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Sarah Williams Goldhagen on Architecture: Living High

Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.

For any number of pundits, policymakers, and scholars, the new next hot thing, in countries developed and developing, is The City—or, more expansively and more precisely, the megalopolis and its little brother, the metropolis. Public health authorities such as Richard Jackson, in the PBS series “Designing Healthy Communities,” urban planning activist organizations such as the powerful Congress for the New Urbanism, and scholars such as Edward Glaeser have gathered into a swelling chorus delivering weekly anthems in praise of urban density. The reasons they adduce seem indisputable. Since inhabitants of high-density urban environments drive less, commute less, and walk more, cities can promote public health and enable the more efficient delivery and use of all kinds of natural resources, including oil. Since cities are giant percolators of economic innovation, they jumpstart wan economies. Since if you build up you won’t sprawl, cities will save the glories of God’s Earth: “If you love nature,” Glaeser provocatively advises, “move to the city.”

These encomiums to urbanity often come packaged with astonishing statistics and projections meant to convey the inevitability of a global urban present and future. The immensity of today’s existing megalopolises challenges nearly anyone’s imaginative capacities, even those who live in one: 36 million-plus live in Tokyo, 18 million-plus in Delhi, 20 million-plus in New York City and São Paulo, 18 million-plus in Shanghai. Nearly half the entire population of South Korea lives in Seoul, a city of more than 22 million that is one of the densest on Earth, with at least 16,700 people packed into every square kilometer, making it eight times denser than New York City. According to McKinsey’s projections, China, to house its historically unprecedented urban migration, must build one city the size of New York every two years until 2030. And though the trend toward hyperdensity is most pronounced in Asia, it is by no means confined to it: according to U.N. projections, by 2050, two out of every three people on the planet will be an urban dweller. In Latin America, where over 70 percent of the population lives in urban areas, that ratio has already been surpassed.

One can wonder whether or not the growth of the hyper-dense metropolis will bring the boons to humanity that its proponents envision, and one can take issue with this or that specific projection— maybe the Chinese will need to build a new city the size of New York only every three years!—but one cannot credibly disagree that the megalopolis has arrived. Underlying many of these paeans to the virtues of urban life is the following subtext: Get ready, because here it comes.

We can do this badly, or we can try to do it well. The Century of the Metropolis will be the object of attention for journalists, scholars, videographers, and more for many generations, but policymakers, publics, and architects, dealers in and of the concrete, cannot wait for that. They need to figure out, now, how to make the most habitable and humane hyper-dense cities they can. And of the many challenges such an endeavor poses, no single building type presents more of a conundrum than the high-rise residential tower. As millions of urban dwellers around the globe hunt for better homes, contemporary architects are returning to a question nearly as old as the modern tall building itself: can a high-rise, high-density residential tower ever become more than an oversized packing crate for people?

The last time Western architects en masse tried to answer this question in the affirmative, in the period between 1940 and 1980, the results were judged by projects such as St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe, Paris’s Clichy-sous-Bois, and the Robert Moses-constructed projects in Harlem and the Bronx, places that tucked tiny families into little air-locked warrens of cells, and quarantined socially disadvantaged communities from the working and middle classes. Numerous sophomorically conceived, cloddishly designed, poorly constructed, horrendously sited, under-landscaped high-rise residential complexes brought the tower-in-the-park concept to its knees, at which point it was self-righteously decapitated by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was published in 1961. Films such as Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1967) depict life in a soporifically repetitious French nouvelle ville as a soulless journey from apathy to cynicism. Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space, among other books, blamed rising levels of urban crime on the rising profiles of urban apartment blocks, arguing that high-rise residential complexes disrupted normal patterns of communal interaction, thereby discouraging people from developing a sense of group affiliation that would promote residents’ sense of responsibility to care for their surroundings and keep watch over neighbors whom they knew, or at least recognized.

Even the more innovative urban planners and architects who had promoted and built intelligently designed high-rise residential towers and complexes ended up being anonymously reviled by the public and exiled to the underfunded offices of municipal planning commissions. They were all but expelled from the boardrooms of real estate developers (except for those constructing for the luxury market). Could a high-rise, high-density residential tower ever be a desirable place to live for anyone but the super-rich? The general public and the architecture community together resoundingly concluded that it could not.

Most of what gets built anywhere is bad. A preponderance of unimpressive buildings of any given type proves nothing about the potential of the type itself. To be sure, gnarly problems inhere in the question of how to design an attractive and humane high-rise residential dwelling complex. Since it stands so prominently in the cityscape, a high-rise building’s audience includes not only the people who use it, but the many more people who regard its exteriors from a distance, which requires that the architect design for at least two completely different scales, the meta-scale of the urban skyline and the embodied scale of the pedestrians who walk by the building or enter it from the street. A part of the success of the Empire State Building is owed to its impressive presence on the Manhattan skyline, while its base is so deftly proportioned to the pedestrian that, walking by it on 34th Street, you barely know a tall building is there, much less a building that was “the tallest in the world” for so many years.

The multiple-scale design problem, an exaggerated version of what the designer of any large-scale project confronts, is perhaps the least important, least difficult to solve of the challenges posed by high-rise residential buildings. The developers who pay the enormous up-front costs for these projects seek profit, and for most of the high rise’s history this has mandated maximum standardization in design and construction. Yet the standardization of small-scale dwellings results in large-scale boredom—looming projects comprised of the same tiny unit repeated ad infinitum. Developers are also inclined to devote as much as possible of a project’s floor-area ratio to income-producing residences, and the resulting dearth of public spaces means that inhabitants usually have few if any places where they can encounter and interact with one another, and no place where a meaningful sense of community might develop. Most people who live in high-rise residential towers dwell nowhere near the ground plane, so creating a sense of connection to the natural world is nearly impossible; and this problem is exacerbated by architects’ tendency to rely upon expedient but energy-gobbling HVAC systems for climate control, which also means that residences in these buildings are typically unresponsive to the nuances of their climatological context. Since the architects and the landscape architects who are supposed to collaborate on projects all too often engage in cloaked or uncloaked competition for a larger slice of a client’s budget (architects usually win out), the landscaping of such complexes often is one flat, dreadful afterthought.

GIVEN these challenges, it is indeed impressive that in the past decade a handful of innovative firms are designing functional, handsome, and humane high-rise residential buildings, demonstrating that metropolitan dwellers can lead the good life, balancing privacy with opportunities for meaningful neighborly interactions, urbanity with greenery, and modular repetition with distinctive and singular interior and urban spatial experiences.

In the United States, Jeanne Gang, Frank Gehry, and Jean Nouvel deserve the praise that has been bestowed upon them for their captivating luxury residential towers in Chicago and New York City. Gehry and Gang in particular deserve credit for their deft use of computer technologies to un-tether the large-scale standardized production of building components from visual repetition. Still, these three buildings overwhelmingly concentrate on only one of the many important challenges of the high-rise residential building–their presentation on the skyline. They explore little new territory on the many more difficult and more essential questions of high-rise living. For that, one must look to the other side of the world.

IN ASIA, URBAN population densities run high, and the need to house large numbers of people very quickly is pressing, so residential-tower complexes are commonplace. Here a number of innovative architecture firms are re-thinking high-rise living from the ground up. Among the most impressive are firms such as WOHA (based in Singapore), Mass Studies (based in Seoul), Amateur Architecture Studio (based in Hangzhou, whose principal, Wang Shu, won this year’s Pritzker Prize), and the New York City-based Steven Holl. These and a number of other firms are together making a convincing case that high-rise living need not necessitate the kinds of compromises that most people regard as inevitable. Like Gehry’s, Gang’s, and Nouvel’s high-rise residential towers, these firms’ projects cut smart silhouettes on their urban skylines, but they do much more: they weave large numbers of unusually designed and comfortable homes into vertical communities. Together these buildings and their architects belie the common belief that high-rise towers must be ugly necessities rather than desirable contributions to life in the contemporary metropolis.

Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, WOHA’s principals, have over the last decade systematically reworked the high-rise residential building type in light of regional architectural traditions and tropical climates. In torrid cities such as Singapore and Bangkok, the higher up you get, the cooler you stay, because you can simultaneously escape heat radiating off the ground’s surfaces and capture the wind’s cooling breezes. In the 36-story Newton Suites, the 28-story 1 Moulmein Rise, both in Singapore, and in the 69-story The Met in Bangkok, WOHA starts with a regular geometric module, but then pulls apart the repeating blocks typical of the high-rise dwelling. Every fourth story of the Newton Suites has a large outdoor common area, which creates a repeating pattern of large U-shaped balconies adjacent on one side to horizontally slung perforated metal sunscreens and on the other to smaller U-shaped private balconies on every floor. In Bangkok, The Met’s six thin, closely spaced tower slabs surely added to the developer’s up-front costs by increasing the building’s overall surface area, but those costs are recouped tangibly in energy savings and intangibly in an improved quality of life, because threaded between and connecting the towers are open plazas and atria that do double-duty as enclosed and open common areas and as ventilating shafts that invite breezes to run through the buildings, cooling both the inhabitants and the tower shafts’ inner surfaces.

WOHA solves the boring building problem of the high-rise residential tower with creative solutions to functional problems. These buildings are based on regularized, three-dimensional modular grids, but they present highly sophisticated patterns—sometimes they evoke the complex paintings of Sean Scully. Their lively compositions derive from responsiveness to orientation, variability of unit types, and the inclusion of greenery. The general compositional orientation of both The Met and Newton Suites balances vertical and horizontal lines and volumes with strong, brilliant green vertical lines, which are living walls running up the length of their facades. These living walls help to create the building’s 100 percent green plot ratio, and they absorb radiant heat, clean the air, and offer every apartment access to flora (one building being so nature-friendly that a resident complained his child had been stung by a bee). All apartments are cross-ventilated and have multiple orientations.

WOHA promotes their residential towers as the re-conceptualization of the tower for tropical climates—no airtight air-conditioned blocks here. (Air conditioning is provided, but these apartments are so well-designed that the architects maintain—and the residents I spoke to confirmed—that natural ventilation gets you through all but the hottest days of the year.) And WOHA’s most exciting design ideas can enliven and improve high-rise residential life in colder climates as well, as Minsuk Cho makes evident in a series of developer-built projects in Seoul by his firm Mass Studies. Its mixed-use residential Matrix projects, while not as deftly designed or elegantly detailed as WOHA’s towers, also replace numbing repetition with a variety of types of living spaces, some of which are quite idiosyncratic. Above-ground gardens are common; each unit enjoys multiple orientations; and there are abundant, well-used common areas for residents and, at the street level, the public.

Mass Studies’ best-known project is the high-end Boutique Monaco, also called the Missing Matrix, a 27-story project in Seoul with commercial, cultural, and community spaces on the bottom stories, multiple landscaped common patios, and forty-nine different kinds of live-work units above. Twenty-two of the units have private gardens, and forty of them have unusual designs whereby glazed bridges connect bedrooms to the units’ common areas. Mass Studies’ 36-story mixed-use Bundle Matrix presents three slim towers that collide and peel away from one another at various angles and levels. From the skyline, the Bundle Matrix looks gawky, but its interiors are spatially exciting. Connecting various private units and public spaces are thirty-two short bridges, each of which has a balcony on one side and a planted interior garden on the other. The result is that most apartments in the Bundle Matrix have four external facades. (Manhattanites, eat your hearts out.)

Wang Shu took a different approach in his six 26-story towers, the Vertical Courtyard Apartments, that his firm, Amateur Architecture Studio, built in Hangzhou, China. These towers were designed to house two-story apartments, where every inhabitant would enjoy “the illusion of living on the second floor,” accomplished by folding concrete floor planes (like “bamboo mats,” claims the firm), so that every third story opens into a private courtyard. In the larger towers, the two-story units are stacked slightly askew, adding to the visual interest of the variegated façades. Steven Holl, in his Linked Hybrid in Beijing, takes a more urbanistic approach to the problem of the tower complex, connecting eight towers with bridges and ground-level public spaces housing retail, a swimming pool, indoor and outdoor gardens, a kindergarten, and a movie theater. Although Linked Hybrid is the least skillfully composed of these projects, its presence is impressively muscular, and Holl’s site planning creates a sense of urbanity that is at once unified within itself and porous to the surrounding environs.

None of these buildings would be designated affordable housing, but with the exception of Holl’s, none of them serve only the upper 0.01 percent. All offer innovative, well-conceived solutions to the problems that have dogged the high-rise residential tower for years and prompted previous generations to abandon it in disgust. For the many people who live with but not in these prominent contributions to the cityscape, these buildings are handsome and elegant and fun. They escape standardization’s deficits by offering many different kinds of living possibilities and experiences. They offer on- and off-the-ground opportunities to partake in nature’s pleasance. And most impressively, they make good on the high-rise residential complex’s promise, which generations of architects have sought and largely failed to realize, of offering a variety of good public as well as a variety of good private spaces—vertical cities in the sky. Living high need no longer mean living low.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.