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A Field of Towers

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In the English language, we usually use the words twin or paired to describe instances of two things and collective nouns to describe instances of three or more. Although they’re not exactly words we use every day, all English speakers of a certain age know some collective nouns such as a flock of birds, a school of fish, a pride of lions and a gaggle of geese because they remember them from elementary school. Others are less well known and still others completely obscure. Sometimes, a collective noun seems to be anything that fits the image of what you want to say, as with a tower of giraffes or a wickedness of ravens.

I didn’t know the collective noun for high-rises so I searched it and learned you can have a huddle of high-rises and the somewhat less evocative a cluster of high-rises. Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers are thus twin towers and not a huddle or cluster. In the spirit of a collective noun being anything that suits the image you want to evoke, I’m going to call a huddle/cluster of towers a field of towers because it suggests the presence of some kind of force generated by the towers to create something more than the sum of them individually. See below.

Plan Voisin Mockup of Paris © Clemens Gritl (@ https://www.messynessychic.com/2022/02/18/the-paris-of-tomorrow-that-thankfully-never-was/)

With Plan Voisin/Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier optimistically proposed towers separated by a distance approximately equal to their height. Perhaps because the proposal was for office towers, no attempt was made to provide long views between the towers or to make them create an informal landscape. Because of the huge amount of amenity space at ground level and the ostensible justification for the towers in the first place, I always thought this proposal was for residential use. [How was any work going to get done if everyone’s outdoors sitting on café chairs?] Usage aside, Ville Radieuse could be a special case of a tower field so, for now, I’ll reserve the term tower grid to describe projects with gridded towers.

This mood sketch is difficult to reconcile with the above collage presumably generated from the plans.
It’s difficult to make out what’s on the tables. The left one seems to have half a dozen oysters on ice but the right one is anyone’s guess. A typewriter and a whisky?

Chronologically next in this potted history of tower fields is World’s End Estate in London’s Chelsea with its seven identical towers identically oriented. The mostly blank walls facing the river are broken only by doors off kitchens and leading to small balconies while living room windows look either up or down the river. This is perverse to contemporary thinking but I can see how it’s far better to have a long view up or down a river than a sliver of a view perpendicularly across The Thames as has been standard practice for the 50 years since.

More importantly, the designer of World’s End Estate must have reasoned that gridded towers are oppressive and so deliberately contrived the layout so that no three towers form a line. The external view is relaxed and informal, perhaps even inviting.

Before I go any further, I want to test this. Here’s a site my second year students are currently involved with. There’s a main road to the north-east, business and innovation parks to the north-west and south-west, and views across water to the south and south-east. The nicest part of the view is split across the ends of the 360° panorama but we’ll see slivers of in some later post when I’ll get on to views of water and south-facing views but, for now, all I want to do is place eight 44-storey residential towers on this site to achieve an FAR of 2.5.

  • I’ll place one set in a grid and another set so that no three towers form a line.
  • I’ll model the towers as blank cylinders to avoid the effects of scale and directionality for now.
  • I’ll also make them the same height to remove any compositional gain of different heights.

The layout on the left below is a tower grid – a diagrid including three lines of three towers. The layout on the right is a tower field with no such lines. It wasn’t as easy as I’d thought to move some towers so that no three were in a clear line.

The next four pairs of images have the tower grid on the left and the tower field on the right. Cameras were positioned 350 metres away due South, East, West and North. In all four left images, the three lines of three towers are all perceivable, albeit to varying degrees depending on the angle.

SOUTH

EAST

NORTH

WEST

  • Three of the left images show clear view corridors through the site, as would be expected of a grid, while only the WEST view for the tower field shows shows a similar view corridor (for these four cardinal views, at least).
  • A greater number of view corridors through the site means more towers are blocking views of other towers – again, as is the nature of a tower grid.
  • My preliminary conclusion is that towers are ideally arranged as tower fields rather than tower grids because
    • 1) this avoids the regimented or oppressive effect because the towers appear as a single giant group when seen from outside and
    • 2) although the tower field shown in the views on the right can hardly be called “relaxed” or “organic”, it is when compared to the tower grid on the left, and again when seen from outside the tower field. Moreover
    • 3) because the tower field has no view corridors, fewer buildings are blocking the view of other buildings, allowing more residents to have more views out of the site, with corresponding benefits for daylighting and well being, even if most of these views are between towers and with varying view angles.

Just to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything, I produced another comparison, this time using a square grid. The results are much the same, only more pronounced. As expected. Again, it wasn’t easy to have nine towers with no three almost being in the same line. This comparison has one extra tower forming a line of four in the left instance.

The Wyndham Estate in Camberwell, London has five identical towers designed around the mid-60s by London Country Council architect Colin Lucas [c.f. Architecture Misfit #10]. Note the difference between how the towers are perceived from outside the tower field, and how they are perceived from a tower within it. One’s never alone in a tower field as you’re always aware of other people going about their lives.

And it’s just as well there’s this upside because if, for example, if the average size of suburban plots in Australian cities has decreased to less than a fifth of what it was 50 years ago, the distance between residential towers anywhere in the world isn’t going to get any greater.

Arquitectonica’s Gate Towers in Abu Dhabi are more tower wall than tower field. The three towers are basically in line and, though the towers and the people in them are connected via the bridge, the mute walls facing the gaps aren’t meant to facilitate any awareness of other people. Tower walls result when the awareness of the proximity of other towers (and their residents) is intended to be as little as possible.

https://arquitectonica.com/architecture/project/the-gate-sky-sun-arc-towers-boutik-mall/

The same can be said for Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Bay_Sands#/media/File:View_of_MBS_from_the_gardens_(8026531707).jpg

Safdie’s Raffles City Chongqing, however, is definitely a tower field. The client for Marina Bay Sands unsuccessfully tried to sue Safdie for some kind of design infringement, claiming Raffles City Chongqing was overly similar. Safdie’s lawyers successfully argued, “Yes, there are similar elements, but the design overall is within the grounds of artistic development”. They should’ve just said Marina Bay Sands is a tower wall while Raffles City Chongqing is a tower field.

https://www.dezeen.com/2020/06/25/safdie-architects-the-crystal-raffles-city-chongqing-architecture/
https://www.dezeen.com/2020/06/25/safdie-architects-the-crystal-raffles-city-chongqing-architecture/

I don’t think these things we now for some reason call “skybridges” make that much difference to the tower field effect other than the towers having a “supporting role” that consequently diminishes their perception as towers.

I might have to create another category for buildings such as Dubai Pearl which would have been a tower grid/tower wall hybrid had it been completed. What was built has now been demolished. A grouping of towers?

Dubai’s Paramount Towers are a grouping of towers because although they’re not in a grid, their rotational symmetry creates a new and macro group in much the way as step and repeat does to create a grid.

My most recent example of a tower group is The Sail Selaka I posted a short video of in the previous post.

Perhaps in the future we’ll be exploring the optimum spacing and disposition of tower groups?

This quick history of tower fields has been roughly chronological but the obvious omission is China where lines of tower walls are a standard development typology. My university is nowhere near the centre of Wenzhou but here’s three such arrangements I can see from my office window.

Whether you get a tower grid or multiple tower walls depends on the shape and dimensions of the site. To the right of the photograph above are some triple-core towers with three double-core towers to the left. Single-core buildings can also be used to fill in spaces too small for double-core buildings. Combinations of single-, double- and triple-core buildings can vary the length of tower walls to fit across trapezoidal, rhomboid or other irregularly shaped sites while maintaining the same orientation and spacing between walls. Optimally filling the site with towers at the minimum spacing has precedence over providing even narrow view corridors between the towers. Or, to put it the other way around, providing view corridors is not as important as optimally filling the site.

Having said that and, in theory at least, the placement of single-, double- and triple-core towers along tower walls can be syncopated to allow more apartments to have long views between towers to the south in which all towers will ideally be aligned (because doing that enables minimal spacing between tower walls). This should be able to be done without lowering the FAR. My next test will begin by placing triple-core towers in tower wall formation at minimal spacing, starting with the longest side of the most perpendicular corner as you would when laying out a car park. It’s still too early to think about other important things like the presence of favorable long views outside the boundaries of the site.

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