Cactus Tower, Barcelona: Short notes about speculations and cancellations


by Jesus Mayor

View Jesus Mayor's Biography

Jesus Mayor is a visual artist and architect based in Rotterdam.

Cactus Tower, Barcelona: Short notes about speculations and cancellations

Jesus Mayor

In 2005, Agbar Tower was built to host the headquarters of Aigües de Barcelona (Barcelona's water company). The need to justify new urban icons with symbolic meanings led an internationally acclaimed architect at the time, Jean Nouvel to describe his design as a great geyser rising into the sky. Barcelona residents, however, refer to it as "the suppository". As an art research project, Cactus Tower's point of departure is in 2013, when the company Agbar, owner of Agbar Tower in Barcelona, announced its decision to sell this iconic urban landmark. In a few months the building was abandoned and even today (three years later by the time of this writing in 2016), this iconic tower, symbol of modernity and contemporary design, remains empty without any intended use.

Once Agbar decided to offload its tower, it was sold to Hyatt Hotels in 2013 to be transformed into a luxury hotel. During this process the anti-eviction activist Ada Colau was elected mayor of Barcelona in 2015 and the licences for new hotels were put on hold. The aim was to slow down the process of tourism in Barcelona, and to make other urgent problems in the city such as the lack of affordable housing a new priority. In 2017 Hyatt Hotels cancelled the project due to the difficulties to obtain the license. Paradoxically the action of this cancellation worked as generator of all kind of speculations about how to reuse the tower.


The word speculation has different meanings:

  1. The contemplation or consideration of some subject.

  2. A conclusion or opinion reached by such contemplation.

  3. Engagement in commercial transactions that involve risk with the hope of profiting as a result of market fluctuations.1

Cactus Tower is part of the Speculations series that looks at the imaginary transformations of iconic buildings and places located in many cities around the world. Some of these buildings and places are internationally famous, while others are known only by locals, but all of them hide peculiar stories that characterize them with special meanings.

Each "speculation" takes the form of a visual poem that transforms our current perception of a specific place with a new aesthetic purpose. These visual transformations produce symbolic mutations that raise questions about intertwined global phenomena such as land speculation, gentrification, city branding, tourism, social segregation, or the monumentalizing of the institutional, nationalistic, bureaucratic and religious identity in contemporary cities such as Barcelona.

The artwork is showed to the public included video-art pieces and large scale photographs presented together with a short text that informs the observer about the historical and social context of the place. Both, information and image form a symbiotic diptych in which the visual information is complemented by the written information providing a narrative dimension to the work.

CACTUS TOWER explores the relationship between signified and signifier in the contemporary urban, social and political context of Barcelona. Similar to what Henri Lefebvre defined as the right to the city (1968). I wish for Speculation to invite my audience to reflect on the role of urban landmarks, iconic architecture, city branding, touristification, gentrification.


Cancellations can become a source of creativity, not only the action itself, but also the collateral effects produced by this action. Particularly interesting is the moment that follows after a plan just has been cancelled and before a new one is created. That precise moment provides the perfect conditions to stimulate very different kinds of speculation, namely to speculate in real estate or artistically with your imagination. Cactus Tower was born in such a moment, as a result of the cancellation of the plan to transform the office tower into a five star hotel during a time when the socio-political context of Barcelona radically changed. Citizens were demonstrating in the streets against the tourism in their city. As the 2015 elected mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau mentioned in an interview published in the Guardian: "Any city that sacrifices itself on the altar of mass tourism will be abandoned by its people when they can no longer afford the cost of housing, food and basic everyday necessities" (qtd. in Hancox, 2016).

As it was reported widely in international media like the BBC News website:

"Hundreds of families in Spain are evicted every day, after falling behind on mortgage payments and under Spain's draconian laws they must continue paying off the loan even after the home has been repossessed... . Across Spain, though, some 350,000 families have been forced out of their homes since the property market crashed in 2008". (qtd. in Ash, 2014)

Cactus Tower is conceived as an artistic speculation that playfully transforms one of the most iconic and expensive buildings of Barcelona into a social housing project by inviting the unexpected and probing the financially impossible while also investigating social reality as the current status quo.

The artistic speculation mixes fiction with reality and is supported by the urgency of the current time. According to Carme Trilla, the president of the Habitat 3 foundation:

"Barcelona can't meet the current housing demand because the city has no more available land for new developments. Since the 1980s the city has only increased its housing stock by about 3,000 to 4,000 units in total, when a city of 1.6 million needs about 20,000 units per year to meet the demand." (qtd. in Valerio, 2016)

Facing such urgency, Cactus Tower combines a real cancellation with an artistic one in order to help to support a situation in Barcelona that negates what Guy Debord described as the pervasive alienation that accompanies the society of the spectacle (1967). Finally, the logic dictated by advanced capitalism based on false desires and the glorification of accumulated capital is confronted with the questioning role of art.

Works cited

Ash, Lucy. "Ada Colau: Spain's anti-eviction crusader". BBC News. February 19th 2014. Web.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle). Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967. Print

Hancox, Dan. "Is this the world's most radical mayor?". The Guardian, World News. May 26th 2016. Web.

Lefebvre, Henry. The right to the city (Le Droit à la ville). Paris: Seuil, 1968. Print.

Valerio, Pablo. "Barcelona Facing New Housing Problems and Airbnb". Cities of the Future. June 30th 2016. Web.


  1. Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House