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Towering egos

July 1, 2010 – 9:00 am

If you live in Seville, or nearby, or indeed even if you don’t, you may well have heard about the continuing controversy over the Torre Pelli, the Pelli Tower. This 178-metre structure – designed by the Argentine architect, Cesar Pelli, as a headquarters for Cajasol bank – is threatening to lose Seville its World Heritage Status. In 1987, the Cathedral, Alcazar and Archivo de las Indias gained the city a place on the UNESCO list.

Next month, when the UN meets in Brazil, one of the subjects on its agenda is the placing of Seville on the endangered World Heritage Sites list, and if the design of the tower is not subsequently modified (ie made shorter, I suppose), its removal. It would only be the second occasion when this has happened, the first being last year, when Dresden was taken off the list after a bridge was built which was felt to ruin its river landscape. Other endangered sites, just to give you an idea, are in places like Iran, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well, the Torre Pelli would, quite literally, tower over the Giralda, Seville’s iconic Moorish minaret, and the city’s most recognisable building. At almost 200m, it would be nearly twice the height of the 900-year-older structure. There is a very strong popular movement against the tower, with hackles rising all over Seville, while in the other corner of the ring, so to speak, are the Ayuntamiento’s beleaguered planning department, who are also facing controversy over the notorious, much-delayed, over-budget mushrooms in Plaza de la Encarnacion, and the modernists.

Pelli’s 313-million-euro elliptical design, scheduled to be completed at the end of next year, has been compared to sexual organs and sausages, and also described as “Francoist” (not a good way, methinks). The Argentinian also designed the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike the mushrooms, the site of the tower is thankfully not in the casco antiguo, but in the Isla de la Cartuja, the modern business area. It would be the city’s first skyscraper, which for me is where the nub of the matter lies. Personally, I think one new world-class iconic building in a deeply conservative, traditional city like Seville would not be a bad thing. It would attract more visitors, and would give the city a more modern, forward-thinking aspect (even if a little deceptively so, since it isn’t).

But the idea of having more than one of these – a “skyscraper city” – is anathema. As Amy Winehouse would say, “No, no, no!”. It would be like sticking a load of huge, incongruous, super-high-tech buildings in the centre of a medieval city like Amsterdam (OK, so this one is not in Seville’s heart, but it would still be too close for comfort for a herd of these monsters). No se hace. They would unbalance the harmony of the city, sticking out like a big, red, swollen, pus-filled zit. Which is just begging to be squeezed, wacked, or zapped, whichever means of removal you prefer.

So, on balance, I will not be weeping if we say “bye bye” to Pelli’s creation, but other modern edifices – less e-nor-mous, attention-seeking, self-congratulatory, and let’s face it, phallic – which would give the city a much-needed contemporary edge, would be an inestimable asset.

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