Is high rise the answer?

Written by Sian Disson on 3 July 2013

Experts have predicted that by 2025 the global population will have reached a shocking 8 billion. Our current population is bolstered by advances in medicine, increased access to immunisation and disease eradication programs, gradually slowing the international death rate. Despite widespread family planning programs by government organisations and non-profits across the world, our global population continues to rise.

The design industry is now under pressure to find solutions to this expanding population and this will be the focus of an architecture summit held in New York this coming October. In preparation for this discussion World Architecture News asked experts in diverse fields for their opinions as to how architecture can support the projected population of 8 billion by 2025.

At the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat annual conference in London earlier this month, Christoph Ingenhoven declared that the high rise was a viable option for the increasing global population. Through examinations of London and Houston Ingenhoven examined the effects of urban sprawl on energy demand and drew back to the focus of the conference, tall buildings.

'I am in love with tall buildings because, quite simply, we need them', he explained. For Ingenhoven, the drastic increase in population over the past decades and projection for the future has led to a crucial shift in the way we both perceive and design tall buildings.

When one thinks of tall buildings, China often springs to mind. Designs for towering structures flood onto the scene on a weekly basis and over the past few years the country has erupted with literally hundreds of noteworthy towers. Such gross expansion comes at a cost however and WAN has run a number of stories on reports of cut corners on construction sites including the incredibly dangerous steel thinning scandal.

Will Alsop of All Design is less convinced that there is one particular answer to the world’s problems. He is in favour of a more localised approach that moves away from tall towers, explaining: “High rise is not the only solution to growing global population. During a recent trip to Mumbai I met with a local architect to discuss housing solutions to slum problems in India.

“The current solution is to construct 30-40 storey towers but you don’t have to do that; if you build in high density above 10 storeys people feel disconnected from the city below. There are different solutions for different places.”

Also joining our conversation is John Bushell, Principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) who joins Ingenhoven in favour of ‘liberating’ the high rise but is adamant that the carfeul selection of the location for each of these tall towers is intrinsic to a city’s success. Taking London as a case study he explains:

“Central London is faced with a need to provide more commercial and residential space within a complex and constraint-laden urban fabric. The Greater London Authority’s vision is to control yet encourage increased height and density within a limited number of specific locations in close proximity to main transport hubs, which interestingly, are dispersed within the Central Activity Zone.

“This is guided by the first fundamental for sustainable development - the choice of place to build intensely.  If everyone uses public transport and no one relies on the car, far more is achieved than a much louvred building in a distant road served suburb.

“The policy therefore avoids a single Central Business District of towers, line upon line of the same and instead encourages a ‘loose composition of distinct defined clusters’ and emphasises the multi-centred nature of central London.  We will be able to see and understand where Canary Wharf is in relation to Southwark and Vauxhall; Hackney in relation to Elephant and Castle; and where the grand main stations of London are - London Bridge, Waterloo, Euston.

“The City of London has a greater overall cluster highlighting its importance. A few existing exceptions (Centre Point to name one) complete the picture of well-spaced taller buildings. This policy aims to compliment the views and areas that have been identified as having value with less change. So added to this skyline are clear views of St Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and the Tower of London. The nature and detail of the skyline is part of the public realm.

“What will emerge over the next decade is a new version of tall buildings in the City, different from ‘La Défense’ like exclusion to the outskirts, a single centre, or an uncontrolled carpet of high rise. This ‘picturesque’ composition is a latter day re-invention of the historic picturesque skylines of merchants’ and church towers from medieval times.

“The questions are - given these limited places where towers are permitted - are we building with enough intensity and height? Should there be much taller buildings with mixed-use programmes in these defined clusters?  And can we not combine the services systems for each cluster, much in the way the Kings Cross development is leading the way in combined centralised utilities and energy production?

“If indeed these central clusters are more intense and tall, can we find a language and typology of mini towers, slender and well proportioned, so that in between the clusters and preserved buildings we don't end up with too many uniform ‘groundscraper’ proportioned buildings? Having found the most sustainable places to build, we can most effectively apply ingenuity and technology to ensure these buildings are as carbon efficient and flexible as possible.”  

Three architects, three different solutions. There is no denying that the architecture community needs to come together to brainstorm ideas to combat our global population increase and as Bushell highlights, this issue extends further than the basic design of a residential building. We must also look to urban design and infrastructure to support these new developments. More expert solutions will follow over the coming weeks as we delve further into these global challenges.  

Categories: Architecture