Catalonia’s Human Towers

by Melissa García Lamarca

Castellers from Villafranca del Penedès build a human tower atop 230 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Source: Alexandra Dean Hitzler

My recent trip to New York City coincided with the first ever visit of a Catalonian human tower building team to the U.S. Hailing from the city of Villafranca del Penedès in northeastern Spain, they are one of the most renowned teams among 58 found in cities and towns across the Catalonia region.

Source: Gaudí y más...por Ana Ma Ferrin

Human towers, or castells as they are called in Catalan, are a tradition from the late eighteenth century that are still present and very popular at festivals across the region. UNESCO formally recognized human towers in November 2010, when they were declared an element of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. One could argue that the cultural inspiration of temporary castells has been made permanent through a renowned work of architecture: It is believed that Antoni Gaudí was inspired by castells in developing his designs for the Sagrada Família.

Human towers can be built up to 10 human-stories high through the combined strength of volunteers of all ages, social classes and professions. Indeed, it is only through deep cooperation that a team of about 150 people can build castells. The motto of castellers, those who make human towers, is "força, equilibri, valor i seny": strength, balance, courage and the mental capacity that enables just perception, appreciation, understanding and action.

Since a high level of teamwork and trust is fundamental to building human towers, castells can also be understood as a form to create communities of place. A 75-minute documentary film called The Human Tower, released earlier this year, explored community building through the construction of human towers in Santiago, Chile; Mumbai, India; and Vilafranca del Penedès, Spain.

If you are intrigued by castells, the festival season just started and continues until the end of November across Catalonia, particularly in the provinces of Tarragona and Barcelona. Some of the most important events are held in la Bisbal del Penedès on Aug. 15, in Vilafranca del Penedès on Aug. 30 and Nov. 1, at La Mercè Festival in Barcelona in September, at the Diada de Santa Ursula in Valls in late October, and at the Diada dels Minyons de Terassa in Terrassa in late November. There is also a castle competition, the Concurs de Castells, held every two years in Tarragona, on the first Sunday in October.

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  1. Fascinating. From the looks of it going down is more difficult than going up; I wonder how that translates in terms of a metaphor for building collaborative human projects.

    I have read about the number 150 as a sort of golden quantity for human settlements.

    Thanks Mel!

  2. Thank you for the comment Cam! Yes if the base is unsteady the tower can easily crumble, something that can happen both on the way up or down.

    Great question re the translation for building collaborative human projects. I was intrigued learning through another documentary called Enxaneta ("rider" in English, referring to the top most person on a human tower, usually a 7-8 year old child) how intense collaboration is absolutely fundamental to build a successful tower, especially the elaborate and tall constructions. They talk about "failure", how one can feel the tower start to crumble and how that sensation is transmitted to all, the fear in the moments before falling.

    And thanks for the info on the number 150, hadn't heard that before. An interesting bit for me is how there are perhaps at most 20 maybe 30 people in the actual tower, and over one hundred needed to build an incredibly solid base.