la Ciudad Fallera, the 'City of Falles'. This is an industrial area where they build the Falles all year round. Les Falles are huge monuments made mostly of Polystyrene (or 'white cork' as the Spaniards refer to this un-ecofriendly material) which are then set on fire during the celebrations in March. A whole industry is working on sculptures that are exhibited during a few days and then burnt; releasing toxic fumes. This is the part that even Valencians don't like so much, the black smoke and the way the flames consume the material. I spoke to the makers of the Falles and it seems there is no alternative. So what should they do... ban their century-old traditions? Or is culture allowed to pollute?

Falla before burning photo

Falla before burning in front of town hall in 2010. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What started of as a kind of recycling act has turned into a business resulting in a lot of waste, potent atmospheric carbon monoxide pollutants and carbon black. In the Middle Ages, craftsmen gathered wooden off-cuts from winter works to burn in order to celebrate spring equinox. This kind of spring clean was a reason to celebrate and in those days did no harm. Little by little the pieces of wood were made to look like persons and were even given clothes to wear. Processions started to view the Falles sculptures and their burning became a yearly celebration. According to Wikipedia, "until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Falles were tall boxes with three or four wax dolls dressed in cloth clothing. This changed when the creators began to use cardboard. The creation of the Falle continues to evolve in modern day, when largest monuments are made of polystyrene, easily molded with hot saws. These techniques have allowed Falles to be created in excess of 30 meters."

les falles-cut polystyrene photo

Hot-wire cut polystyrene sheets. Photo Credit: Petz Scholtus

So there I was last week, amongst a high-tech laser scanner and a hot wire cutting machine to see how endless blocks of Polystyrene were cut, assembled, sanded to perfection and painted to create massive, Disney-like sculptures. This is all very hard to understand if you are not from Valencia and on top of that green-minded. So I asked the craftsmen about the pollution and sure, they don't like it either, but there is no solution. Polystyrene is so cheap that they believe no biodegradable alternative material could be worked in the same way at the same cost.

les falles polystyrene crafting photo

Falla craftsmen at work, carving the polystyrene. Photo Credit. Petz Scholtus
Falla artist Manolo Martin, who gave us the tour, showed me the huge bags of Polystyrene off-cuts ready to be picked up for downcycling rather than upcycling, but it seemed that was all they could do to lower the environmental impact of their activity. So I decided to write about this dilemma, where each year over 300 Falles (not just one Burning Man) are burnt in Valencia. Is there an alternative material that the Valencians could use that does not pollute? Or would you rather have them stop their celebrations, which also come with plenty of pyrotechnical debris and plastic drinking cups littering the streets? I guess we have greened a lot of areas in the last years, from funerals to weddings and even car racing, but here in Valencia it takes more than using biodegradable party-plates to keep the air clean, which is what everyone wants in the end.

Although I believe you have to experience the Falles first, this crazy street-party where people of all ages and nationalities come together, to really understand what it is all about, I am curious to read your ideas about what should, or should not, be done. After all, there are bigger and more pressing environmental problems to solve, but still, I find this a fascinating subject to discuss down here in the country of bull-fighting and Tomatina food fights.

More from Valencia Design Week 2011
LZF Lamps, A Charming Visit To Their Factory
Dvelas. From Boat Sails To Furniture
Sonno, The Slow Alarm Clock Lets You Sleep The Hours You Need
Fresh Products from Valencia; These Designers Know How to Upcycle
Simple Rustic, Designer Guillem Ferran Takes on IKEA
Ethical Rugs by GAN Make Any Space Cosy
New Sink Lets You Recycle Your Greywater & Saves Space
6 Great Wooden Flat-Pack Designs Spotted at Valencia Design Week
5 Little Designs That Make Life Nicer, Fresh from the Valencia Design Week
Hand-Made EcoDesign: A Magical Table, A Napkin Vase And An Elegant Flower Pot
Sancal's Natural Collection; Good Furniture Locally-Made in Spain

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