Sometimes, despite its best efforts to sabotage itself, the United Nations can actually serve a useful purpose, and one of the best examples of this is UNESCO. It is a body whose members care about issues such as art, architecture, history and urban planning, and uses its clout to try to help preserve cultural patrimony, or at the very least to prevent its destruction. And today it is publicly shaming the Spanish government for pursuing a project that will ruin the skyline of Seville, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Those who follow the news from Spain with any regularity know that a large skyscraper by Argentine “starchiect” César Pelli is being built as part of a redevelopment project on Cartuja (“Charterhouse”), one of the islands in the Guadalquivir River that runs through the city. Pelli of course is perhaps best known for the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The centerpiece of his project on Cartuja is the Torre Cajasol, a nearly 585-foot skyscraper which will house Cajasol, a major savings bank headquartered in Seville.
A great deal of controversy has accompanied this project which, although not situated in the historic center of the city, will immediately become the most dominant feature of the urban landscape. It will dwarf, for example, all of the many Renaissance and Baroque church towers in the city, including the 105-foot tall La Giralda, which began life as a minaret but for the past five centuries has served as the main bell tower of the city Cathedral. The mixture of Islamic and Christian architectural design on La Giralda has inspired copies and variations all over the world, such as at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables or the Wrigley Tower in Chicago.
For three years now, UNESCO has been trying to persuade the local government in Seville not to go ahead with the Torre Cajasol project, due to concerns over the height of the tower, but its complaints have fallen on deaf ears. So today, UNESCO has announced that if the project is not stopped and re-examined, next year it may place Seville on a watch list of places around the world whose governments are damaging the cultural patrimony of humanity. While such an action on the part of UNESCO is hardly going to make anyone quake in their boots, it is very bad press indeed among the cultural cognoscenti, and it has a real impact. It makes it more likely that grants for things such as historic preservation may dry up and go elsewhere, if wealthy individuals or NGO’s feel that the local or national governments in Spain cannot be trusted.
And now the new mayor of Seville, a member of the conservative Popular Party who was swept into office last month as part of a conservative landslide in Spanish regional elections, is stepping up to the plate. In reaction to UNESCO’s concerns, which were either ignored or poo-poohed by his predecessor, the new mayor has promised to review the zoning permits for the project and see whether something can be done to halt the project and revisit it. The fear among many observers is that it may be too late, and that construction on the tower has now gone too far to be stopped. At the very least, however, someone is taking this marring of the urban vistas in Seville seriously.
In a further bit of scandal, this weekend it emerged that the preceding mayor of Seville, a socialist who had been in office since 1999, made a last-minute deal with Cajasol regarding the building. On May 20th, two days before he was voted out of office, the then-mayor signed a pact with the President of Cajasol whereby city hall would cede certain city property to Cajasol in exchange for having the city Planning Department housed in the new skyscraper – even though the skyscraper is not yet finished. The new, conservative mayor has not only refused to honor this agreement, but is now investigating whether anything illegal took place so that those involved can be turned over to prosecutors. Naturally UNESCO does not have anything directly to do with this, but the fact that such dealing was going on behind the scenes may lead to a stoppage of the project, at least temporarily, while the new local government figures out what shenanigans the previous one was getting up to.
Scandal aside, one of the lessons we can draw from what is taking place in Seville is that, as UNESCO realizes, there is something special about a city where the buildings are kept to a human scale. In Washington, for example, many who complain about building height restrictions and the lack of innovative architecture do not realize that it is the uniqueness of our low, horizontal profile, punctuated here and there by monuments and church towers, that makes for a green, open, and very liveable city which visitors from around the world envy. Similarly Seville, a city defined by its churches and plazas, spectacular Holy Week processions, and the mixture of East and West that gave rise to buildings such as La Giralda, or indeed to flamenco music, will lose something of its identity if everyone is forced to stare at a giant upended box of kleenex dominating the landscape.
Those who live in major cities can find it hard to imagine what it was like to live in such places when buildings could not reach the great heights which they do now. When we look at old engravings of London before the Great Fire, such as that shown below, or see photographs of New York from the Civil War era, we often have no idea what we are looking at unless there is an explanatory caption. Natural disasters, war, and changing tastes all play their part, of course, but so have advances in engineering and physics, which have led to a creeping “sameness” of tall glass boxes across the globe.
I would hope that the government of Seville will come to recognize the fact that it is precisely its individuality and lack of “sameness” as a city, that makes Seville special. It is in preserving its heritage, rather than ignoring it, that Seville will in fact secure its future. And kudos to the UNESCO for helping to finally bring this matter to a head.