The Tall Building Politically Reconsidered

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The tall building has been an expression of machista one-upmanship since its earliest beginnings. San Gimignano’s stone towers are a built testament to the rivalry that existed between ruling families in Medieval times; a rivalry that continues to this day, only now it’s happening in places like Beijing, Dubai or Vals, and this time around it’s a global rivalry between city-brands. But despite all the technological know-how required to erect these mastodons, the underlying message is still a neanderthal “mine is bigger than yours.”

Speaking of Vals, I’ve never made the pilgrimage to the famous bathhouse by Peter Zumthor. I would really love to go sometime, but Switzerland is so horribly expensive and so upright and uptight that I just can’t bring myself to do it. Why did Zumthor’s masterpiece have to be built where it is? Couldn’t it have been built across the border in the French, Italian or Austrian Alps? From what I see in the latest news, however, I realize I better get the courage and the funds together for a Switzy-trip soon, because it looks like Vals may (pending approval via referendum) become Heimat to one of the tallest buildings in Europe: a super-luxury hotel for the turbo-rich Cayenne-driving set that is sure to cast a long shadow over the mythical bathhouse.

Just why anybody would want to build Europe’s tallest hotel in a quaint little mountain village is beyond me. I mean, seeking global notoriety through global architecture is so ‘out’ now that it’s become an embarrassing cliché. But there are also architectural and urban arguments against this proposal: super-tall buildings simply don’t work on an aesthetic level when they are alone and by themselves; i.e. when they are lone-standing expressions of hyper-exceptionality. Tall buildings only work well collectively, as an aggregation. This is why Manhattan still sets the bar when it comes to tall buildings: the Manhattan skyscraper is collectively understood to form a part of a collective enterprise (but don’t take my word for it; read –or reread– Delirious New Yorkby Rem Koolhaas).

Tall buildings don’t work all by themselves because of the arrogance they express. A lone tall building is like a lone middle finger pointing upwards. An aggregation of tall buildings, on the other hand, speaks less of exceptionality and more of morphology and typology; of an urban system with a certain urban logic, even if this logic may seem delirious.

Recently, instead of embarking on my overdue architectural pilgrimage to Vals, I took a drive to a small town situated much closer to where I live: Benidorm, Spain. Like Vals, Benidorm is not very big, and like Vals, it makes its living largely from tourism as well as, to a lesser degree, agriculture (insofar as fishing falls under agriculture). But that’s where the comparisons end. Benidorm is a seaside town, it’s horribly crass, and it’s super-affordable, offering some the cheapest sun, sex and sangría holiday packages available. Benidorm is resoundingly modern, moreover, sporting hundreds of tall, slender buildings, including some of the tallest apartment buildings and hotels in Europe. As with any city comprised of tall buildings, some rock, while others troll. But Benidorm’s logic is resoundingly clear: a compact seaside town comprised of towers permits glimpses of the sea to be enjoyed from most vantage points within, whereas a fabric of traditional mid-rise perimeter blocks creates a privileged ‘front row’ of buildings with exclusive sea views that block the view to those in-behind. Far from arrogant, the Benidorm tower offers the pursuit of pleasure by the most efficient available means for a majority of people, which is not what the lone tower in Vals would do were it ever to be built.

Here’s the ultimate irony, however: Benidorm was largely built during a dictatorship, and the Vals tower is being put to a referendum in a longstanding Swiss tradition. Go figure.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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