I recently had the pleasure of visiting Malmö, Sweden; best known –in terms of contemporary architecture– for its Santiago Caltrava-designed ‘Turning Torso’ skyscraper, Scandinavia’s tallest building and Europe’s tallest residential tower at time of completion. Its politically problematic construction became the subject of a documentary film titled The Socialist, the Architect and the Twisted Tower, by Frederik Gertten, in 2005. Focussing mainly on the figure of Johnny Örbäck, who, as CEO of the Swedish housing cooperative HSB Malmö commissioned the 190 meter tower after seeing the sculpture by Calatrava titled ‘Turning Torso’, the documentary portrays a heroic struggle to build ‘visionary’ architecture in a region with a tradition of Lutheran socialism. As seems to happen with many building projects that attempt to reach new heights (figuratively speaking), and as seems to happen with almost anything designed by Calatrava, ‘Turning Torso’ –the building– incurred immense cost overruns and delays. Johnny Örbäck was sacked by members of the cooperative he led before the project was completed, and was later tried for fraud and sentenced to 18 months in prison; charges for which he was eventually absolved in a court of appeal.
The idea of constructing a geometrically and structurally complex 54 story skyscraper by a housing cooperative grounded in socialist ideals may seem somewhat contradictory to most of us; not to say twisted. In the documentary, Örbäck justifies his intentions by arguing that the process of constructing the tower would allow HSB to gain technical knowledge and experience that it could then apply to ‘normal’ housing in Sweden; raising the standard of housing, as it were, through a transfer of technology. He compares the tower to a Formula 1 race car, arguing that a number of innovations in mass-produced automobiles have their origins in F1 car racing. As I have mentioned before, a parallel exists in architecture: the invention of the glass curtain wall, for example, which is today an ordinary and banal building ‘element’, came about thanks to early modernist vanguard experiments with glass walls that were hand-crafted, expensive and inefficient.
This raises a question, however: just what does building the world’s first helicoidal skyscraper, as technologically innovative and complicated as that may be, have to do with mass-housing, the business of HSB? It’s true that residential skyscrapers are ubiquitous in many cities, but it’s also true that in most of these cases they are only accessible by the wealthiest members of society. Skyscrapers cannot provide affordable housing in most of the world’s economies, so does it really make sense to seek massively applicable housing technology through a building that reaches a height of 54 stories while doing the twist? I can think of other architectural challenges that are probably more relevant, such as that of constructing ten to twelve story buildings entirely out of wood, a renewable building material that sequesters carbon instead of emitting it into the atmosphere.
If we look at the car-racing model again, it is evident that, in the age of global climate change brought on by the incessant massive burning of fossil fuels, endurance races involving zero-emission vehicles are the only kind of car race with any relevance as far as the notion of technology transfer is concerned. Formula 1 is essentially irrelevant, and has been so ever since, 25 years ago, Exxon knew global warming was a global threat but positioned itself to deny its existence.
Turning Torso is, without a doubt, a very elegant inhabitable sculpture. I would even have to admit it is Calatrava’s best building. Visible from as far away as Copenhagen across the Oresund Strait, it moreover works beautifully as a landmark. It is certainly highly innovative in terms of skyscraper aerodynamics, since wind is what tall buildings must resist most, as well as being structurally innovative, of course. But as far as mass-housing goes, Turning Torso is only relevant to the relatively small luxury high-rise sector. I really don’t see much relevance, if any, in terms of affordable mass-housing. Perhaps I’m being impatient, but the way things are going, it doesn’t look like luxury skyscrapers are set to become a new housing standard for the majority of society any time soon; even the majority of Swedes.
In retrospect, the argument of technology transfer appears to be a post-rationalization on the part of a Mr. Örbäck politically stuck between a rock and a hard place. The reality is that he was completely seduced by Calatrava’s sculpture, which is of course something that a socialist can never admit in public.