[originally published in Onsite Review # 14]
Benidorm is a city in southeastern Spain with an urban morphology that is highly unusual for Europe: it is a city of point towers. From a distance, it resembles an American downtown or a new Asian city, with hundreds of tall, slender buildings wedged between arid, semi-desert hills and sparkling sea. From the A-7 highway, which runs the entire length of the highly built-up Mediterranean coast of Spain from the French border to the southernmost tip of the Iberian peninsula, the apparition of Benidorm manages to produce surprise and confusion even after passing through much larger cities such as Barcelona and Valencia.
Benidorm began to develop its urbanism of point towers in the 1960s, when it was transformed from a small fishing village into a major holiday destination for northern Europeans, and, significantly, when the modernist high-rise apartment ‘slab’ was still de rigueur worldwide among architects, planners and mayors. Seen in this historical context, Benidorm prognosticates the demise of the modernist slab and the current growth of the point tower as the preferred form of high-rise residential construction.
In the North American city—the very birthplace of the skyscraper—towers have generally contained office space; high-rise residential buildings more typically assume the form of slabs. It is only relatively recently that the residential point tower has become a commonplace in cities such as Toronto or Vancouver. But the emergence of point-tower housing has been even slower in Europe, where high-rise construction is culturally abhorred and where towers have historically been limited to singular urban landmarks such as church steeples, defensive ramparts or noble families’ symbols of wealth and power—an idea to which an entire city of towers is antithetical. So why, then, did Benidorm develop the way that it did?
In the context of the twentieth century, the slab and the tower can be seen to form dialectical opposites. The slab, ideally sited in a park, is representative of European academic modernism and CIAM urbanism—Le Corbusier, in short—while the tower is associated with ‘vulgar’ commercial real-estate development–the stuff of Manhattan or Hong Kong. The slab speaks of welfare-state housing and utopian planning; the point tower of private-sector pragmatism.
Interestingly, a lack of architectural pretension and a fascination for America are probably the reason for Benidorm’s aberrant urban form. Spain—especially agrarian, small-town provincial Spain—was culturally isolated from the rest of the world during almost four decades of military dictatorship that lasted from 1939 to 1975. Could it be that Benidorm’s architects were perhaps more inspired by popular postcard images of American cities than by the dogma of the architectural modern movement?
The construction of modern Benidorm was, for one thing, never a state-sponsored social housing project but rather a private-sector speculative venture. The point-tower became an established building type in Benidorm due to its high commercial viability and the views that this building type permits, even in a normative situation. Views matter especially in a tourism destination, and a city of slender towers permits more glimpses through the city and toward the surrounding landscape than a city of wall-like slabs. The modernist slab may exploit land efficiently, but not landscape—unless of course the slab is a relatively isolated occurrence in the manner of Le Corbusier’s stand-alone unités.
Architecture is, of course, premised from the very outset on exceptionality. Its values are resistant to the massification of ideas. As every architecture student learns, one must always ‘go against the grain’ and never design the very grain itself. As a mark of cultural distinction, architecture privileges the unique, isolated object; figure over ground. In Benidorm, there is no architecture: there is “the tallest building in Spain” which is also “the tallest hotel in Europe” (the Hotel Bali), but there are no buildings that stand out architecturally. Architectural guidebooks to Spain do not list any of its buildings, making Benidorm an exceptional city without exceptional buildings.
This generic quality permeates Benidorm’s urban fabric with perfect consistency. The point towers contain mostly hotel rooms and vacation apartments inhabited by middle-class Britons, Germans, Scandinavians and Spaniards, such that the city effectively comprises a sort of modern Euro-space. In fact, Benidorm can be seen as a representation in built form of one of the core values underpinning modern Europe: the right of every citizen to free time and leisure. Leisure is democratized and made affordable by the efficiency of the point tower type. It is no coincidence that Benidorm’s occupancy rates consistently outperform other holiday destinations in Spain whose tourist sector faces growing competition from cheaper eastern European destinations served by discount airlines.
Benidorm’s beach is the main public space, principal organizing device and raison d’être of the city. Streets are laid out in a quasi-gridiron pattern of small, compact urban blocks, providing walkable access to the beach as well as ground-level services, mainly in the form of small, family-owned shops, bars and restaurants. The point towers punctuate the air space above this densely built up, contiguous service ground-plane. Like most homes in Spain, Benidorm’s vacation apartments are relatively small, with bedrooms just barely large enough for a bed, side table and wardrobe. Spanish life is lived mostly outside the home in cafés, on streets and in plazas, and the Euro-space of Benidorm is no exception. In fact, the ‘Spanish’ and ‘urban’ lifestyle of Benidorm has been found to be one of its most important attractions, notwithstanding the prevalence of Irish pubs and lunch menus featuring steak and kidney pie. The evening paseo is an institution in Benidorm as much as it is in more traditional Spanish towns. Indeed, notwithstanding the point tower building type, the transformation of Benidorm from fishing village to tourist metropolis parallels Spanish tourism development in general, which has consistently taken on the form of relatively compact urban extensions to historical towns or villages. The isolated, protected and all-inclusive resort complex is rare in Spain, which has always promoted its culture and lifestyle as part of the beach-tourism experience with slogans such as “Spain is different”. This blending of tourism with local culture has made tourism construction relatively indistinguishable from normal urbanization. It is in fact often difficult to distinguish hotels from apartment buildings in Spain, were it not for signage.
In the final analysis, and despite its unusual overall appearance, Benidorm is really not so different, then. Its density, the fine-grain of its ground plane, its public spaces and its walkability make it as much of a Mediterranean city as the traditional, more ‘charming’ fishing villages of postcards. Perhaps too much is made of high-rise versus low-rise development; of urban form as a determinant of urban life. If anything, Benidorm is more of a testament to the perseverance of culture in spite of the forms into which it is placed.