The urbanity of towers.

The fact that at this moment the malice sought by villains of two of the fiction programs of the Argentine open TV prime­time consists of building towers gives us an idea of how people currently see this typology architecture by many inhabitants in the city of Buenos Aires. The fact that the aforementioned villains are not architects or engineers, but lawyers and businessmen, or that such towers on the one hand were to be built over the sacred territory of an originary town, and on the other, over the source of work of the leading characters, the recurrence of the conflicting object confirms us what the media show almost every day: many inhabitants in our city disregard the tower as a means to build our habitat. This manner to organize space and matter turned, for many, into something that shall be fought against, and, in fact, is today a protest issue which is consented by people who are unable to move in order to fight for any other right being forbidden.

The towers are devices with a very much powerful symbolic potential so as to go through not only the history of architecture but also the culture as a whole. As towers appear in myths from the Babel Tower (much before anyone could imagine and develop the technical methods to build at height), the Wonders from ancient times, from which two of seven ­the Coloso de Rodas and the Faro de Alejandría­ were constructions where the vertical axle prevails over the horizontal axle and finally one of the most powerful methods regarding which over the last centuries people and institutions express their power –from the towers of the Italian cities in Middle Ages till the current corporations­, considering the towers useful for religious cults as the Islam minarets or the Western massifs in Carolingian churches.

And whether the symbolic weight is one of the elements which have made them most hated especially due to the fact that they have always symbolized power ­religious, political, military, and economic­ has also made them fascinating and memorable: many cities have, proudly, a tower as a symbol. The Eiffel tower is a symbol in Paris, the Piazza dei Miracoli tower is situated in Pisa, among many others. Even the Russian Revolution was going to have their great symbol in the form of tower with the Monument to the International Third War, from Tatlin. And as synthesis of all this collection of evidences of the towers’ symbolic potential, the main political­military­mediatic even in our times: the attack to the World Trade Center ­or Twin Towers­ in New York. But if the towers started to be seen as something useful, that is because over the last 130 years they have mainly become a technical method to organize the space where a great part of our lives is being developed, other than a manner to raise public symbols. And in this proceeding started upon the technical developments of steel, first, and assembled concrete, after, as support systems, and the invention of vertical rising systems –carried out at the end of XIX century­ where it was possible to live with these devices, as residence or workplace.

And the result of this conjunction ­the skyscraper­ which first led to the vertiginous development of American cities, was then taken by the architects of the self­called Modern Movement (first European movement) to develop options for what would be its leit­motiv: the construction of the house with optimal habitability and in a sufficient scale to give shel to new urban masses created from the industrial revolution. And the habitability shall apply both for the interior and the exterior. Therefore, the biggest critics of European architects (with Le Corbusier at the front) to the American skyscraper shall be its urban location and the conflicting relation with the traditional city they had, as it was soon discovered that the small cities of the traditional city did not support buildings of such height without condemn them to permanent darkness. That is why they imagine that the towers should be built in large green spaces and therefore the improvement in the habilitability conditions forgot the traditional city and the proven functioning of its public space system.

And there a deep change of meaning was caused. The purpose that it was the great power symbol of a few would be in this manner the solutions to the most daily problems of many. And this daily nature resulted in banality. If the skyscrapers started being the image of the metropolitan life, the towers soon turned into the place the State provided to whom could not settle their problem of housing by themselves, and were during some part of the past century symbol of social housing.

But these had something to give to whom could indeed solve the housing problem: Optimal life conditions in the intimate and powerful symbols in public. Consequently, the towers resumed in many cities (and ours is one of them) their symbolic power, especially after the State disappear as promoter and the new poor people were that poor (and above all in conditions of that informality) who could not be able to pay the maintenance costs of this type of building. Even what has been a search of socialist governments (the building of large towers with multiple central services, represented in our means by the Hogar Obrero groups) became another status symbol: the tower with amenities. What was a search for comfort, sport and facilities for the woman emancipation (represented in meeting rooms, gyms, laundries and care centers) become something outstanding. And what was a tool to improve the life of people started to be seen as a pervert object, thanks to which some of them will win a lot of money, a few others will live very well and many of them will be adversely affected.

But against the new problem of energetic sustainability and global warming, inherent to our cities as one of their main sources, the tower appears again as a powerful tool. As even though the operation of a tower requires large amount of energy (both for its construction and its maintenance), the model of city created by the implicit low density of individual housing started to cause big problems in our cities. The great territory extension so affected and the large amounts of power necessary for moving in this cities led someone as the so much unsuspected real­estate speculator such as Mike Davis to claim for an increase in our cities’ density. Because the low density city model is not only the extended city demanding great amount of power to carry out the moves –in addition to the unfair loss of time, which generally adversely affect people of minor resources. We might like the image of a family living in a recycled “chorizo” house ­urban of course­, and it might seem to be the ideal way of living for both us and our children. But the consequences in the urban organization manner involved in this type of construction are as much terrible as unfair. Many people are condemned to live in suburbs increasingly further and unattended. The cost of construction, maintenance and sustainability of this type of city is much high that only high resources sectors may support it. And they do it competing in this manner by the only good which allowed the poor people to have something similar to a house in our cities when the State abandoned them –the low rural land cost­. And if the access to material and symbolic goods offered by a city became mobile for the rich, continued being fixed for the poor which, in this manner, the only option they have to have access to these goods is by being close. Near any service of any kind ­health, education, sports, culture, etc­. For this reason, our cities shall be denser to become fairer, more democratic and more sustainable. Even to become more ecologic –nothing more destructive for a territory than hyper­extended small villages­.

And here begins the problem quoted at the beginning: the Buenos Aires neighbors in the city’s most benefited sectors –that is the most attractive neighbors for those who want to improve their life­ reject the tool which shall allow for the access of the latter to more people. But what should be said is that these urban classes instead of rejecting the towers reject the people they bring in. Since beyond their symbolic power, the towers are still machines creating density. This is the hated part: Having to share the advantages of a sector in the city with people coming from another city sector (as per the economic moment this mobility shall be ascending or descending, but it shall be always undesirable for the first inhabitants of the neighbors.) The indexes of surfaces of green space per inhabitant are even to be used to reject the growth of density of a sector (even talking about a green space rather than public space shows the degradation of these concepts.) Instead of asking for more parks, no more people is asked to come. And it is enough to see how certain public spaces are designed to clarify the vocation of expelling people which are not from the site existing today in our city ­the ‘plaza’, we shall call it somehow, built between Bullrich Avenue and the railways in Pacifico and the grilled system of public spaces we had in the last decade are a clear example of all this.

And by considering that the rejection to towers is the rejection to their future inhabitants, it should be also said that one of the arguments so described –the banality and lack of meaning of these buildings­ is also reactionary. Because here a serious contradiction in the perception of cultural devices may be found. Whoever aspire to have a more progressist method –that is, fair, democratic, inclusive­ to understand the reality they live in should not disregard certain methods of production which by democratizing the access to these property (either material or symbolic) proceed to banalize them. Because if a logic raises wherein the aristocracy is prestigious and the democratic banal (at least in architecture), the objects at their aristocratic­democratic moment shall not be prevailed over its democratic­banalyzed moment. Or this contradiction shall be at least understood.

And also comparing the towers –as critics­ to the eclectical­historicist architecture built by a certain sector in our city at the beginning of the XX century is also a topic. But was not that architecture what made Adolf Loos from the ‘Ciudad Potemkin’ to talk (referring to the minister of Catalina la Grande which created fake cities to make the empress happy in her visits to her town)? The ornamentation and character would be enough, according to this criterion, to convey meaning, but does it really do? It is clear that it does not, that the problem is deeper and it may have no solution. We might not support the exclusively instrumental character of this habitat, but where is the nonsense part? In towers or our lives? Because if the historicist architecture were the great moment of architecture in Argentina, which work of that period exceeds in architectonic quality the San Martín (finally a tower)? Or the Kavanagh (we shall recall those unprepared to which tradition it belongs)? Would the problem in our city be solved if only large architecture works would be built (whatever the criterion to judge it might be)?

It is obvious that a tower supporting security guards is an anti­urban gross, no matter its design. That is why the type of buildings built shall be modified, not eliminated. The manner in which use programs are articulated shall be the starting point for our habitat to start having sense, and this is a task not only for architects. When Hans Schmidt, upon the monotone critics to the new typologies of housing developed at the beginnings of Modern Movement, expressed that the monotony was not an aesthetic problem but a social one, he perfectly understood where the problem laid. Maybe what we should change it not towers, but our lives instead.