THEME: Tall Buildings

A Vertical Theory of Urban Design

BY Ken Yeang | November 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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Rethinking the Skyscraper: A Vertical Theory of Urban Design

We need to reinvent the tall building typology. The tall building is a huge volume of built up space on a small footprint; in many tall buildings the volume of built up space can exceed several hectares, yet most of these structures today are nothing more than a series of repeated homogenous concrete floors plates stacked one on top of another, often in a single-use building, and only occasionally with multiple uses. It is this homogeneity that gives so much of our high-rise development its bad reputation; as demeaning and monotonous structures.

In our rethinking of the tall building typology, we need to design it as ‘vertical urbanism’. We need to consider tall building design, by virtue of its sheer intensity, no longer as simply architectural design dominated by expedient efficient structural engineering, but as ‘vertical urban design’. By this, we mean that we need to take all those aspects of urban design that are conventionally crucial at the horizontal plane, and now reconnect and transpose these onto the vertical dimension; as a vertical framework of urbanity ‘in the sky’ rather than \’on the ground\’.

Ken Yeang©

All those aspects of urban design such as place making, creating public realm, figure ground relationship, configuring the spaces between buildings, creating communities, providing public and private accessibility systems, establishing desire lines, maintaining ecological nexus in landscaping, creating vistas, etc. all need to be reconsidered vertically.

Take for example, place making. Vertically considered, the question of ‘place making in the sky’ immediately conjures up new opportunities, frequently ignored in the design of many tall buildings. By re-thinking the typology as \’vertical urban design\’ we start to consider a new way of designing tall buildings, with a cornucopia of new design opportunities, in a new vertical theory of urban design.

Ken Yeang©

Ken Yeang©

Most cities grow and there are a number of ways of accommodating this urban growth:

One way is to expand the city limits sideways by extending the city’s boundaries outwards, which often means building on arable land which reduces food production opportunities. If not on arable land, then greenfield land or forested and vegetated land, leading to a loss of biodiversity and increase in the overall urban heat island effect and increase in the city\’s ambient temperature.

The second way to accommodating urban growth is by building new satellite cites away from the metropolis. This option requires the satellite city to be linked to the metropolis by motorways or a rapid transit system. This energy intensive transportation infrastructure will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, certainly so long as we rely on fossil fuel energy sources.

The third, and by far the most commonly preferred approach, incurring the least capital cost, is to optimise land use within existing city boundaries – to build on brownfield sites within city limits and intensify land use on locations where this intensification can be sustainably justified, such as over existent public transportation hubs.

In most instances, city leaders tend to opt for the third strategy and its implementation often results in the tall building typology. With continued city growth tall buildings will likely be with us for a while, whether due to high land prices, owner’s egos for height, or by necessity due to rapid urban growth.

To ensure this intensification of urban land use remains a sustainable endeavor, it should be focused around transportation interchanges or other key hubs, reducing the high energy, high emission issues associated with personal transportation. We should also look to take the opportunity when possible to retrofit the existing building stock, utilities and landscaping within the city to make the city green; a coordinated move towards anecocity.

Moving from these concepts to reality should not be as such a big task as it would appear, but requires a change in the design profession’s mindset; to reject conventional wisdom for tall building design and rethink the typology as green vertical urban design.

Designing tall building as vertical urban design does not requre new construction and engineering technologies, they already exist we just need both architects and engineers to rethink their application in both design and construction. What is crucial is to use the latest in cleantech systems; engineering systems that are low in embodied energy, are carbon neural, and construction systems that facilitate disassembly for future reuse and recycling of materials.

There may be traditional, regionalist concerns by some in the far east that the tall building is essentially a Western import and hence must be ‘culturalised’ – that it has to be made ‘local’ with cultural motifs and features. They should not have any aversion to using imported built forms simply because they are not home grown. If we adopt this view, we might as well not use modern medicine and surgery just because these are imported. Generally stated, we should use what works best for our urban conditions and cities regardless of whether they are imported or not, provided they are the best fit to urban problems and that designers use these imports in their own way rather than through blind adoption. A more localized design strategy is a critical regionalist approach which ties the built configuration and its passive low-energy performance with the climate of the locality, in a passive-mode design.

For those cities that are already densely populated by skyscrapers, where scarcity of land is an issue (such as Singapore or Hong Kong), we should look at alternative ways of adapting existing built forms; by intensifying existing vertical buildings through horizontal linkage at upper levels, through better use of the ‘spaces between buildings’, through the use of spaces over existent roads and motorways, through better urban design and physical planning and with more efficient internal use of space, etc.

The retrofitting of our huge existing stock of buildings will become an even greater imperative than the design and construction of new tall buildings in the move to make our cities green and sustainable. This does not mean the widespread demolition, rebuilding and regeneration of existent urban areas but could mean careful retrofitting and insertions.

The challenge in making tall buildings part of the solution for sustainable urban growth, will be in finding efficient and rapid ways to make existing cites green, such as converting their energy systems into renewable energy systems, ensuring closed-cycle water management systems, implementing citywide sustainable urban drainage, providing an ecological nexus linking the city’s green areas with its hinterland’s natural landscape to make the region\’s ecology whole, developing a network of localised food production, reduction of urban pollution and reduction of waste by recycling, etc. There are of course other physical design issues in the new intensive vertical city such as multiple vertical land uses, enabling privacy and engendering habitable communities whilst also ensuring adequate fire and safety issues, etc.

Concurrent with the above we need new planning legislations to enable the new city as a three dimension urban design matrix of multiple spaces and functions.


Ken Yeang is chairman and director of design at Llewelyn Davies Yeang; architects, planners and designers specialising in ecodesign strategies. He considers himself an ecologist first, architect second and is widely perceived to be the world’s leading architect in ecological design and passive low energy design. He has delivered over 200 built projects, and his ‘bioclimatic’ towers have had an impact around the world, fusing high-tech and organic principles.

Ken has actively disseminated his vision through teaching and through a series of books that are as concerned with the science of low- energy building as with the aesthetics of the end result. His contribution to leading edge and sustainable design extends far beyond landmark buildings. His thinking infuses peer group discussions on building form and disposition of the public realm through the objectives of sustainability.

A recent short film reflecting on Ken’s career so far is \online\