European cities are three-dimensional spatial constructs. But if we look at the plans we make, then the third dimension is strangely absent. Apart from the definition of building heights and some aesthetic design codes, there is little in our planning vocabulary that embraces the third dimension. Consequently, the discussion then also is if one should build high or not. High rise or low rise – that is the question that keeps European city makers busy. They go to lengths to show why the one is better than the other or the other way round. In that discussion everything high is evil and blocking views, casting shadow or in general is unhealthy to live in. Everything low on the other hand is dubbed provincial, space hungry and driving real estate prices. That discussion often leads to compromises that ultimately lack the qualities of the one or the other and instead deliver the typical mediocre urban fabric that is proliferating our cities – a growingly endless tissue of too high low rise and too low high rise. The result of this undecidedness we call a contemporary European city.
But the world is changing. Climate change, higher and higher real estate prices, international investment profiles, the construction industries drive for more efficiency, the tendency to do bigger buildings and the well-meant intention to keep cities more compact all have one consequence: higher density. What the consequences of a higher density city are is not really discussed.
I believe here we need to take action. We have to develop an update of what the European City is about. HD urbanism asks for more complex organisational patterns and it open up opportunities for a new thinking of the third dimension of our cities. Why do we not embrace stacking a more diverse mix of uses? Why are we afraid of redefining what architecture, what landscape and what infrastructure in a city can mean? It is worthwhile looking further east for clues what is possible. Asian cities in many places are denser, higher and have a more diverse mix of uses in one building. This is not only a result of density but density definitely triggers invention and the rethinking what the third dimension of a city can be like. Everybody who has visited Hong Kong or Singapore gets a glimpse how different this 3d urban plan can be compared to what we have in Europe. I am not advocating European cities to become Asian cities but I am advocating to become experimental with mixing and intensifying uses in our cities. Why not having a public function in every larger building? Why not mandating public open space on higher levels? Why not requiring rooftops to have a community use?
In the light of climate change we must rethink our entire cities. The building typologies and the program they house will not be spared from this. This does not mean changing everything, but it means changing a lot. We have to develop a new architectural vernacular of the 21st century in the same way as previous generations also did in responding to new challenges. Just imagine how poetic a building could be where the changes of seasons can be perceived in its built in outdoor landscapes. Or imagine how amazing it could be to enjoy rooftop views across the city just by getting up there because it is a public space.
You think that is not achievable? I recommend to have a closer look at the work of Singapore based architecture firm Woha. Wong Mun Summ, the founder and spiritus rector and his team do exactly that. They show us that market economy does not mean different buildings are impossible. They work with the possible and they achieve remarkable things to learn from.
But they do not achieve everything and that is where we cannot only rely on designers vision and ambition. Necessary systemic changes that do not have a foreseeable return of investment time need to be legislated for them to happen as does the monitoring of building performance from energy consumption to climatic effects and societal benefits it provides. In Singapore they started doing that because the hyper urban context triggers it but it would not be a bad idea for other cities and countries to embrace it as well.
by Markus Appenzeller