THEME: Tall Buildings

How Could Tall Buildings be made Futureproof?

BY Rebecca Roberts-Hughes | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

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How could tall buildings be made future-proof to confront our growing density problem and housing crisis?

The fifteen storey tower blocks which act as bookends to the estate I live on are ugly. Their relentless layers of broad windows and grimy blue panels are broken only by a littering of satellite dishes and what look like old fishnets, thrown over balconies to keep the birds from populating these homes above the tree tops. At night the blue, UV lights which line the stairways shine out like an embarrassing beacon, reminding our neighbours in the Victorian terraces below that here lies a loud pocket of drug abuse and deprivation.


Rebecca Roberts-Hughes©

I am not sure what the plans for lighting the Shard at night will be, but I am certain the penthouse suites at its pinnacle will send a different message to the streets below than that of my Hackney high rise block. But grazing the top of a skyscraper with a handful of luxury apartments – which sit like awkward cherries atop layers of offices, shops and hotel rooms – is no more sustainable or future proof than the ageing tower block I’ve just described.

If people are removed from the streets of our society, are they removed from society itself? Theorist Michel de Certeau argued that in tall buildings (his example was the World Trade Centre, but today we can imagine others) people are removed from life. Staring out of high windows, viewers experience something of an ego trip in seeing the world in miniature representation, without the details of people and their activities, far beneath.

“When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators… His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance.”(1)

Arguably, this is a dangerous state of play, whether it is for the disproportionately wealthy or people who are deprived and already at risk of becoming marginalised.

Advocates of tall buildings will remind us that our small island, with its green belt and popular NIMBYism, has both an increasing population and a housing shortage. They will point to housing blocks as an appropriate response to these challenges. High density of homes on small sites, with the potential to make good economic use of Brownfield sites served by existing infrastructure, will be proposed. I’m not going to disagree with these arguments. Instead, I want to make a helpful contribution to the debate by suggesting that if tall buildings are the chosen answer to our increasing population, there are things these homes must do in order to meet that purpose. All homes, whether they are within the streets or above them, must meet future challenges such as political and economic changes, developments in technology, environmental considerations, and our diversifying and ageing population. In short, high rise homes must be affordable, adaptable and attractive.

The apartments in the Shard are rumoured to be selling for £30 to 50 million each. People shouldn’t have to choose between failing tower blocks packed with dissatisfied families, and luxuries that only a billionaire can seriously consider. Streets in the sky may be a failed experiment but a spatial dichotomy between a towering ghetto, and luxury gated communities elsewhere in other skies, is not the answer. Society is mixed and we all need homes, so homes in skyscrapers need to be affordable and must offer variety enough to cater for a range of households, tenures and incomes.

New homes built today will need to last for over a hundred years, especially in the context of massive undersupply. We are currently only managing to build enough homes for a third of the households that form each year, let alone addressing the backlog. If homes are going to last that long they will need to be adaptable; technological advancements are changing the way we use our homes at an unprecedented rate. Further still, the make-up of society is completely changing; in seventy years from now there will be more people over the age of 45 than under it, and our population will continue to grow and age. This will dramatically impact on who lives in a home and how they use their space. At the most basic level, an adaptable home must have sufficient space, noise insulation between rooms and neighbouring properties, high levels of natural light, access to private green space, ample storage, and provisions for current new in-home technologies. These are all core issues for contemporary households, revealed in the RIBA and Ipsos MORI’s social research The way we live now.

An attractive home is not the same as a stylish home. An attractive home will offer a quality of life and retain that offer for future households – put simply, it is somewhere people want to live. The look and appeal of an area and feeling of community are all important, but so is the sense of wellbeing offered by a home. Ethnographic research undertaken in The Way We Live Now found that people valued natural light in their homes, and also outside space that could be used for relaxing or social events. High rise homes need to be able to maintain those qualities which impact on wellbeing, if the properties are going to have any social and sustainable value in the future.

Are our tower blocks failures? Looking at Le Corbusier’s vision for high rise housing, and some of his completed housing projects, it is difficult to understand why his mass residential blocks are perceived so differently from some of the high density homes in our own cities. A visit to Corbusierhaus in Berlin offers some explanation; it is set amongst streets in a residential area on the outskirts of Berlin. The streets are leafy and green with a variety of house types, and right next to the block is a metro station and the spectacular (if ugly in other ways) Berlin Olympic stadium. There is something to be said for the setting of huge, usually high rise housing blocks; if the area is attractive enough, it can entice people out of their homes and into the streets for pastimes and other opportunities for social interaction. If the area is a success, then maybe high rise living doesn’t segregate people from the streets around them.


Corbusierhaus, Berlin – Rebecca Roberts-Hughes©

The second obvious difference is that Corbusierhaus attracts retired urban design professionals and architects, whereas traditional allocations policies on our high density estates have prioritised people with the greatest housing need. The more recent approach in local allocations policies is to create a mixed tenure – and therefore mixed income – estate with a range of different household types and sizes. This is a much more sustainable approach to housing, and crucial in ensuring that we do not create pockets of wealth and pockets of poverty.

The third difference is one that is harder to define: a good home is more than the sum of its parts. Whilst the basic premise of high rise housing articulated by Le Corbusier can be counted as a major influence behind British post-war estates, something is clearly lost in translation. Le Corbusier’s ‘city of towers’ was designed to remove people from the ‘dust, smells and noise’ so that they are instead ‘set in clean air amidst trees and grass’.(2) And yet despite the clear rules and reminders Le Corbusier lays out in Vers une Architecture he notes that poor applications of even the greatest principles can produce poor environments.

Le Corbusier discusses buildings in which “the architect has not taken into account that a plan proceeds from within to without… has not taken into account the architectural elements of the interior, surfaces which are linked together in order to receive light and make manifest the content of the building.”(3) These buildings are failures because the architect “has transgressed the rules of proper planning by an error of conception or an inclination towards vanities.”(4)

There is also such a thing as an error of economics. There are cheaply planned and poorly executed blocks, which maximise the number of homes on a piece of land rather than the quality of those homes. There are housing estates which are value engineered to be delivered as quickly and cheaply as possible, rather than finished to a sustainable and usable standard. These homes are clearly not effective machines for living in. But nor are expensively planned and lavishly accessorised skyscrapers, which might well be functional and luxurious machines for living in – but only for the very few. If our tall buildings were genuinely future proof, they would need to offer affordable accommodation to the average household and a home that would meet their changing needs during the course of their lives. Anything less is not an appropriate solution to our densely populated urban environments and our growing population.

\Daily Mail article – Homes in The Shard\

\The Way We Live Now – Research Report PDF\

\The Way We Live Now – Research Films\

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(1)Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (London: The University of California Press Ltd, 1988), page 92
(2)Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1923 (New York: Dover Publications, 1931/1986, translated by Frederick Etchells), page 56
(3)Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, pages 195-196
(4)Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, page 196

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Rebecca manages the RIBA’s public policy programmes and research; which includes think tank Building Futures. She leads on housing policy and the value of good design.

Rebecca is the author of the RIBA’s 2011 report \The case for space: the size of England’s new homes\ and co-author of the 2012 social research report \The way we live now: what people need and expect from their homes.\ She provided the research secretariat for the Future Homes Commission, whose report \Building the Homes and Communities Britain Needs\ was published on 26th October 2012.

Rebecca has also worked for Metropolitan Housing Association, John McAslan + Partners architectural practice, Westminster City Council, and is currently researching a PhD in critical and architectural theory and King’s College, London.