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UNESCO, Seville and contemporary architecture in historic cities

September 27, 2013 – 11:03 pm
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This view of the Seville skyline shows the Giralda (left) and Puerta Triana (centre) dwarfed by the Pelli tower

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The meeting was triggered by controversy over the Pelli Tower's vertical dominance over Seville's UNESCO World Heritage buildings (spot the mistake in the title)

Last week, I attended a three-day UNESCO “International Meeting” (ie mini-conference) in Seville on “Contemporary Architecture in Historic Cities”, with speakers from the UK, USA, Netherlands, China, Lebanon and Norway, plus a decent amount from Spain.

The trigger for this meeting was the infamous, almost-finished Torre Pelli, the city’s first skyscraper which towers comically over its immediate neighbours, sticking out in Seville’s skyline like the proverbial sore thumb. Seville came within a whisker of being put on the “World Heritage In Danger” list last year, and subsequently having its WH status removed, due to the 180-metre tower, which lies across the river from the main historic centre.

Some welcome its contemporaneity and boldness, and deny that it will affect the city negatively, claiming that as it can’t be seen from the historic city centre, it doesn’t affect our perception of the UNESCO World Heritage of century-spanning group of buildings: the Cathedral and Giralda, Alcazar, and Archivo de Indias. Others say that it is incongruous and has no place in a historic city, and that it goes against the concept of preserving the integrity of the historic urban landscape to have such a monolithic new structure which dwarfs the traditionally tallest building – the Giralda.

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The sweeping curves of the Capitania General's Salon de Actos, or theatre

The meeting was held in a building I had heard about on a tour of Parque Maria Luisa, but never visited: the Capitania General, situated in Plaza de España. The headquarters of the Spanish Army, its balcony, at the centre of Plaza de España’s semi-circular swathe, was used in the filming of The Dictator.

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View from the Capitania General's central balcony to the main part of Plaza de España. Will it become World Heritage?

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The Capitania General, Spanish Army Headquarters - part of Plaza de España

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Juan Ignacio Zoido, Mayor Seville, opened the Meeting by announcing new World Heritage plans for Seville

Appropriately, Seville’s Mayor Juan Ignacio Zoido, used to the opportunity (both event and location) to announce his intention to apply for World Heritage status to be extended to two more buildings in Seville: the Torre del Oro, which dates from Moorish Almohad times, and Plaza de España itself, the setting of the conference. The vast, curved building was built for the Expo 29, as the Exhibition’s centrepiece, to show off the skill and artistry of the city’s craftsmen.

One of the speakers was British – art historian John Onians, Professor Emeritus of World Art from the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He invented the term, and academic discipline, of Neuroarthistory – the study of the neurology of artists – along with neuroscientist Semir Zemiki. Onians’ talk was entitled “Visual Perceptions, Memory and the Brain”, and was not about urban planning or architecture, like most of the conference’s content, but about how to look at what a building signifies from a different perspective.

Onian argued that seeing familiar forms in buildings gives us subconscious pleasure. Our optic nerve ensures that our brain compares a visual image with everything we’ve seen before, even if we’re unaware of similar connotations. If we look at something intently on a frequent basis, then seeing another object with a like appearance, will be pleasing to us. “‘Neural plasticity’ ensured that passive exposure to different natural and man-made environments caused the formation of different visual preferences.” (Press release on Cracking the Real Da Vinci Code, John Onians, UEA 2006.)

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John Onians' idea for Seville in the 21st century - double trouble, or twin Pelli towers

Based on this theory, Onians suggested that the round shape of the Torre Pelli reflected the circular nature of the Puerta Triana building next to it. Onians then suggested, to gasps of horror from some sections of the audience, a double Pelli – two towers, to reflect the twin Pillars of Hercules which lie at the mouth of the Mediterranean, dividing Europe from Africa. Perfect symbolism.

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