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UNESCO’s verdict on the Torre Pelli: STOP NOW!

January 23, 2012 – 10:00 am

In a recent newspaper poll, 25% of people wanted construction of the Torre Pelli to be halted (it currently has 15 storeys out of the planned 40, and measures around 60 metres). However a massive 62% preferred that the project continue as planned.

This highly controversial building in Seville, designed by the Argentinian architect Cesar Pelli, is causing waves – of the tsunami type – in Seville’s town hall, at the bank which is behind the project, Cajasol, and at UNESCO, which is threatening to withdraw the city’s World Heritage Status if the tower reaches its intended height.

Last week UNESCO’s report, after two inspectors visited the city on 7-9 November last year, on the impact of the tower on Seville’s medieval city centre – its World Heritage site consists of a “monumental complex” of three buildings: the cathedral, the Alcazar and the Archivo de Indias – stated that the skyscraper would have an “excessive and undoubtedly negative impact” on Seville’s skyline. It will “end the Giralda tower’s pre-eminence in the urban landscape”. The Giralda measures 97 metres, to the Torre Pelli’s 178 metres, making it the tallest building in Andalucia. The UNESCO Committee requested that authorities “stop the construction and revise the project”, specifically by reducing the height of the tower, in order to avoid any possible adverse impact on the “nearby historic surroundings”.

Basically, if the tower gets any higher, Seville will most likely lose its WH status, without even going on the Danger list first.

Now the Ayuntamiento, led by PP Mayor Juan Ignacio Zoido, has said that it wants to negotiate with Cajasol – on Friday it “strongly urged” them to stop the construction and discuss an agreement for the future of the project, threatening to withdraw its planning licence. The bank, however, wants the Town Hall, together with the Ministry of Culture, to help it defend the tower against UNESCO.

If the tower continues according to the original plan, UNESCO can either rescind Sevilla’s WH Status at its next meeting (in June, in St Petersburg), or put it on the Danger list, for future consideration as the tower continues. The Danger List features 35 sites, of which none are in Europe.

It’s not surprising that most people would prefer to see the tower continue until it reaches its originally planned height. With the economic situation being as it currently is, the choice between your city losing a building project which will put it on the world stage of stunning architectural landmarks, give a modern edge, draw more visitors and, crucially, which is providing many people with employment; and your skyline not looking quite as nice as it did before, it’s a no-brainer. Mortgage over aesthetics, every time.

If things were looking brighter job-wise, the dilemma might get a different reaction and there might be more sympathetic ears lent to the arguments in favour of preserving the integrity of Seville’s skyline, dominated by its medieval tower. But the idea of removing an important source of jobs, and therefore income, from a shaky employment market – not to mention all the new jobs which the finished building with provide – is just not sensible.

The Torre Pelli as seen from the Torre de la Navigacion, an ex-Expo 92 tower nearby.

It’s not so cut and dried, however, for the local administration. The Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) and Alcalde (Mayor) are in a sticky situation – obey UNESCO, destroy jobs and pay a whacking compensation to Cajasol (200 million euros), or support the integrity of the building project and allow it to be completed?

If they ignore UNESCO’s very clear warning (which was also reiterated in a letter from UNESCO’s director to Spain’s UNESCO ambassador) to stop the construction, and modify the building’s height, they will be sticking two fingers up at this highly influential international body, and of course will also lose the related assistance and funding which come with WH Status.

They will also, for some, become local heroes, standing up to outside forces who are trying to tell them what to do, never popular in a country which experienced 40 years of fascist dictatorship, and is having to take orders from the European Union about its financial affairs. And they will win a powerful ally in Cajasol.

On the flipside, they will arouse the ire of conservationists and historians who feel that the tower will compromise the integrity of the city, eclipsing the other tower which has already been Seville’s most notable landmark for the past millennium.

Today discussion will take place over a possible compromise. My money is on Cajasol being left out in the cold, and the Ayuntamiento towing the line – but will Cajasol be willing to reach a compromise on the height of the tower? And what will the architect have to say about his design being changed?

Public opinion has moved firmly behind the Torre Pelli, so Zoido may have the first big fight on his hands since he took over as Mayor. It could get messy – watch out.

  1. 4 Responses to “UNESCO’s verdict on the Torre Pelli: STOP NOW!”

  2. The ultimate question is ‘Who is going to occupy this building, given the number of empty commercial buildings across Andalucia?’ The looks of the tower is subjective but the worth of WH status to the economy of Sevilla is undeniable. Allowing “Don’t tell us what to do” feelings to guide the city’s response shows an unfortunate sign of political & financial immaturity. In historic city like Sevilla, licence for a building like this should not have been issued to start with.

    By A. Lloyd on Jan 23, 2012

  3. Cajasol will have some storeys for their own offices, the rest will be rented out. Agree re looks of tower, but that was never the issue (though it was with the Zaha Hadid library in the Prado, which was finally knocked on the head last week) – it’s the height which is the big sticking point. Re building licence, it was probably bought for a very big wad of cash, and that plus all the jobs which a project like that brings, and the international kudos, would have been hard to say no to, I imagine – especially knowing Monteseirin and Torrijos.

    By fiona on Jan 23, 2012

  4. Fiona, Thanks for including a link to the actual UNESCO report. I find so many articles on the web do not do this.
    Building licence “probably bought for a very big wad of cash” is a strong allegation, or does it just refer to the close relationship and cross-transmision of favours between Cajasol and Ayuntamiento de Sevilla?
    I agree with A Lloyd’s comments, but wonder about “WH status to the economy of Sevilla is undeniable”. Is that grant money? What percentage of tourists come to Seville because of the city’s WH status? Or is it just a curiosity to them in the tourist literature?
    If it is so important, could anybody name all the the WH sites in Andalucia (or any other region or country)? Answers at http://www.andalucia.com/travel/world-heritage/seville.htm

    By Bert Selby on Feb 4, 2012

  5. Bert, I don’t think it’s a secret the that wheels of Urbanismo in this country are oiled by clandestine payments, children’s school fees and racehorses. Not always, obviously, but it’s not unusual. WH Status sites do get funding, yes. As to how many tourists come to Seville, or other cities, specifically because of their WH status (and therefore how many would stay away if it was rescinded), hard to tell, but I’d guess few. However it is a public and official acknowledgement of a building’s/group of buildings’ unique historical and cultural value which isn’t offered by any another internationally recognised body. I could probably name all the sites, but that’s because I wrote the page you mention!!

    By fiona on Feb 13, 2012

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