The ups and downs of vertical living

Monday 24 Jun 2013

What are the cultural, economical and spatial implications of living in high-rise buildings?

Two weeks ago at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) annual conference John Mizon, Vice President Advanced Programs at Schindler Limited, talked about the human appropriation of an unfinished office block in Caracas.

Torre David, a 45-storey office tower in Caracas designed by the distinguished Venezuelan architect Enrique Gómez, was almost complete when it was abandoned following the death of its developer, David Brillembourg, in 1993 and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy in 1994. Today, it is the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in an extra-legal and tenuous occupation that some have called a vertical slum.

Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, along with their research and design teams at Urban-Think Tank and ETH Zürich, spent a year studying the physical and social organisation of this ruin-turned-home. Where some only see a failed development project, U-TT has conceived it as a laboratory for the study of the informal settlement. With the support of the Schindler Group, U-TT also explored innovative design solutions to address new modes of vertical mobility.

John went on to say that these families have created a new community in what they perceive to be a safer environment from their traditional slum dwellings due to its verticality. They are able to monitor and control vertical circulation as there are no lifts and the building albeit unfinished, offers shelter and security.

Antony Wood (Executive Director of the CTBUH) asked John and the fellow panel members (Angela Brady, RIBA President, Harry Handelsman, CEO Mahattan Loft Corporation and Paul Monaghan, Director AHMM) why we in the West generally can’t live in high-rise whereas it’s quite normal in the Far East?

In response, Paul Monaghan referenced the high-rise living in Tokyo where towers are designed with deep balconies, offering shading and outdoor space and with considerably more floor space than a conventional UK or USA apartment design. They have built-in storage and big entrance lobbies to demonstrate the arrival (much like a hotel).

Harry Handelsman described high-rise living as a modern residential trend, whilst Paul Monaghan also pointed out that in London, it is mostly overseas sales that are regenerating the high-rise living market. Peter Rees (The City Planning Officer) bucked the trend slightly by stating that he will be soon moving into his new mid/high-rise apartment.

The traditional urban sprawls of the West are traditionally where most people want to reside: more space, more land and cleaner air (presumably). Living in most city centre high-rises often equates to high rents and small spaces with little or no opportunity for family dwelling which it seems is a key factor for many suburbia seekers. They want to be able to open the windows, sit in the garden and have a garage to park their car.

Conversely, in many Middle and Far Eastern cities, the air is not ‘cleaner’ if you live outside a city, openable windows rarely exist and air conditioning is the norm. It is also very normal for multi-generation families to live in the same apartment. This is again quite different to western cities.

At the CTBUH 2012 Shanghai conference, we discussed how sustainable it is living in a super sky scraper and it was concluded that maybe we have not yet reached the optimum solution. The vertical city is a great theory but can only work in certain cultures, regions and climates.

So with the rapidly rising demand on housing and density, how can some western cities address the fundamentals of high-rise living? The UK has deep scars from post-war high-rises which accompany many social and cultural stigmas.

We need to embrace better infrastructure, mixed-use schemes, bigger floor space, more storage, reasonable rents and intelligent cultural awareness and appreciation of the potential for high rise living.

Caroline Stephens
WAN Business Information

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