Pelli Tower in Seville: the dialectic of the renovation of urban landscapes and heritage conservation

Alfonso Fernández Tabales & Rémy Knafou

The future completion in Seville of the tower called “Torre Pelli” (named after its architect) or “Torre Cajasol” (name of the sponsor) shows a major debate in Europe about the difficult relationship in the cities, between the conservation of their traditional image and the emergence of new architectural works with ability to modify the image.

The relevance of this debate stems from the confluence of several factors, among them the uniqueness of the affected city, Seville, with a remarkable historical and artistic heritage, a strong presence in the collective imagination of the Western world, and a growing productive orientation towards tourism development. In addition, city landscape presents a situation likely to arouse controversy, with a horizontal skyline dominated by the cathedral (the largest Gothic church in the world) and, especially, the minaret of La Giralda, the work of Islamic architecture topped by a Renaissance bell tower (XVI century), with its 98 meters high is the identifying symbol of the city.TorreCajasol

Pelli Tower and La Giralda (may 2012) – © R. Knafou

In this urban context, real and symbolic, raised in recent years the design of a high-rise building on the grounds of the Universal Exhibition of 1992, in the immediate vicinity of the historic core. This project, after an international competition, is assigned to the office of architect Cesar Pelli (famous, among other works, as the author of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur), which proposed a tower, 180 meters high, with offices and commercial uses at the base and a restaurant at the top.TorreCajasol2

Pelli Tower and Guadalquivir (january 2013) – © A. Fernández Tabales

This construction clearly alters the landscape perspective, especially from the historical center and has generated strong local debate. It is sure that the visibility of the new building will depend on the position and the point of view of the observer (this is one of the central points of the controversy). It is undeniable that will result a transformation of the vision of the whole city from the roads and more particularly from the banks of the Guadalquivir, the traditional place of contemplation of the urban landscape and touristic center (actually upgrading by local authorities). For all these reasons, a real debate takes place between those who believe that the traditional urban landscape, heritage identity element of the first order (we can add also a tourism resource) is irretrievably altered, and those who defend the idea that the city is a living organism that must adapt to changes and therefore that can be no urban landscapes “untouchable”, under penalty of fossilization.

In this debate, the position of UNESCO appears as an external factor: indeed, Seville has three registered heritage buildings (Cathedral, Alcazar and Archivo de Indias) and we can fear that the impact on the landscape of the Pelli Tower on them will lead to enter the city on the list of World Heritage in Danger (and, ultimately, to its decommissioning), with negative consequences on its image in general and tourism resources in particular. Indeed, UNESCO had already called in 2009 to stop the work. But this recommendation was ignored by local authorities and the companies. Currently, UNESCO has not adopted a final resolution, simply requested a new report on the work and its impact on the registered buildings.

In parallel to this debate about heritage and identity, we can discuss the issue of long-term costs and benefits of tourism considering transformations of the traditional image of historic cities. Indeed, the defenders of the Pelli Tower stressed the growth of economic activity and employment related to construction and operation, however, these analyzes do not take into account the true cost of transformations induced by “modernization” of the image of the city, which is currently its main resource: its uniqueness and its aesthetic identity.

Thus, in a European and global context in which cities and urban landscapes become increasingly similar and therefore monotonous after a misunderstood modernization policies that actually translate into banality and loss of diversity, tourism, activity in which differentiation and uniqueness is a key factor of production competitiveness of destinations, becomes a valuable ally argument for policy management of the entire urban landscape, overcoming the usual scale centered on conservation of individual monuments.

There are more than 20 years, Cesar Pelli evoked the responsibility of skyscrapers: “True skyscrapers are charged with representational responsibilities to act, by virtue of their towering height, as markers of place, sculptors of the city silhouette and as conveyors of public image” (Crilley, 1993, quoted by McNeill D., 2005). Applying this analysis to his current intervention in the urban landscape of Seville, we can found more arguments to bring to the opponents of the project… Especially because the problem caused by this tower in Seville should not be reduced to the question of the tension between conservation and modernity.

It is absolutely clear that a city is a living organism, and that a city as Seville can’t have only one ambition to be a reservoir of past urban forms intended for the sole satisfaction of tourists, though their visits always increase and contribute to an economy in crisis. In addition, the Expo 1992 had shown the ability to coexist here, on either bank of the Guadalquivir, a historic center and a new city inherited overturned towards new technologies. But why should urban modernity illustrated preferentially with towers, especially when they have no originality? The question deserves to be raised as much more than Seville (which already has a surplus of unoccupied office floor for lack of demand) does not show an economic dynamism that justifies the need for a tower that, at present, it risks mostly symbolize the ego of its creators, the limits of democratic participation and effectiveness of clientelism.

Actually one thing is certain: Andalusia began to collect isolated towers; indeed, the Cajasol Tower in Seville has just been added to the Laguna Tower in El Ejido (completed in 2011), a city with a population of 83 000 inhabitants, which is probably the example of the highest skyscraper (105m) in a small town.

If the invasion of the plain by the “sea of plastic” with greenhouses makes the fortune of the place and may possibly justify the lack of space and the need to build high, this wondered about the existence of an “El Ejido syndrome” to build a tower without requirement linked to urban land. The future will show to what extent Seville will stand out from the case of El Ejido.

El EjidoTorre Laguna (El Ejido) under construction (december 2006) – © R. Knafou


McNeill D., 2005, ‘Skyscraper Geography’, Progress in Human Geography, 29(1), pp. 41-55.


Electronic reference :
Alfonso Fernández Tabales & Rémy Knafou, Pelli Tower in Seville: the dialectic of the renovation of urban landscapes and heritage conservation, Via@, News in brief, posted on march the 20th, 2013.


Alfonso Fernández Tabales
University of Seville

Rémy Knafou
University of Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne