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Vacant Spaces in Gran Torre Santiago:

A Study on the Post-Pandemic Obsolescence of the Office Building Typology

This dissertation will examine one of the major impacts that the COVID-19 has had on our cities, namely, the abandonment of the office as the predominant workplace due to the pervasive spread of remote work. Far from corresponding to a conjuntural event, it will be shown that this process was already underway before the pandemic. To support this assertion, this essay will review several authors whose work will help to understand this change from a technological, cultural and economic point of view. To avoid studying the subject in a purely theoretical way, this paper will focus on the Gran Torre Santiago as a case study. This skyscraper is the tallest building in Chile and has remained largely vacant since its completion in 2014. Through a historiographical account of this project, it will be argued that the tower embodies the country’s recent history which has been strongly shaped by the same failed neoliberal policies that allowed the proliferation and subsequent obsolescence of office buildings all over the world. Finally, the findings of this investigation will help to speculate about the future of the office building typology. As cities all over the world rely on the existence of central neighbourhoods specialised in office buildings, the decline of this typology is emerging as a subject of the utmost importance for 21st century architecture. Thankfully, at the same time it can be an opportunity to correct some of the mistakes of the past. 

During the lockdown, like many people around the globe, I killed the boredom by watching television shows on my laptop. As I wanted to stay optimistic, my usual choice was any of the comedies that the streaming service recommended to me. Probably because of the times that we were living in, there was one which I remember with special fondness: the American version of The Office. This sitcom, aired between 2005 and 2013, is a window to a pre-pandemic world where nothing exceptional – at least in appearance – happened. The plot revolves around the everyday life of the employees of a paper and office supply sales company who have plenty of time to do anything but work due to the decreasing demand for their products. While watching the show, I could not help identifying with them and was even a little bit nostalgic about going to my own office. This was not, of course, because of the work itself, which I began doing remotely without much trouble, but because of all the social encounters that, just like for the characters in the show, were a fundamental part of my everyday life. Whatever the case, the show foreshadowed a neoliberal economy that was already in crisis, where semi-skilled workers of the service industries (salesmen, secretaries, human resources, management, accountants, etc.) lived under the permanent anxiety of becoming unemployed overnight. Less than a decade after its finale, it would be unthinkable to film The Office in today’s Work From Home (WFH) world. 

Like those employees selling paper in an increasingly digital world, when the pandemic broke out I had been working for five years in an architectural practice that specialised in the design of office buildings. As lockdowns extended and remote work became the norm, almost all of our projects were suspended or put on hold. When talking to colleagues and the people involved in the real estate business (fellow architects, contractors, builders, clients, providers, etc.) they all insisted that this was just a temporary thing. However, as the time went by and telecommuting remained, it became increasingly difficult to sustain that viewpoint. Was the time of the office, once a vital technology, over?[1]

As the subject of this paper was born from a personal concern, this question will also be approached in a similar manner. It has been said that Chile, my home country, has anticipated many historical processes before they happened in other parts of the world. It famously did so when Salvador Allende became the first socialist president democratically elected. It did it again when the country became the world’s ‘first experiment with a neoliberal state formation’[2] during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, a system that is still in place by means of the 1980 Constitution imposed by that regime. Although this model was very successful in economic terms, it failed to curb inequality, a situation that was the breeding ground for the social unrest that led to general outburst in 2019. These contradictions also found expression in the country's built environment, nowhere more visibly than in the cluster of skyscrapers in Santiago’s financial district. These buildings, which proudly stand against the Andes mountain range backdrop, offer an image that has nothing to do with the life conditions in the poor barrios that look at them from a distance. However, just as with the country’s apparent development, there was something unsettling in this picture: Gran Torre Santiago, the tallest tower of the ensemble, had been largely uninhabited since its inauguration in 2014. Perhaps it would not be unreasonable to think that these vacant spaces also were an anticipation of things to come. 

To investigate this, I will focus on Gran Torre Santiago as an object of study. This 300-metre skyscraper was designed by the Argentinian architect Cesar Pelli and is the tallest building in South America to date. To understand such a colossal skyscraper was built in a modest city like Santiago, it will be necessary to review its broader context, arguing that it represents a culmination point in the country’s recent history, which has been strongly shaped by the implementation of an uncompromising neoliberal agenda. As the same ideology is to be blamed for the uncontrolled proliferation of this building type all over the world, the findings on this particular case study will be a valid tool to understand the office vacancy phenomenon in other geographical locations. 

However, the decline of the office building typology cannot be explained by economic reasons alone. A second major factor to analyse will be the technological aspect. It would have been impossible to implement remote work successfully without fast internet connections and software to work online. However, these two variables still do not explain the abandonment of the office building as the ultimate workplace by themselves, as they both already existed before the pandemic. A third major factor to analyse is culture. For reasons that will be explained later, there was and still is a prejudice against working from home as it is seen as not as productive as working from the office. Only through the imposition of compulsory lockdowns was it possible to realise that remote work was a viable option. 

[1] This question is borrowed from Mario Carpo’s recent article ‘Op-ed: The office was once a vital technology, but its time may be over’, The Architect’s Newspaper, 17 March, 2022, 

[2] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 7. 

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