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Learning From Tower Clusters

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Some views are expansive and profound. Most aren’t.

I used the image on the left below in the recent Performance Anxiety post, and the house it describes from Associative Design, the post before. The collage on the right better describes why the view allowed by these high-level windows was so important to me and my design.

Recently, I’ve also repeated that old office maxim “If there’s something you don’t like about hour project or can’t solve, then make a feature out of it!” but while these towers aren’t as majestic as the mountain in the first image, I never regarded the view of these towers as a negative.


My first tower was Selworthy House in Battersea, London. I lived seven years on the 18th floor.

taken with an early iPhone

My apartment had views across Battersea Park towards London in the distance but the apartments on the diagonally opposite corner faced the second tower. I found the view of this other tower and its life and activity within more exciting than my distant view of London or a view of what was happening on the street below.

My next tower was Liberty House in Dubai. Studio apartment 1603 faced east. In the distance I could see the headlights of traffic on what then was called Emirates Road, but I also watched Damac Park Towers and F+P’s The Index being constructed. Or rather, not being constructed, because it was 2009 and fallout from 2008 was still falling. I never got to see my neighbours.

The next three years I lived on-campus but, in 2013, I moved to Burj Gate in Dubai. The view from my 35 m2 studio apartment 4504 was big and expansive.

I saw some amazing things but overall the view was unsatisfying for two reasons. The first is that the air in Dubai is so hot it can hold a lot of moisture. This, combined with pollution not so much from the traffic but from the flaring of gas in the Gulf oil wells, means that the horizon is shrouded in haze apart from mid-November to mid-February. For the rest of the year you never see the sun vanish into the horizon. It just fizzles out. The less important reason is that Dubai has little rain and the windows were only cleaned (by abseilers) three times a year. My inclined glazing was a dust collector.

The view up the street was far more interesting with the life of buildings and a river of red tail lights and brake lights in rush hour.

I watched the construction of UN Studio’s Wasl Tower across the road but, once again, I left for China before it was completed and anyone moved in.

One is never alone in China. This is a panorama of the view from my apartment at night.

These next two images provide a bit more information.

And this is what would be “the main view” looking west, in the daytime. “Online Protracor” [] tells me the angle of the “open” view is about 18°. The view angle may be only one tenth of 180° but the view is equally if not more satisfying to look at than the view from my apartment in Dubai. What’s going on? Why should these narrow view corridors be sufficient?

The value of traditional property is set primarily by area, and that value is magnified by location and scarcity. In the past, the value of that property might have been inflated by landscape preference but, these days, it is more likely to be inflated by a view of property one doesn’t own. A view is a kind of virtual property and, as is the way with property of any kind, the more the better. Apartments on higher floors typically sell for more than apartments on lower floors because one can survey a greater area, even if the view itself might not be conventionally attractive. My apartment in Dubai was like this, as are many others. But horizontally and with all other factors equal, it’s easy to understand why an apartment with 180° of view might be seen as “worth more” than one with a view of only 18°, but it would not be worth ten times more. The narrow view is good value.

This is the final iteration of my Tower House. Forgive the shakiness of the fly-through. When I designed this house I was still thinking of a view of the towers as an end in itself – a new thing to look at. I was trying to identify a new mode of aesthetic appreciation –not unlike what Venturi and DSB did, with perfect timing for the nascent neoliberal economy, for Las Vegas.

When I designed this house I was more concerned with the night-time view and the presence of life illuminated. I wanted to be continually reminded of the presence of other people.

The marketing of about-to-be completed towers appeals to this perception. In this photo, the building is still being fitted out but the interior lights are switched on in a way that mimics a pattern of human occupation in order to help us to imagine what it might be like to live there.

But what of the daytime?

There are narrow views everywhere and, in and around Wenzhou, many of them terminate satisfyingly with a mountain.

This is a 6° view. It’s still okay, and my eyes are drawn to it when I’m sitting on the balcony.

Allowing for slight telephoto, this next view is about 8° but funnels to 2°.

These next two views look like they’re about 1°. In the image on the left, the view corridor is blocked by new construction but it opens up again by moving only one metre to the right. A slight horizontal displacement can create a large difference to the perception of enclosure and openness. There’s geometry to this.

What happens on the ground in terms of view is more important for lower levels. Here, the distant view is blocked by buildings but the satisfying curve of the street hints at depth beyond.

The buildings in this next image have a pleasing combination of differences of height and distance that less likely to happen now as clusters tend to have towers all the same height. I can’t say if it’s correct or masterly but there’s something magnificent about this play of masses brought together in light.

This is all about maximizing view not so much as an asset but as a resource that also happens to promote well being. There’s probably something primal or biophilic about our eyes wanting to scan long distances, if not the horizon. When pressure on views becomes intense, even being able to see a long way becomes something of value. Dubai is a city of many towers and not that much to look at in the way of views. What views there are are either built out or in danger of being built out. One way of creating a new view is to build new islands offshore and to look back at the city and treat it as a view. There are obvious and serious limitations to this.

Another way is to create artificial focal points. Golf-course and marina developments anywhere in the world do this. Burj Khalifa is, in a sense, a symbolic centre of what is called “New Dubai” but it is also a man-made focal point for the rings of residential development around it.

In the lower right corner of this next image is a development called Paramount Towers. It comprises four towers elliptical in plan, one of which is a hotel and the other three residential. Most apartments are single aspect along double-loaded corridors. The outwards facing apartments have conventional views of whatever there is to see in that particular direction. In passing, these views are unlikely to be built out as the development is in an island surrounded by highways.

The apartments at the ends of the ellipses have conventional views as well as (mutually) close views of their neighbours in the tower adjacent. Apartments further inwards will have low-angle outwards views but varying degrees of two narrow inwards views and the only view of the innermost facing apartments will be two narrow views between towers, as shown in the diagram below. I look at these narrow views differently now, and think this elliptical plan no accident. If the tower floorplates were circular then a constant angle of view would be maintained for the largest range of horizontal viewpoints but such a floorplate would not be efficient. The ellipse is a compromise between a circle and a rectangle.

Paramount Towers is an example of building geometry applied to maximizing view (angles) and, as a consequence, market value. Its single-aspect apartments opening off a double-loaded corridor are unlikely to find favor in China where the overwhelmingly dominant preference is for dual-aspect apartments oriented north-south. Other factors influencing building position are maximum site usage, boundary setbacks, fire tender reach distances, ground level daylighting and window-to-window distances.

There’s probably already some algorithm to optimize these conflicting requirements. Maintaining view corridors both inside and outside the project site isn’t going to be a priority if the ideal orientation is north-south regardless of whether or not there’s a view. However, in situations where there’s a choice between Option A or Option B, the algorithm could decide in favour of the one that maintains the most view corridors . The only question is what it should look for. Cities are messy. Towers aren’t clustered like pine plantations with their trees at regular distances in regularly spaced rows but the experience of turning your head or changing your position ever so slightly and have some long but narrow vista suddenly open up is the same.