Controversial skyscraper alters Chile capital skyline

Controversial skyscraper alters Chile capital skyline

The 70-story Gran Torre Costanera Center, a giant that dwarfs the city's other skyscrapers, overwhelms the view of a city founded in 1541 by Spanish conquistadors and that remains proud of its colonial-era buildings.

Workers completed the top floor of the nearly $1 billion structure in February, and in March 2013 tenants are expected to start moving in.

The 300-meter tall Gran Torre is not as tall as New York's iconic Empire State Building (381 meters) and is less than half the size of the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa (828 meters). But it is significantly taller than the other regional giant, the Trump Ocean Club in Panama City (293 meters).

A six-floor shopping mall has also risen next to the Gran Torre, and three other skyscrapers -- two high-end hotels and an office building -- are going up nearby.

The Gran Torre was built to withstand earthquakes -- Chile, located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, is especially prone to powerful quakes. The building came through with flying colors in February 2010, surviving the 8.8 magnitude quake that devastated much of south-central Chile with no structural damage.

Residents and city planners complain that people going to and from the complex will generate massive traffic jams and gridlock in an already tightly-packed city.

Once the edifice is completed, there will be nearly 700,000 square meters of building space available built on 47,000 square meters of land. Planners estimate there will be some 240,000 people going to and from the site each day.

"We're talking about five percent of the city circulating within a few square kilometers," complained architect and urban planner Julio Hurtado.

"The long-term consequences of this chaos it will be a topic for experts to study," he told AFP.

-- Capitalist excess or icon of progress? --

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The Gran Torre is located in the heart of Santiago's financial district, and known locally as Sanhattan.' It was designed by Cesar Pelli, the Argentine architect who also designed the 452-meter tall Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Taller than even some of the Andean hills surrounding Santiago, the Torre is now a universal point of reference in this city of six million people.

Its owner, German-born supermarket magnate Horst Paulmann, once gushed that the site will be for Santiago what the Eiffel Tower is for Paris -- a comparison that raised eyebrows, if not snickers.

"The Eiffel Tower is a monument, not a building. There is no comparison," said Luis Eduardo Bresacini, head of Chile's Architects' Association.

The building may lack the graceful curves of Gustave Eiffel's iconic structure, but the torpedo-like structure is not without some grace.

"It's a fairly neutral building," said Bresacini.

Hurtado was kinder. "From an architectural point of view, it is interesting and unique. A pretty object," he told AFP.

In many ways the Gran Torre is emblematic of 21st century Chile, a country with strong economic growth but with enormous income disparity, where ten percent of the country's wealthiest have income 35 times higher than the poorest 10 percent.

The Gran Torre, which will have 41 elevators and 5,500 parking spots when it opens, "is a symbol of the evolution of wealth, which in Chile is shown but not shared," said Hurtado.

It also symbolizes "a country at the threshold of being developed but still with brutal contradictions," he said.

The builders praise their structure as "the most imposing commercial and architectural landmark in Santiago" and "emblematic of Chile's commercial development."

Work on the giant structure halted for ten months in 2009, during the height of the global financial crisis. The shell at the time seemed to symbolize the country's shattered dreams of economic grandeur.

But when work re-started, it became a symbol of Chile's economic recovery.