The Vertical City

If you translate loosely, the term vertical city first enters our architectural consciousness with Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1924 Hochhausstadt. The space between the apartment buildings isn’t an extension of the pedestrian level retail or communal space for the residents but a light well for the offices below. This post is about spaces vertically shared by different types of user.

Architects like to call buildings vertical cities because it implies an ability to fully understand the intelligence of a city and condense it into a single building. The header image is Foster + Partners’ 1989 Millennium Tower proposal for Tokyo Bay.

Rising out of Tokyo Bay, the tower is capable of housing a community of up to 60,000 people, generating its own energy and processing its own waste. A vertical city quarter, it would be self-sustaining and virtually self-sufficient. The lower levels accommodate offices and clean industries such as consumer electronics. Above are apartments, while the uppermost section houses communications systems and wind generators. A high-speed ‘metro’ system − with cars designed to carry 160 people − tracks vertically and horizontally, moving through the building at twice the rate of conventional express lifts. Cars stop at sky centres at every thirtieth floor; from there, individual journeys may be completed via lifts or escalators. This continuous cycle reduces travel times − an important factor in a vertical city, no less than a horizontal one. The five-storey sky centres have different principal functions; one might include a hotel, another one a department store; each is articulated with mezzanines, terraces and gardens to create a sense of place. The project demonstrates [?] that high-density or high-rise living can lead to an improved quality of life, where housing, work and leisure facilities are all conveniently close at hand.

Japan’s economy tanked in 1993 so this breathless combination of greenwash and good intentions was unable to will this building into being. Vertical city proposals come and go. Dubai’s Nakheel Tower did the rounds pre-2008. One trend at 2007 Cityscape Dubai was for mega-models but, alas, this vertical city was also not to be.

Nakheel Tower never lived but was resurrected anyway for a different location as Al Burj. We’re still waiting.

Vertical cities continue to be the stuff of dreams. This is what they do. Everyone is content for them to remain part of the architectural dreamscape.

It’s why people don’t take kindly to them being realised, especially when they are 1) prefabricated, 2) in China and 3) not clad in futurespeak. [c.f. The Shameless Skyscraper] 

The last time I heard the term vertical city mentioned was Rem Koolhaas disinterestedly describing OMA’s Die Rotterdam mixed-used development as one, and so continuing the tradition of calling any mixed used development slightly a bit taller than it is wide a vertical city.

In passing, these next images are of one of the apartments in the top right corner of the apartment tower. On airb’n’b you can probably find a photograph showing the curtains of that second bedroom.

Vertical cities have become progressively smaller, along with our expectations for them. Living in any city, even a vertical one, requires a balance between drawing energy from the city yet keeping a distance from it. These aren’t either-or propositions as, for example, a person can withdraw from the city to their apartment yet still look out over a city and be energized by it. Maybe that’s what these next people are doing. I hope so.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Opus building in Dubai started out a decade ago as an office building. Two years ago it was to have been a hotel but, last time I looked, is on track to becoming a mixed use building befitting its many floorplates. One could conceivably never leave the building but it fails the taller-than-it-is-wide test.

The Hilberseimer proposal treated the vertical city as a mat but all these others treat it some kind of supercharged architectural object. The mixed use building as vertical city is a red herring. What we’re really talking about it is

Living Above Shops

In Roman times, high net-worth individuals lived in villas and we know much about their architecture. We know little about how the other XCIX per cent lived, except that they lived in insulae. Part of the Roman legacy is the construction of speculative buildings at minimal expense. In those pre-elevator times, insulae were sometimes as high as eight or nine storeys, with apartments on the higher floors least expensive. If an insula could accommodate at least 40 people in 330 sq.m (3,600 sq.ft) in about six or seven apartments, that means approx. 50 sq.m (550 sq.ft) per apartment and 8.25 sq.m (90 sq.ft) per person. This is about the same area as architecture’s favourite capsule apartment or, if you believe Akira Kurowawa, the size of a Japanese tea-ceremony room.

Providence Arcade was refurbished in 2014 to have microapartments half that area (225 sq.ft) but intended for one person instead of 2.5. Two millennia hasn’t made that much of a difference to what just might be a human spatial standard.

It’s not the square footage I want to talk about but the idea of living above a place used by the general public during the day. 

Despite being a building typology that’s existed for millennia, mixed-use buildings are under-represented in the history of architecture. My guess is that architecture is more often called upon to represent the possession of wealth and property when that wealth and property is held by a single person person or entity. Architecture’s not good with mixing and sharing.

In pseudo-pubic projects, the appearance of mixing and sharing (a.k.a. “vitality” and “vibrance”) becomes important for it disguises the fact everything is owned and controlled by a single entity. This is the town of Basingstoke at Festival Place in Hampshire UK. The former town centre has had retail infill along and between streets. It’s a work in progress, but even as long ago as 1999, the citizens of Basingstoke were expelled from their city centre after closing time and the city becomes not just dead but actually ceases to exist.

“Festival Place is a vibrant social hub in the heart of Basingstoke and the centre’s rejuvenation will create an even better visitor experience for locals …”

One way of bringing the appearance of residential usage into a shopping precinct is to fake it. This is Dubai’s Citywalk Phase II. The forced facade variety with its upper level windows is unconvincing and, even from the inside it’s not clear what’s in that volume, if anything.

With Citywalk Phase III it’s still too early to tell. Having five levels of apartments over shops accessed by foot from footpaths is a new concept for Dubai. It’d be insulae all over again if the apartments and shops catered for ordinary people. They don’t.

It’s hard to tell if residential supports retail or vice-versa. The city is spread thin as there’s insufficient classy retail to go around. Sooner or later though, all retail spaces will be let and ideas of shops will be replaced with actual shops but this won’t prevent the ground level being a veneer of shopfronts evoking the feel of a city. Living the dream has never seemed so unreal.

Double-loaded corridords mean apartments not overlooking streets face each other across space that exists to put distance between windows. More than alleyways but less that streets, these spaces are given the low-maintenance landscape treatment.

Victor Gruen is said to have envisioned his 1956 Southdale Centre mall as a community centre. It’s also said he wanted to recreate the vibrance of his hometown Vienna but conceiving of something with car access only, full air conditioning and no housing above shops was a strange way to go about it. He was to later bemoan the proliferation of malls as centres for retail only and surrounded by a sea of car parking but only after his office had built fifty of them in the US alone. 

To be fair, Gruen also invented the pedestrian mall as a open-air shopping street without cars but parking still had to be provided nearby if they were to ever be an attractive option.

Shopping malls as air-conditioned privatized environments precluded housing and the pedestrian mall meant that living with a car nearby simply wasn’t possible. Gruen’s legacy was two seemingly contradictory products both supremely suited to the golden age of capitalism. Both concepts isolated and supersized only those  portions of the city offering a higher return on investment. Shopping malls don’t have apartments integrated into them because it would be of benefit only to the residents and the shoppers. 

Giuseppe Mengoni’s 1877 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan is the real ancestor of all shopping malls and has apartments as well as a hotel overlooking its arcades. It is excellently sited and intensively used as one of Milan’s major pedestrian thoroughfares. It’s existed for 140 years without parking, air conditioning, private security, food court, cineplex or anchor stores.

Between Citywalk Phase III and Burj Khalifa is a somewhat down-at-heel shopping mall called Mazaya.

Two levels of shops are arranged around three atriums. Around the atrium to the south are three levels of office space and around the one on the north are three levels of apartments. There are apartments facing the street and there are apartments facing the atrium.

It’s a cruise liner and, much like a cruise liner, the view outwards may be the more expansive but the view inwards is the more lively [though not on the public holiday when I visited]. In sixty years of shopping malls, ones like this that break the mold are rare. Mazaya shares more DNA with Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II than other malls that claim ancestry. This is Mall of the Emirates on the left and Mercato on the right. Mercato is interesting for having fake windows on a top storey that’s actually a raised roof. The dummy windows could easily be real ones but to have sunlight from a pseudo-internal space illuminate a quasi-external space would just be bizarre.

Thoroughfares lined with retail can double as visual amenity space for residential. If our future is living above shops in climate-controlled and privately-policed shopping precincts occupying city blocks separated by vehicle traffic, then inward-looking apartments reconnecting these two uses just might be a way of hanging onto some humanity for a bit longer, even if those precincts are only publicly accessible during opening hours. Shopping may have only recently become entertainment but seeing other people going about their business is what living in cities has always been about.

 

 

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