Think Pieces

THEME: Tall Buildings

Renzo Piano

Angela Brady in conversation with Renzo Piano | November 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

You are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display, this is purely to stop spam.

TAGS

  • London
  • Urban Design
  • Planning
  • Tall Buildings
  • Urban Density
  • Rapid Urbanisation
  • Population Growth
  • Vertical City

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Renzo Piano has talked about the Shard as a \’Vertical City\’. This notion was a key stimulus for this series of Think Pieces, and RIBA president Angela Brady recently asked Renzo to expand on this in his own words.

Renzo Piano / Tall Buildings from RIBA Building Futures on Vimeo.

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Renzo Piano was born into a family of builders in Genoa, Italy in 1937 – his family history has come to play an influential role in his philosophy as an architect, combining practical and academic experience and focusing on the craft and ‘making’ of buildings. He studied in Florence and Milan before setting up a design practice with Richard Rogers in London in 1971. Following the pairs’ now famous Centre Pompidou, Renzo moved to Paris and eventually founded Renzo Piano Building Workshop in 1981; a design practice that now commands an influential and international profile.

Recognition of his achievements has included awards such as the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1989, the Praemium Imperiale in Tokyo in 1995, the Pritzker Architecture Prize in1998, and the AIA Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 2008.

In 2012 Renzo completed The Shard in London for property developer Irvine Sellar.

Ken Yeang

A Vertical Theory of Urban Design | November 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

You are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display, this is purely to stop spam.

TAGS

  • Public Space
  • London
  • Urban Design
  • Landscape
  • Planning
  • Tall Buildings
  • Urban Density
  • Rapid Urbanisation
  • Demographics
  • Population Growth
  • Streets
  • Vertical City

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Rethinking the Skyscraper: A Vertical Theory of Urban Design

We need to reinvent the tall building typology. The tall building is a huge volume of built up space on a small footprint; in many tall buildings the volume of built up space can exceed several hectares, yet most of these structures today are nothing more than a series of repeated homogenous concrete floors plates stacked one on top of another, often in a single-use building, and only occasionally with multiple uses. It is this homogeneity that gives so much of our high-rise development its bad reputation; as demeaning and monotonous structures.

In our rethinking of the tall building typology, we need to design it as ‘vertical urbanism’. We need to consider tall building design, by virtue of its sheer intensity, no longer as simply architectural design dominated by expedient efficient structural engineering, but as ‘vertical urban design’. By this, we mean that we need to take all those aspects of urban design that are conventionally crucial at the horizontal plane, and now reconnect and transpose these onto the vertical dimension; as a vertical framework of urbanity ‘in the sky’ rather than \’on the ground\’.


Ken Yeang©

All those aspects of urban design such as place making, creating public realm, figure ground relationship, configuring the spaces between buildings, creating communities, providing public and private accessibility systems, establishing desire lines, maintaining ecological nexus in landscaping, creating vistas, etc. all need to be reconsidered vertically.

Take for example, place making. Vertically considered, the question of ‘place making in the sky’ immediately conjures up new opportunities, frequently ignored in the design of many tall buildings. By re-thinking the typology as \’vertical urban design\’ we start to consider a new way of designing tall buildings, with a cornucopia of new design opportunities, in a new vertical theory of urban design.


Ken Yeang©


Ken Yeang©

Most cities grow and there are a number of ways of accommodating this urban growth:

One way is to expand the city limits sideways by extending the city’s boundaries outwards, which often means building on arable land which reduces food production opportunities. If not on arable land, then greenfield land or forested and vegetated land, leading to a loss of biodiversity and increase in the overall urban heat island effect and increase in the city\’s ambient temperature.

The second way to accommodating urban growth is by building new satellite cites away from the metropolis. This option requires the satellite city to be linked to the metropolis by motorways or a rapid transit system. This energy intensive transportation infrastructure will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, certainly so long as we rely on fossil fuel energy sources.

The third, and by far the most commonly preferred approach, incurring the least capital cost, is to optimise land use within existing city boundaries – to build on brownfield sites within city limits and intensify land use on locations where this intensification can be sustainably justified, such as over existent public transportation hubs.

In most instances, city leaders tend to opt for the third strategy and its implementation often results in the tall building typology. With continued city growth tall buildings will likely be with us for a while, whether due to high land prices, owner’s egos for height, or by necessity due to rapid urban growth.

To ensure this intensification of urban land use remains a sustainable endeavor, it should be focused around transportation interchanges or other key hubs, reducing the high energy, high emission issues associated with personal transportation. We should also look to take the opportunity when possible to retrofit the existing building stock, utilities and landscaping within the city to make the city green; a coordinated move towards anecocity.

Moving from these concepts to reality should not be as such a big task as it would appear, but requires a change in the design profession’s mindset; to reject conventional wisdom for tall building design and rethink the typology as green vertical urban design.

Designing tall building as vertical urban design does not requre new construction and engineering technologies, they already exist we just need both architects and engineers to rethink their application in both design and construction. What is crucial is to use the latest in cleantech systems; engineering systems that are low in embodied energy, are carbon neural, and construction systems that facilitate disassembly for future reuse and recycling of materials.

There may be traditional, regionalist concerns by some in the far east that the tall building is essentially a Western import and hence must be ‘culturalised’ – that it has to be made ‘local’ with cultural motifs and features. They should not have any aversion to using imported built forms simply because they are not home grown. If we adopt this view, we might as well not use modern medicine and surgery just because these are imported. Generally stated, we should use what works best for our urban conditions and cities regardless of whether they are imported or not, provided they are the best fit to urban problems and that designers use these imports in their own way rather than through blind adoption. A more localized design strategy is a critical regionalist approach which ties the built configuration and its passive low-energy performance with the climate of the locality, in a passive-mode design.

For those cities that are already densely populated by skyscrapers, where scarcity of land is an issue (such as Singapore or Hong Kong), we should look at alternative ways of adapting existing built forms; by intensifying existing vertical buildings through horizontal linkage at upper levels, through better use of the ‘spaces between buildings’, through the use of spaces over existent roads and motorways, through better urban design and physical planning and with more efficient internal use of space, etc.

The retrofitting of our huge existing stock of buildings will become an even greater imperative than the design and construction of new tall buildings in the move to make our cities green and sustainable. This does not mean the widespread demolition, rebuilding and regeneration of existent urban areas but could mean careful retrofitting and insertions.

The challenge in making tall buildings part of the solution for sustainable urban growth, will be in finding efficient and rapid ways to make existing cites green, such as converting their energy systems into renewable energy systems, ensuring closed-cycle water management systems, implementing citywide sustainable urban drainage, providing an ecological nexus linking the city’s green areas with its hinterland’s natural landscape to make the region\’s ecology whole, developing a network of localised food production, reduction of urban pollution and reduction of waste by recycling, etc. There are of course other physical design issues in the new intensive vertical city such as multiple vertical land uses, enabling privacy and engendering habitable communities whilst also ensuring adequate fire and safety issues, etc.

Concurrent with the above we need new planning legislations to enable the new city as a three dimension urban design matrix of multiple spaces and functions.

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Ken Yeang is chairman and director of design at Llewelyn Davies Yeang; architects, planners and designers specialising in ecodesign strategies. He considers himself an ecologist first, architect second and is widely perceived to be the world’s leading architect in ecological design and passive low energy design. He has delivered over 200 built projects, and his ‘bioclimatic’ towers have had an impact around the world, fusing high-tech and organic principles.

Ken has actively disseminated his vision through teaching and through a series of books that are as concerned with the science of low- energy building as with the aesthetics of the end result. His contribution to leading edge and sustainable design extends far beyond landmark buildings. His thinking infuses peer group discussions on building form and disposition of the public realm through the objectives of sustainability.

A recent short film reflecting on Ken’s career so far is \online\

Jane Wernick

Are Tall Buildings Sustainable? | November 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

You are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display, this is purely to stop spam.

TAGS

  • London
  • Urban Design
  • Landscape
  • Planning
  • Tall Buildings
  • Urban Density
  • Rapid Urbanisation
  • Population Growth
  • Streets
  • Townscape
  • Sustainability

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Is it time to give up the Tower Mentality in our Cities?

Historically tall buildings have been seen as a symbol of success and prosperity. However, we need to recognise that tall buildings do not increase the sustainability of our cities. We are learning to make buildings that consume less energy and have a lower carbon footprint, but we can use these techniques for all building heights. We should compare the best tall buildings with the best of the shorter.

San Giminiano – The towers represent wealth and success
Hans van der Boom©

It is often argued that there are benefits to a reasonably high density, where we can have easy access to everything we need. We increasingly appreciate the disadvantage of the lack of density around most cities in the U.S. where nearly everyone needs a car, but the benefits are not linear, and at densities above about 50 people per acre there are negative effects that become apparent.

Serge Salat – the founder of the Urban Morphology Lab in France – has done research that shows that, as well as density, the morphologies of the building stock (how our streets are laid out and the relative proportions of the buildings) must be considered in order to get a balanced view of energy and CO2. He studied housing in Paris and showed that the shape factor, which defines the amount of exposed building envelope per unit volume, and the amount of volume near the perimeter of the building that does not require artificial lighting, are the most significant parameters in determining the amount of energy required. A high shape factor means more energy is consumed. He showed the comparatively low rise areas of the traditional parts of Paris are more efficient than those with high rise developments. Other studies showed that 6 to 10 stories can achieve effective densities. The Indian architect, Charles Correia, has argued for many years in favour of low rise high-density developments in Mumbai for achieving the most humane and sustainable housing.

Density isn’t everything. A dense downtown business area, far away from a dense residential area can result in a higher carbon production as a result of the commuting between both sets of tall buildings. A less dense mix of the two, as in Paris where business and residential activities often occur side by side, can be more sustainable. Also, having tall buildings in the city for the wealthy, won’t necessarily increase the housing density, as many of those people have second or third homes, and their population count must be divided between their properties.

The best low carbon cities are not the most dense, but those which have a good distribution of amenities, are easy to walk around, and have good access to transport.

Density isn’t a valid excuse for tall buildings and this is important because there are many problems with this typology :

1. Taller buildings use more steel and concrete per square metre of occupiable floor space. A huge amount of energy needs to be saved in the running of the building if it is to match the efficiency of a lower one. It is less likely we can use timber the taller a building is. This is a shame as timber is a very low-carbon alternative structural material. The taller the building, the higher the embodied energy per usable square metre.

2. They need far more space for vertical circulation, which decreases the ratio of net to gross floor areas.

3. The additional lifts increase the energy required to run these buildings.

4. They are more exposed to wind and sun, leading to higher heat gains and losses for the same amount of insulation.

5. They cost more to build per square metre.

6. They cost more to maintain and repair per square metre.

7. They have an adverse effect on the mental health of those who live in them. This is particularly true in housing, especially for families with children. Crime and fear of crime is also greater in tall buildings.

8. As they get taller they also get wider, which makes the city less permeable at the street level.

The psychological issues are significant and important. Many high buildings have a sad history, with lack of maintenance, a propensity for crime, and isolation from the life and chances for social interaction at street level. Those that segregate residents by income tend to form vertical gated communities, bottling up key activities that might otherwise activate the public realm at ground level. The fact that the running and maintenance costs are higher is particularly problematic for those on lower incomes. In this age of cuts it really can’t make sense to saddle cash-strapped councils and the less well-off with buildings that are going to deteriorate if they are not maintained.

Tall buildings have a bad effect on their neighbours:

1. The ground level wind effects get worse as they get taller, and can’t be totally reduced by canopies.

2. They cast large shadows, which take away sunlight and pleasure, and block access to solar power. We should introduce Solar Rights legislation.

3. They produce ‘Canyon Effects’ whereby pollutants from motor vehicles are trapped and concentrated at street level, reducing air quality. The population’s exposure to traffic pollutants in New York’s urban street canyons can be up to 1000 times higher than exposure to a similar quantity of emissions in other urban settings.

Tall Building Shadows from the Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Yron Yang©

Security remains an issue. Post 9/11 some corporations may not want to be near target buildings, and might just favour Paris’s medium development. Tall buildings tend to have more ducts for services. As well as being a potential breeding ground for mould, particularly in hotter climates, they are also vulnerable to biological terrorist attack.

We will probably continue to build a few tall buildings, but we should concentrate on creating urban and cultural frameworks that allow us to have good personal interactions, provide places for chance encounters, acknowledge and respect our ageing population, and most importantly allow us to experience frequent contact with nature. In any wealthy society, what a rich family with children aspires to is a detached house with a garden. They might want a high-rise flat as well, but we need to focus more on the needs of the majority.

We need to balance the needs of the planet, the environment and people. We need to achieve maximum efficiency with minimal resources, and at the same time achieve social harmony. We need to concentrate on designing our built environment so that it provides opportunities for happiness. I don’t see any evidence that tall buildings give us the best chance of achieving this.

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Jane Wernick FREng Hon FRIBA FRSA CEng FIStructE FICE is a structural engineer who has specialised in the design of structures which play a large role in the total architecture of the building. She worked for Ove Arup and Partners from 1976-1979, and from 1982-1988. She worked for Birdair Structures Inc. from 1980-1981. She was Principal in Charge of Ove Arup & Partners’ Los Angeles office from 1986-88 and was an Associate Director of Ove Arup & Partners from 1989. In 1998 she founded Jane Wernick Associates Ltd.

Jane is a member of numerous panels such as Design Council Cabe, the EDGE and the Building Futures steering group, where she edited the \’Building Happiness – Architecture to make you smile\’ publication; a series of essays discussing contemporary ideas and debates around the nature of the built environment.

Barbara Weiss

The Impact of Tall Buildings on Cityscape | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

You are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display, this is purely to stop spam.

TAGS

  • London
  • Urban Design
  • Landscape
  • Planning
  • Tall Buildings
  • Urban Density
  • Population Growth
  • Townscape

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Without remotely wanting to diminish the importance of the many sociological, economic and environmental appraisals of Tall Buildings, I would like to ‘raise the flag’ for extending the debate regarding their impact on cities – before it is too late! – to include, as forcefully as possible, the specific perspective of urban design and architectural merit.

Absurdly, the definition of Tower, or even of Tall Building, is so inherently relative as to be somewhat strangely elusive.

S.Gimignano, Bologna, Istanbul – to name but the first examples that come to mind – have been famous for centuries for their distinctive stone towers, reaching for the skies above homogeneous seas of tiled roofs, unavoidable reminders of the historic powers of religion and commerce. With Bologna’s tallest tower measuring 97m, the chubby Galata Tower, perched high on a hill above the Bosphorus, stretching to 62m high, S. Gimignano’s highest spire is a mere 54m – a long way down from the Shard’s 309m, the Walkie Talkie’s 160m, the Pinnacle’s 288m or Vauxhall’s St George’s Tower 181m; and yet these poetic medieval ancestors are unforgettable to a degree to which their modern incarnations cannot ever aspire to match.

The essence of a tower is that it must dominate, that it must stand out. If actual height and number of floors matter to the developer and to the architect, in a competitive machismo sort of way, to the viewer they are almost irrelevant. It is all about relationship to context and play with scale.

A tall building amongst many other tall buildings becomes just another building, whereas even a very short tower, emerging from surrounding lower structures or a horizontal landscape, will always read as a strong statement. It is the relative proximity of different tall towers, the nature of the interstitial urban fabric that separates them and their shapes and materials that contribute to their success or failure in terms of ’group value’. The individual architectural expression of adjacent towers needs to be countered by a degree of local homogeneity, if you are to avoid an ‘all sorts’ feeling to your cluster…

It is indeed very sad to observe that this lesson is totally lost on the ever increasing number of supposedly ‘iconic’ towers emerging in the City of London, each with its own cool new narrative and identity embedded in its moniker, each jostling for attention while undermining – rather than reinforcing – the contribution made by the previous one.


Howzey©

From a distance; say looking back from the Millennium Bridge, or from any other of the too many vantage points along the river, this dense and shapeless grouping of distinctly over-excited tall buildings to the right of St Paul’s, has, as a group, nothing to add to a horizon that was once notable for its interplay between beautiful slender church spires and the occasional well-spaced-out modern tower.

With the planners blindly offering up to Mammon; large portions of the Capital, to create a number of ‘clusters’ of Tall Buildings, optimistically – and undoubtedly erroneously – hoping that this strategy might reduce their negative impact, the recent appearance of several new isolated towers dotted around London confirms the no-lesser (if different) harm inflicted on the city as a whole by over-scaled, monolithic, solitary blocks, visible from everywhere.

Amongst these it is worth mentioning the Strata building (148m), with its cartoonish grin appearing over the roof of Tate Modern or the Oxo Tower, smiling at you idiotically all the way down Farringdon Road. Then there is St George’s Tower in Vauxall, absurdly dancing around Big Ben as you drive down the Embankment, and then tragically filling the entire vista at the bottom of many white stuccoed Pimlico streets, to a point that it is hard to tell whether this monster is built North or South of the river. Not to mention of course, the Shard, whose aggressive and intrusive presence it is now impossible to avoid from almost anywhere in London. Forget the LBMF! – forget protecting the cherished monuments and famous beauty spots loved by the world over – but do spare a thought for those who used to enjoy the tree-lined residential streets of their historic neighbourhoods, now permanently forced, at all times of the day, to rub noses with an incongruous commercial building that dwarfs everything else, and has altered for ever the subtle poetry of the domestic scale.

As a passionate lover of New York; and of much of what its tower environment has to offer, my revulsion for the new generation of London towers (and for similar towers in many other cities) stems from many different observations.

First and foremost, these towers are very simply too big for their context; by comparison to them, the rest of London looks like a LEGO-land that has lost its dignity and stature. Eyeing up, a few weekends ago; Tower Bridge and the Shard, side by side down the Thames, I felt deeply that the Tower Bridge I had known had vanished.Gone was the self-importance, the presence of this extraordinary monument, trampled by a pharaonic obelisk to the greater glory of commercialism.


George Rex©

Secondly, to be blunt, there is not a single one of these recent very tall buildings that is anything more than architecturally mediocre. Some are even atrociously, painfully, badly designed. They all set out to ‘epater les bourgeois’, and in some cases they succeed. Architecturally, however, they are all mistakes of one type or the other, and in the years that come, with the bling of novelty fading, it will become more and more evident that this is the case.

The above is obviously a personal value judgement, but one that I suspect many members of the architectural profession would subscribe to. Where are London’s Chrysler Buildings, Seagram Buildings, Woolworth Buildings, the Flatirons, the Pirelli skyscrapers, the Torre Velascas? Some of these are very tall, some not so, but they are all of exceptional architectural quality. They stand out not because of their height, but because of their elegance, interest and beauty.

If tall buildings are allowed to be built so that they can be seen from a great distance, it is simply irresponsible to permit anything but the best to be designed; far more stringent safety measures should be introduced in choosing who should be designing what, whether through competitions, judging committees, peer reviews or other. The thought that John Prescott could single-handedly blight acres and acres of London is infuriating, depressing and hard to believe. It simply must not happen again.

At a time of great financial and political turmoil such as now, the new Tall Buildings serve as a bitter reminder of the recent excesses of the banking systems and of a form of Capitalism that is sick to the core. To continue to build at such a scale is to perpetuate the ills of society and to allow greed to get the better of one of the most important and sacrosanct communal assets; our unique historic urban heritage. Density, the feeble excuse used to justify towers, can be massively increased in a huge number of London locations by consistently building dense, mixed-use, medium-height urban blocks, with the joint advantage of improving street life and of delivering accommodation to the many.

It is a very sad indictment of a sector of our profession, that it is so prone to rush into accepting so many off-the-scale commissions; quite likely in the full knowledge that the negative consequences of these pacts with egotistical and megalomaniac developers will last for years, and that the urban price to be paid is very high. It is time that a more socially and morally responsible approach is taken in relation to our cities, ensuring that they are not treated as dumping grounds for throw-away experimentation. London will never be S.Gimignano, but we can do better.

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Barbara Weiss was born in Milan in 1954 and studied at the Architectural Association in London, obtaining the AA Diploma in 1979 and becoming a member of the RIBA in 1985.

Early work experiences include periods spent at design offices such as Philip Johnson-John Burgee, and Richard Meier in New York; Valle Broggi Burckhardt in Milan; and two most formative phases at Stirling Wilford and Associates in London, first as a student and later as project architect working on large scale buildings and a New Town in Italy.

Prior to founding Barbara Weiss Architects in 1987, Barbara taught part-time at the Architectural Association. She is also the co-author of two books, including “Do it with an architect” – written with Louis Hellman and aimed at bridging the gap between the domestic client and the profession.

Barbara has acted as an assessor for the Civic Trust for the past 10 years, and was appointed in 2007 to the CABE Design Review Panel for Schools.

Rebecca Roberts-Hughes

How Could Tall Buildings be made Futureproof? | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

You are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display, this is purely to stop spam.

TAGS

  • London
  • Planning
  • Tall Buildings
  • Urban Density
  • Demographics
  • Population Growth
  • Streets

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How could tall buildings be made future-proof to confront our growing density problem and housing crisis?

The fifteen storey tower blocks which act as bookends to the estate I live on are ugly. Their relentless layers of broad windows and grimy blue panels are broken only by a littering of satellite dishes and what look like old fishnets, thrown over balconies to keep the birds from populating these homes above the tree tops. At night the blue, UV lights which line the stairways shine out like an embarrassing beacon, reminding our neighbours in the Victorian terraces below that here lies a loud pocket of drug abuse and deprivation.


Rebecca Roberts-Hughes©

I am not sure what the plans for lighting the Shard at night will be, but I am certain the penthouse suites at its pinnacle will send a different message to the streets below than that of my Hackney high rise block. But grazing the top of a skyscraper with a handful of luxury apartments – which sit like awkward cherries atop layers of offices, shops and hotel rooms – is no more sustainable or future proof than the ageing tower block I’ve just described.

If people are removed from the streets of our society, are they removed from society itself? Theorist Michel de Certeau argued that in tall buildings (his example was the World Trade Centre, but today we can imagine others) people are removed from life. Staring out of high windows, viewers experience something of an ego trip in seeing the world in miniature representation, without the details of people and their activities, far beneath.

“When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators… His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance.”(1)

Arguably, this is a dangerous state of play, whether it is for the disproportionately wealthy or people who are deprived and already at risk of becoming marginalised.

Advocates of tall buildings will remind us that our small island, with its green belt and popular NIMBYism, has both an increasing population and a housing shortage. They will point to housing blocks as an appropriate response to these challenges. High density of homes on small sites, with the potential to make good economic use of Brownfield sites served by existing infrastructure, will be proposed. I’m not going to disagree with these arguments. Instead, I want to make a helpful contribution to the debate by suggesting that if tall buildings are the chosen answer to our increasing population, there are things these homes must do in order to meet that purpose. All homes, whether they are within the streets or above them, must meet future challenges such as political and economic changes, developments in technology, environmental considerations, and our diversifying and ageing population. In short, high rise homes must be affordable, adaptable and attractive.

The apartments in the Shard are rumoured to be selling for £30 to 50 million each. People shouldn’t have to choose between failing tower blocks packed with dissatisfied families, and luxuries that only a billionaire can seriously consider. Streets in the sky may be a failed experiment but a spatial dichotomy between a towering ghetto, and luxury gated communities elsewhere in other skies, is not the answer. Society is mixed and we all need homes, so homes in skyscrapers need to be affordable and must offer variety enough to cater for a range of households, tenures and incomes.

New homes built today will need to last for over a hundred years, especially in the context of massive undersupply. We are currently only managing to build enough homes for a third of the households that form each year, let alone addressing the backlog. If homes are going to last that long they will need to be adaptable; technological advancements are changing the way we use our homes at an unprecedented rate. Further still, the make-up of society is completely changing; in seventy years from now there will be more people over the age of 45 than under it, and our population will continue to grow and age. This will dramatically impact on who lives in a home and how they use their space. At the most basic level, an adaptable home must have sufficient space, noise insulation between rooms and neighbouring properties, high levels of natural light, access to private green space, ample storage, and provisions for current new in-home technologies. These are all core issues for contemporary households, revealed in the RIBA and Ipsos MORI’s social research The way we live now.

An attractive home is not the same as a stylish home. An attractive home will offer a quality of life and retain that offer for future households – put simply, it is somewhere people want to live. The look and appeal of an area and feeling of community are all important, but so is the sense of wellbeing offered by a home. Ethnographic research undertaken in The Way We Live Now found that people valued natural light in their homes, and also outside space that could be used for relaxing or social events. High rise homes need to be able to maintain those qualities which impact on wellbeing, if the properties are going to have any social and sustainable value in the future.

Are our tower blocks failures? Looking at Le Corbusier’s vision for high rise housing, and some of his completed housing projects, it is difficult to understand why his mass residential blocks are perceived so differently from some of the high density homes in our own cities. A visit to Corbusierhaus in Berlin offers some explanation; it is set amongst streets in a residential area on the outskirts of Berlin. The streets are leafy and green with a variety of house types, and right next to the block is a metro station and the spectacular (if ugly in other ways) Berlin Olympic stadium. There is something to be said for the setting of huge, usually high rise housing blocks; if the area is attractive enough, it can entice people out of their homes and into the streets for pastimes and other opportunities for social interaction. If the area is a success, then maybe high rise living doesn’t segregate people from the streets around them.


Corbusierhaus, Berlin – Rebecca Roberts-Hughes©

The second obvious difference is that Corbusierhaus attracts retired urban design professionals and architects, whereas traditional allocations policies on our high density estates have prioritised people with the greatest housing need. The more recent approach in local allocations policies is to create a mixed tenure – and therefore mixed income – estate with a range of different household types and sizes. This is a much more sustainable approach to housing, and crucial in ensuring that we do not create pockets of wealth and pockets of poverty.

The third difference is one that is harder to define: a good home is more than the sum of its parts. Whilst the basic premise of high rise housing articulated by Le Corbusier can be counted as a major influence behind British post-war estates, something is clearly lost in translation. Le Corbusier’s ‘city of towers’ was designed to remove people from the ‘dust, smells and noise’ so that they are instead ‘set in clean air amidst trees and grass’.(2) And yet despite the clear rules and reminders Le Corbusier lays out in Vers une Architecture he notes that poor applications of even the greatest principles can produce poor environments.

Le Corbusier discusses buildings in which “the architect has not taken into account that a plan proceeds from within to without… has not taken into account the architectural elements of the interior, surfaces which are linked together in order to receive light and make manifest the content of the building.”(3) These buildings are failures because the architect “has transgressed the rules of proper planning by an error of conception or an inclination towards vanities.”(4)

There is also such a thing as an error of economics. There are cheaply planned and poorly executed blocks, which maximise the number of homes on a piece of land rather than the quality of those homes. There are housing estates which are value engineered to be delivered as quickly and cheaply as possible, rather than finished to a sustainable and usable standard. These homes are clearly not effective machines for living in. But nor are expensively planned and lavishly accessorised skyscrapers, which might well be functional and luxurious machines for living in – but only for the very few. If our tall buildings were genuinely future proof, they would need to offer affordable accommodation to the average household and a home that would meet their changing needs during the course of their lives. Anything less is not an appropriate solution to our densely populated urban environments and our growing population.

\Daily Mail article – Homes in The Shard\

\The Way We Live Now – Research Report PDF\

\The Way We Live Now – Research Films\

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(1)Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (London: The University of California Press Ltd, 1988), page 92
(2)Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1923 (New York: Dover Publications, 1931/1986, translated by Frederick Etchells), page 56
(3)Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, pages 195-196
(4)Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, page 196

............................................................

Rebecca manages the RIBA’s public policy programmes and research; which includes think tank Building Futures. She leads on housing policy and the value of good design.

Rebecca is the author of the RIBA’s 2011 report \The case for space: the size of England’s new homes\ and co-author of the 2012 social research report \The way we live now: what people need and expect from their homes.\ She provided the research secretariat for the Future Homes Commission, whose report \Building the Homes and Communities Britain Needs\ was published on 26th October 2012.

Rebecca has also worked for Metropolitan Housing Association, John McAslan + Partners architectural practice, Westminster City Council, and is currently researching a PhD in critical and architectural theory and King’s College, London.

Peter Ferrari

Tall is Beautiful | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

You are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display, this is purely to stop spam.

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  • Rapid Urbanisation

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If we look back over the 20th Century to identify some of its most sustainable structures – buildings which have stood since the early decades of the Century and are approaching their centenary – we can readily identify a number of iconic tall buildings.

The Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building (completed in 1930 and 1931 respectively) are early examples of truly tall buildings. From the 1930’s onwards these “skyscrapers” have proliferated across the globe.

Indeed, if we were to list the number of tall buildings that have been constructed since, say, the Metlife Tower in 1909, and record how many are still standing, we would find the percentage is greatly higher than that of the average 20th Century building. The table below highlights this fact.

As a developer, active in the industry for over for over 25 years, I now regularly hear of buildings developed at the beginning of my career, being demolished and re-developed.

Typically, it is not, as some might expect, because the buildings are functionally obsolete. In most cases they could easily be refurbished or converted for another 25 years, or more, of useful life.

It is because they are economically obsolete. Or, to put it another way, the owner can achieve more density on the site through re-development.

It is a simple and inviolable principle of property development that a rational, structurally sound building will rarely be demolished, unless a greater density can be achieved on site in the re-development. Many of the tall buildings that have been constructed over the 20th Century are here to stay, as they have maximised the density available on their particular site.

The tall building, with its relatively small footprint and high levels of natural light is the most flexible of buildings. Suitable for use as offices, hotels, apartments they can, are and will be, converted to these different uses, as the economic cycles wax and wane across the property sectors. (The Metlife Tower is currently being converted into a hotel). So, yes, the tall building can be an answer to our increasing population. In the right place, properly designed and built, they allow for the efficient long term use of land and infrastructure.

However, tall is not always good. High density development has to be accompanied by high levels of demand for accommodation, the provision of high quality infrastructure and services. A skyscraper in a desert (actual or metaphoric) is no good to anyone. But, good tall buildings in dynamic, growing city centres are a logical, economically viable and sustainable form of development. Land is a finite resource. Serviced land is even rarer and more valuable.

Equally, tall buildings provide excellent living, working or leisure environments. Ask anyone who works or lives in a well designed tall building. Or visit the restaurant at the top of Heron Tower for a truly uplifting experience!

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Peter Ferrari has over 20 years’ experience in property development and investment and leads Heron International’s development activities. After obtaining a Masters degree in Land Management from Reading University, he spent nine years at listed property company London & Edinburgh Trust PLC, developing a range of projects across property sectors, in the UK and throughout Continental Europe. Peter joined Heron International in 1995 as Director of Acquisitions and Development and was appointed Managing Director of Property Development in 2009.

Robin Partington

The Answer to Population Increase? | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

You are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display, this is purely to stop spam.

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  • Urban Design
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  • Urban Density
  • Rapid Urbanisation
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To be successful, cities must maintain their currency as attractive places to do business whilst having flexibility to accommodate change and encouraging synergies between uses and users, all supported by an efficient infrastructure network. They must be attractive places to live, easy and safe to use – offering a way of life that celebrates their climate, diverse culture, customs and heritage – whilst reinforcing their sense of identity and place. They should be comfortable within their own skin and at ease with themselves.

The success or failure of individual buildings is secondary to this, but a rich and varied mix does add to the chemistry, and tall buildings, already an established part of the fabric of our cities, make a significant contribution to the dynamic and success of their economy. The greater the density, the more synergy there is.

They also provide punctuation, celebrating centres of commerce and reinforcing quirks of geography, such as rivers, transport hubs, crossroads and gathering places, adding to the character and legibility, engaging at a range of scales and distance, providing familiar points of reference for those lost in the delights of exploration.

However, without an appropriate context, tall buildings can fail to relate to the people who use them or share in their setting, often feeling awkward, alien and unwelcome. Clusters feel less self-conscious as they begin to build their own critical mass and sense of place, but that does not necessarily mean that they work for the community that surrounds them.
To successfully integrate into the urban fabric, tall buildings need to make sense. As focal points, they should add drama to the skyline and make a contribution to their setting rather than simply feeding off it, exploiting the activity that they generate; activity that is often more important than the fabric of the buildings themselves.

Whilst we enjoy relatively unfettered access to our public realm, for practical reasons this freedom rarely extends inside tall buildings, where controls on access curtail their ability to become a more active part of the wider community. But this does not stop them making a significant contribution to the public realm at their base, reinforcing the glue that sticks communities together.

Tall buildings can help to drive a sustainability agenda, which is not just about economics, energy and the environment, but also quality of life. Accommodating demand from an increasing population close to infrastructure hubs gets better value out of infrastructure networks, by keeping links short and transmission losses low. Courtesy of the muscle that comes with scale, tall buildings can also act as catalysts for investment in assets like energy centres that share benefits with the local community. To drive this, regulations need to evolve, encouraging and rewarding those who are prepared to innovate.

However, some of the quickest wins involve changing our attitudes and bad habits. Hot desking, flexible working hours and working from home will make us less dependent on a fixed place of work, reducing the need for space. By taking our comfort blanket of paper and photos of the family with us in electronic form, when coupled with engaging retail, cafes, restaurants and bars that increase dwell time in a vibrant public realm, we can reduce cyclical peaks and troughs of demand on our creaking infrastructure, enabling it to run more efficiently throughout the day.

At home we wear ‘T’ shirts when it’s hot and a sweater when cold. Doing the same at work and accepting a wider range of temperatures would dramatically reduce capital costs and energy consumption, changing the way that we specify and design our buildings.

Although controversial at the time, 30 St Mary Axe at the heart of the City of London (the Gherkin) demonstrated that tall buildings and unconventional forms can win popular acceptance in appropriate locations. The client set out a sustainability agenda that, for the UK, was years ahead of its time in taking advantage of height and aerodynamics to drive benefits like natural ventilation and daylight. This agenda informed the shape and detail of the building, with its contented and confident curves fast becoming symbolic of the City despite being a very modest part of the whole.

The Strata tower in Elephant and Castle, London, now home to more than a thousand residents, also provoked much debate from afar. But the community that is emerging from the regeneration of the Heygate Estate, together with Strata’s occupants, have taken matters into their own hands and the building to heart; they are becoming active members of the wider community and producing their own award winning extranet website in the process.

When completed, 1 Merchant Square in Paddington, London will advance the role of tall residential buildings still further. A gateway to the capital and focal point at the heart of the local community, its vibrant mix of uses making an active contribution to the animation of the wider public realm.

I want tall buildings to be exciting places where you want to live and work, I want residential buildings to look like residential buildings and offices to look like offices, and I want the odd one or two to let me take my mum to the top for a nice cup of tea.

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Robin Partington is an architect who studied in Liverpool before spending 17 years at Foster Associates, joining in 1984 and becoming a director in 1992. He then moved to Hamiltons Architects in 2001, as director tasked with driving its transformation to become design-led. He has been responsible for a range of projects including Park House (Oxford Street, London), The Strata Residential tower (Elephant and Castle, London), The Aviator Hotel (Farnborough Airport) and Holmewood, a rather unusual private house integrated into the rolling Chiltern Hills near Marlow. In 2009 he founded his own practice; Robin Partington Architects with a philosophy to combine a design-led approach with sound commercial sensibilities.

Nicholas Boys Smith

Create Streets, not Slums in the Sky | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

You are invited to join the debate using the form on the right hand side. You can comment on both the theme in general and individual author’s response, if you want to react to an existing comment, please make reference using the ‘title’ field. You are required to input an email address to submit a comment, but you won’t be contacted in any way and it will not display, this is purely to stop spam.

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  • Public Space
  • London
  • Urban Design
  • Planning
  • Tall Buildings
  • Urban Density
  • Demographics
  • Population Growth
  • Streets
  • Townscape

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With a curious lack of public debate the high-rise phoenix has risen from the cinders. This is bad for Britain and bad for those forced to live in tower-blocks – especially social tenants. The right answer to the housing challenge is high density streets with terraced houses and low-rise flats.

For twenty years very few tower blocks were built in Britain. Between 1979 and 1998 only 6 buildings above 35 metres were built. Why? Because the post-war experiment in high-rise living was a disaster. Summoned into existence by the 1956 Housing Subsidy Act (which offered higher public subsidies the higher the building), the 4,500 tower blocks built by 1979 quickly descended into a frightening dystopia. Communities resisted moving. The new multi-storey housing became ‘hard-to-let’. Families and households refused to move in. The Thamesmead Estate, completed in 1968, was 40 percent full by 1974. 55 percent were refusing to move into the Broadwater Farm Estate within five years of completion. And Ernö Goldfinger’s iconic Trellick Tower (known locally as the ‘Tower of Terror’ due to the risk of rape) was ‘hard-to-let’ within months. In 1971 A Clockwork Orange used tower blocks to symbolise a savage future with the film’s teenage protagonist (and ‘ultra-violence’ practitioner) living in ‘Municipal Flatblock 18A.’

Town planners lost confidence. Subsidies to build high were reduced. In 1977, an apostle of monolithic slab-blocks, Peter Smithson, admitted that he had ‘made a big mistake’ in his monumental designs. High-rise building stopped. Many post-war blocks were demolished. Most of the remaining ones will be destroyed over the next twenty years.

However, we have forgotten this past. We are in danger of reliving it. In the last decade there has been a ‘resurgence’ of high-rise building. Planning rules, and fashion, have changed. By 2004 24 buildings above 35 metres were being built per year. In 2003 there were only 1,800 high-density flat developments in England. By 2007 there were 5,600 with 3,800 under construction and 5,600 more with planning permission. This is a 740 percent increase.

One example is the redevelopment of the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich. An enormous estate of tower and slab blocks with few real streets is being replaced with an enormous estate of tower and slab blocks with few real streets.


Ferrier Estate (c.1970)


Kidbrooke Village (c.2012)

In fact, these new multi-storey flats are worse. 1960s apartments were large. New ones are much smaller. RIBA has shown that the average new-build home in the UK is 11 percent smaller than older homes. They are the smallest in Europe and getting smaller. New homes are 53 percent bigger in Holland and 80 percent bigger in Denmark. This is why the redevelopment of one of the worst estates (the South London Heygate) can replace 1,100 flats with 2,462. Unsurprisingly, many flat-purchasers in the new developments don’t actually want to live in them. They are investors who wish to let them. This has all the makings of a future slum should poor demand and falling rentals ever reduce the incentive to invest in their maintenance. We are repeating the mistakes of the past.

Why are tower blocks and large slab blocks so unpopular? Why do 89 percent of Britons want to live in a house on a street, 0 percent in a tower block and only 2 percent in an apartment? Is this just a naïve British desire for cottages and country roses? Far from it. People are being deeply rational. Many peer-reviewed, controlled studies show that even when you take account of social and economic status, high-rise living is correlated with social breakdown, crime and misery. This is categorically not just the case in Britain. Nor is it just due to the concentration of poorer residents in British post-war developments. The evidence is too strong and too international.

One comparison of socially identical student populations found that those in high-rise accommodation committed measurably more (petty) crime than students in a nearby low-rise hall of residence. They were also less sociable. Numerous studies corroborate this. One showed that crimes were 28 percent higher nearby and 604 percent higher in the interior public spaces of high-rises. Multi-storey housing is also correlated with bad social outcomes for residents, again even when socio-economic conditions are identical. British, Indian, US, Hong Kong, Japanese and European studies over many years have consistently found higher levels of neurosis, emotional strain, stress, depression, mental illness and marital discord among those living on higher floors. Children suffer from more stress, hyperactivity, hostility, juvenile delinquency and temper tantrums. They are less likely to learn to dress themselves or use the lavatory age-appropriately.

Streets are provably better. People prefer them. They are less anonymous and easier for families. Crime is lower. People are happier. The economic returns to long term landowners are fantastic. And the great news it that we don’t need to build towers to achieve high densities. Official reposts and academic studies show that terraced streets can match the housing densities (about 75 units/hectare) of most existing high-rise housing developments. That is why as Southwark did more to replace streets with high-rise dwellings post-war than any other borough the local population fell. That is why (as the LSE has found) the terraced flats and houses of Notting Hill, Lancaster Gate and Earl’s Court are the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the country. This is why, in short, we do not need to build tower-blocks but can create streets.

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Nicholas Boys Smith is a former political advisor and strategy consultant at McKinsey & Co. He is now a Director at a UK bank, a Consultant Director of the think tank Reform and a Board member of the Swan Foundation.
\Create Streets\ exists to encourage the replacement of South London’s 1960s estates with conventional streets and squares, terraces and villas. Most people who can afford to do so choose to live in normal homes in normal streets. They exist to help create neighbourhoods that give everyone this choice and everyone this sense of “place.” They aim to give a voice to local residents, encourage urban designers to put forward sympathetic plans, developers to develop them and local councils and housing associations to commission them whilst encouraging support in the media or central government as necessary.

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THEME: Tall Buildings

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Get to Root of Issue

Richard Austin COMMENTING ON Tall Buildings 01.11.12

If we must have continued population growth, then Increased density of development in cities is preferable to sprawl/permanent loss of green belt. But then do we really need more pop'n growth?

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THEME: Tall Buildings

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Density

Lisa Harmey COMMENTING ON Tall Buildings 27.11.12

Design is critical, the badly designed high rise city, just creates/reinforces the demand for low rise (sprawl).

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