Santiago’s new skyscraper, the tallest in Latin America, is an engineering marvel. It’s standing almost empty

The Gran Torre Santiago – Great Tower of Santiago – under construction in 2012. Image: AFP/Getty.

The skyline of Santiago, the capital of Chile, has always been at a disadvantage: unlike cities such as London, New York, or Chicago, Santiago’s towers have to compete with the significantly taller Andes mountains nearby. But now, the city is closing that height gap a bit by unveiling a new mega office tower.

This tower weighs in with 64 floors, or 300m (984ft) of height, and a remarkably unimaginative name: the Gran Torre Santiago, which literally means the “Great Santiago Tower”.  After opening last month, the tower became the tallest building not only in Chile, but in all of Latin America.

Given the fact that Chile experiences some of the strongest earthquakes on the planet, building such a tower required some serious engineering talent to pull off – something which proved crucial earlier this month, when the city was rattled by a massive 8.3 quake. And from the standpoint of architectural aesthetics, it’s passable – or at least less ugly than many other buildings in town. But from a business perspective, the building has been a dismal failure.

The Gran Torre Santiago got its start back in 2006, the brainchild of the German born, Chile-based CEO of the retail firm Cencosud SA, billionaire Horst Paulmann. Paulmann envisioned the tower as part of a larger complex including a luxury hotel, hospital, and the largest shopping mall in the country, to be dubbed the Costanera Center.

At the time, the project was forecast to cost $400m and to finish in mid 2009. When it broke ground in March 2006, Paulmann declared that it would become “the most imposing architectural and commercial landmark in Santiago, and the entire Southern Hemisphere”.

But not long after construction began, the project hit a snag. The global financial crisis in 2008 left backers nervous, and in January 2009 construction was suspended. After an 11-month hiatus, it resumed again that December, and Michelle Bachelet, the country’s president, oversaw the building’s reopening ceremony. No mention was made of the fact that the complex was already supposed to have been finished by then.

Though this would prove the most significant challenge to the tower’s completion, more setbacks were to come. In 2011, a dispute broke out between Cencosud and the tower’s supplier of glass panels, the Chinese firm Far East Aluminum, over discrepancies in the colour (!) of the glass. The dispute would add significant costs and delay the project by a total of 18 months.

Construction was also hampered due to complaints by local authorities over inadequate traffic planning. According to Chilean news site El Dinamo, Cencosud never obtained valid permits for its construction, and neglected to take into account the snarls such a large project would create in the Providencia neighbourhood where the building is located.

Nevertheless, construction trudged on, and the complex opened piecemeal. First came the shopping mall, which opened in 2013. Though some consider the mall a success, citing the fact that the retail space of its massive interior is nearly full, others point out that attendance is 33 per cent lower than projected.

But the tower itself, despite ending construction in 2014, never really had an official opening. In June 2015, Santiago’s La Tercera reported that the opening would come within a month, though it wasn’t until 11 August that the building was at least partially rolled out as the observation deck finally opened to the public.

This opening, the first commercial activity to take place in the tower, came nearly 10 years after the project first broke ground. By then, the entire complex had racked up a whopping $1bn in construction costs, more than doubling initial projections. Cencosud blamed this on the addition of the observation deck.

There’s no denying that the observation deck offers great views, at least on days when Santiago’s notorious smog stays under control. (The smog has led some cynical residents to dub the city Santiasco: “Santi-gross”.)

The tower under construction in 2012. Image: AFP/Getty.

But below the observation deck is a different story: the tower’s office space is sitting almost completely empty.

On 5 August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the tower was still completely empty, and the doors to the complex remained locked. According to the report, tenants could not occupy the building due to a lack of permits, which city authorities refused to give the building until it made needed traffic improvements to the surrounding area.

“It isn’t unusual for developers to lock horns with government officials over the impact of real-estate projects on such things as traffic and pollution,” the article remarked. “What is unusual is to wait to thrash out such issues on a high-profile project until it is completed and soaring above the city like a neon white elephant.”

Eventually, the Gran Torre Santiago finally found its first tenant. On 29 August, Chile’s The Clinic magazine reported that the pharmaceutical firm Bayer would be leasing the 22nd floor of the building, and roughly half of the 21st, a total floor space of 2,500m2.

Still, little has been said as to what is to become of the building’s remaining 62.5 floors. The Journal estimates that “it will take at least a year to finish the $60m worth of upgrades necessary to obtain permits to fill the entire tower.”

Despite endless delays and cost overruns, the building has nevertheless stoked the enthusiasm of many residents of Santiago and the rest of Chile. It plays to nationalistic pride, in a country that more often than not lives up to its reputation as a hotbed of conservatism. For this demographic, the tower is a concrete symbol of their vision for the country: a long thin island of free market sophistication amid a sea of South American savagery.

But not everyone shares this view. Some are concerned that the complex’s 5,695 parking spaces will discourage people from taking advantage of connections to the nearby metro line.

Others, like Nicolás Muñoz, a council member for the Providencia municipality of Santiago, feel the tower is an unwelcome addition to the neighbourhood. “We need a stronger commitment to public space, and a respect for the surrounding area,” Muñoz told El Dínamo. “The Costanera Center sucks the juice out of every last square inch of space, with little concern for a vision of shared urban areas.”

And the tower, hit hard by the economic crash of 2008, may yet feel the sting of another economic downturn. As China’s market cools, demand for Chilean copper exports has fallen off sharply. Since Chile’s economy depends heavily on these exports, this has had a direct effect in stifling demand for Santiago office space.

With the current economic slump, and continuing disputes between the tower’s owners and local authorities, it may be another decade before the building fills up.

Despite this uncertainty, at least part of the building has been a success: the observation deck. A favourite of tourists from Brazil, it nonetheless has built a strong following from Santiago locals. An article at Plataforma Urbana describes the scene: a young boy enthusiastically drags his father to the window and points to a building far away, his father nervously clasping his hand. “Look dad,” the boy says, “that’s our house!”

It must not have been very smoggy that day.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.