Human Tower on the Rise in the City

Captura de pantalla 2012-06-18 a les 13.49.59

Goldcrest Films International

Castellers de Vilafranca del Penedès build a human tower at a street festival in 2010 in the city of Tarragona in the Catalonia region of Spain. 

The next tower going up in New York City is a lively one. In fact, it’s alive.

A group of adventurous Catalans from northeast Spain are crossing the Atlantic this week to build human towers that will soar into the Manhattan sky. They could rise as high as eight people tall in a quixotic pursuit popular in parts of Spain but little known in this country.

This don’t-try-at-home daredevilry follows on the heels—so to speak—of Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The group, called Castellers de Vilafranca del Penedès, will construct human towers Wednesday on the roof of the building at 230 Fifth Ave. (They had hoped to make one in Times Square but could not get approval.)

On Thursday they will perform as part of the Make Music New York festival both in Central Park and in Battery Park. On Saturday, they hope to build a tower across from the United Nations. Two different films on human towers are slated to be screened in Manhattan coinciding with their visit. 

Since the eight-level tower they are planning to build Wednesday will be atop a roof, it can technically claim to be the “highest” ever, said filmmaker Ram Devineni with a smile. Thankfully, the group has a global insurance policy.

Mr. Devineni, a Manhattan-based information technologist who has made a documentary film called “The Human Tower,” said the question most often posed to him about human towers is: “Why?” He said, “There’s no logical reason for it. But there is something beautiful and profound about it.” He calls it “visual poetry.”

Organizers say the towers are a symbolic tribute to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site as well as a figurative way of building trust in society. Mr. Devineni said that these mortal structures are an exercise in community. Ordinary people, not professional acrobats, come together to execute the feat, he said. In Catalonia, each prideful town rallies behind its team, much like high school football in America.

How exactly is tower building done? Many people compress against one another to make the bottom section. The lightest people, who compose the very uppermost levels, climb up spider-like to the top. “The idea,” Mr. Devineni said, “is never to put all the weight one person.”

Cano Rojas, his co-director and co-producer, said the towers are an intergenerational endeavor. “There’s room for everyone,” he said.

The human tower builders are engaged in an activity that has been recognized by Unesco—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—on a list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

The main occasion for tower building in India is the Dahi Handi Festival. “It’s the Super Bowl of human tower building there,” said Mr. Devineni.

According to the Castellers of Barcelona website, the origin of these towers appears to date back to the 18th century in the town of Valls, south of Barcelona. The beginnings in India are shrouded in religious lore. The story apparently goes that Lord Krishna as a child eagerly sought to reach a pot of butter hanging out of reach, and organized his friends to help get to it.

Mr. Devineni got hooked on the subject after coming across human towers on YouTube when he was seeking to make a film about how humans conceive of perfect mathematical shapes. “When I saw poor Indians building human towers, I knew there was a real movie here.”

Mr. Devineni said there was one thing that goes into the minds of those watching tower building.

“The viewers of my film are always wondering when the tower is going to fall.” He said, “There have been injuries but few go to the hospital from making towers, strangely enough.”

Still, Mr. Devineni worried about filming inside these towers. “I knew I had to get those shots. It was critical for the film’s suspense.” He paused to add, “My greatest concern was that they were going to fall on me and kill me.”