ACCORDING TO THE WORLD Green Building Council, construction and buildings currently account for approximately 39% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. However, that figure could (and may well have to) drop precipitously with broader adoption of sustainable building practices. As more governments and builders take the emerging global climate crisis seriously, certifications like LEED and BREEAM have progressed from a badge of honor to standard operating procedures and green materials have become standard. At the highest levels of design, environmental impact is now nearly as fundamental consideration as questions of form and material.
Building sustainably requires keen consideration of context, taking advantage of the building’s natural surroundings and available resources to control a building’s temperature, harness natural light, and process waste. As such, it’s far easier to build sustainably in temperate areas, where temperature holds steady and the sunlight is plentiful.
So how do you build sustainably in more extreme climates? Aren’t solar panels a luxury of the equatorial? What about Trondheim, Norway’s northernmost major city, where daylight fluctuates wildly between seasons and temperatures stay below freezing for months during the dark winter seasons? That’s a lot of heating and lighting.
Trondheim is an unlikely location for an energy-neutral building, let alone an energy-positive one. Nevertheless, Snøhetta architecture’s Powerhouse Brattørkaia is exactly that: an 18,000 square-meter office building that, on average, produces more than twice the energy than it consumes daily. Thanks to nearly three thousand square meters of solar paneling, the fittingly named Power-house Brattørkaia generates enough power for itself, its neighbors, and a regional transportation network that includes electric buses, cars, and a local ferry system. The building was awarded BREEAM’s highest rating of Outstanding.
Rising in a striking, angular mass, Powerhouse Brattørkaia over-looks the port without overwhelming its neighbors, a precisely cut gem of a building. The imposing structure’s steeply-canted wedge shape offers a large and perfectly-angled roof for harvesting solar energy. The building’s highly efficient 1,157 solar panels are oriented around a circular cut-out that creates a generous central garden atrium, affording natural light to all its inhabitants. No matter where your desk is at Powerhouse Brattørkaia, a window isn’t far away.
As one might expect, the building leverages a host of green best practices to keep energy consumption low. While clad in handsome black aluminum, the majority of the building’s massing is concrete, ensuring a high degree of insulation to keep the building warm through Norway’s long winters. A heat pump system takes advantage of a nearby fjord to efficiently control the building’s temperature with seawater, and collected rainwater is used for the building’s toilets. When needed, the building’s sophisticated LED lighting system responds to supplement ambient daylight and can detect human presence to ensure efficiency. The result is a building that uses about half as much energy on lighting as a comparably-sized office building would.
A partnership between Snøhetta, the Swedish construction giant Skanska, the environmental organization ZERO, and the consulting company Asplan Viak, the Powerhouse initiative is meant to inspire sustainable buildings with an ambitious new target inspired by the Paris Agreement. The Powerhouse designation isn’t merely a reflection of a building’s day-to-day energy consumption; the project’s energy accounting also includes the creation of the project’s building materials, emissions produced in its construction, ongoing operational demands, and finally, the eventual energy costs of its eventual demolition and disposal.
Powerhouse Brattørkaia is one of four existing Powerhouse projects. Others in the portfolio include a breathtaking Montessori school and an ambitious renovation of a 1980’s office complex, proving that energy positivity isn’t restricted to new construction projects.
If the Powerhouse philosophy of energy positive building sounds ambitious, it’s because it is. Snøhetta’s founder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen is pursuing nothing less than a paradigm shift in building design, spurred by a sense of climate urgency. “Energy-positive buildings are the buildings of the future,” says Thorsen. “The mantra of the design industry should not be ‘form follows function’ but ‘form follows environment. ”
IN THE 21ST CENTURY, few figures have taken on more high-profile architectural and civic projects than the British designer Thomas Heatherwick. He and his team designed Google’s Mountain View corporate headquarters, conceived of a massive Manhattan tourist attraction (we covered his sensational Vessel observation deck structure in a previous column), imagined numerous public art pieces, built innovative bridges, and even created the striking 2012 Olympic cauldron, in which 204 copper petals converged dramatically to create a single cauldron in the opening ceremony.
Highly imaginative and often provocative, Heatherwick Studio always seems to work off of the same animating question: “what if?” Their designs are grand conceptual projects or elegant creative solutions, challenging conventional wisdom and asking whimsical questions. Never strictly architects, the studio’s work spans discipline, embracing facets of industrial design, furniture, and even fashion in its search to create things that surprise and delight their beholders. Each project feels like a fresh research initiative, striking out into new territory to explore new possibilities, materials, and concepts.
This meandering and freewheeling approach has netted Heatherwick Studio a diverse portfolio that includes both a handbag and a redesign of London’s double-decker buses. As a result, the studio was the subject of a major retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum, raising their profile considerably and sparking demand across the world. And nowhere is a bit of buzz more welcome than in the competitive and increasingly international world of New York real estate.
If there’s a “what if” behind Lantern House, Heatherwick Studio’s first residential project in the United States (SLCE Architects served as the architect of record), it seems to be: “what if every window was a bay window?” At once historic industrial and optimistically futuristic, Lantern House makes use of a custom masonry facade: a dramatic and generous paneled window that juts outward in all directions, expand-ing residents’ views, drawing in more light, and offering up an obvious “best seat in the house.” And while the building’s glass and brick may be familiar to the formerly-industrial neighborhood, its form is something entirely new.
Overlooking New York’s buzzy High Line park in the gallery-dotted West Chelsea neighborhood, Lantern House is comprised of two towers: one 22-story tower and another that rises ten stories. They are connected by an elegant glass lobby that sits cozily beneath the High Line. Each of the 181 condo residences features one of the building’s signature bulbous window units—or at least half of one, as most of the building’s “bubbles” encompass two floors.
Taken together, Lantern House evokes a stack of fishbowls or observation bubbles, each offering residents a fuller view of the city than a more conventional flat window would. Both a democratic gesture and a slight provocation, Lantern House seems to also ask the question “what if everyone got a corner office?” Of course, there’s a certain irony at play considering its context. Lantern House rises above one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. Units at Lantern House range between $1.4 million for a one-bedroom unit and nearly $20 million for one of the project’s commanding penthouses. As one would expect, the project’s amenities and shared spaces are extravagant. There are an indoor saltwater pool and a fitness center that is bathed in daylight from the building’s huge windows. Unit interiors, designed by British firm March & White, are lush and natural, incorporating natural textures of marble, bronze, and oak.
In a city where real estate extravagance seems to know no bounds, Lantern House joins an increasingly crowded field of sig-nature projects with starchitect provenance. Not far from Lantern House are Zaha Hadid’s swooping condos at 520 West 28th Street and Bjarke Ingels’ angular towers at 76 Eleventh Avenue. In fact, one would be forgiven for mistaking Chelsea for some kind of international design competition. While it’s an exciting time for New York real estate, one wonders how our current era will be perceived by history. Lacking the cohesion of a dominant school or approach may yet result in a flamboyant jumble of “what ifs.”
ANY DECENT STUDENT OF history knows that all across North America, cities and towns sit atop land effectively plundered from its original inhabitants. Many of our continent’s best-loved cities, perched on its prolific rivers and sheltered harbors, were once thriving tribal towns and settlements until they were wrested away by coercion and force.
As we continue to reckon with our country’s own complicated history, a landmark real estate deal in Canada may paint a picture of possible progress, as one First Nations tribe embarks on a project of massive scope in one of the world’s most expensive cities. It’s a story that illuminates a number of forces that shape urban life in 2020, as the project is informed by both the weight of colonial history and the pressures of a rapidly globalizing present.
After many years of negotiations, the Squamish Tribe of British Columbia has recently approved a plan to establish Sen̓ áḵw, an 11-tower, 6000-unit residential project in Kitsilano, one of Vancouver’s trendiest downtown neighborhoods. Slated to break ground next year, the unprecedented development will also be exempt from provincial rent controls, building codes, height restrictions, and certain taxes, creating a uniquely blank slate for rethinking a prized swath of the city. Administered entirely by the Squamish Nation, the project promises to both dramatically transform Vancouver’s skyline and improve the fortunes of a long-oppressed group —ultimately bringing in billions of dollars of revenue for the tribe over the next century. It’s a decidedly modern turn of events in a long-simmering conflict between Canada’s governments and its original inhabitants.
Located at the foot of the Burrard Bridge, the undeveloped parcel of land that will comprise the Sen̓ áḵw project has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the native Squamish tribe and British Columbia’s provincial government. Originally a Squa-mish fishing village, the land was officially designated a tribal reservation in 1868 and expanded in 1877. However, in 1913 the province reneged on its deal to clear the way for industry and infrastructure in a rapidly expanding city. British Columbia annexed the Squamish territory and displaced the Squamish residents, shipping them away on a barge. In 1977, the Squamish embarked on a decades-long court action to reclaim ownership over the lands, culminating in a 2001 settlement that awarded the tribe nearly twelve acres of Kitsilano, a sliver of undeveloped land that then stood in the center of one of the world’s most in-demand cities.
Conceived in partnership with the developer Westbank, the ambitious project is designed for maximum density, sustainability, and to encourage the use of public transit by minimizing resident parking allocations. All told, Sen̓ áḵw will create 3.4 million square feet of housing, with the majority (between 70% and 90%) of the units designated as rentals. The 11 irregularly shaped towers—ranging in height but reaching up to 56 stories—will share dramatic angles, jutting balconies, and plenty of lush green life on their balconies and roofs. The proposed development of the Kitsilano area may prove influential, as it has already sparked speculation about a domino effect, inspiring further high-density development.
A flood of new housing could not be time-lier for Vancouver, a city that has been besieged by a housing crisis for more than a decade. A magnet for both Canadian migration and international interest (including a huge percentage of Chinese investment), the well-situated city simply hasn’t been able to keep up with demand. Last year’s announcement that Amazon would establish its HQ2 in the city certainly didn’t help matters much, ushering in a new class of well-paid workers into an already competitive market.
As communities around the world consider options for reconciling and restoring their relationships with their territories’ original inhabitants, Sen̓ áḵw is sure to drive a worthwhile conversation. While the windfall the modern Squamish will eventually see from the project doesn’t reconcile a century-old displacement, the project, with its responsible environmental stewardship and contribution to more equitable housing conditions, may well serve as a best-case scenario for a meaningful attempt at making things right. Not only does it allow hundreds of the Squamish Nation to return to the land their ancestors once knew. It also helps create homes for thousands of others in a city where housing is hard to find.
When future Architecture Textbooks are written, it seems as safe a bet as any that New York’s High Line project will mark an important turning point not just in the history of adaptive reuse but also in our popular engagement with urban design. It’s fair to call the elevated, 1.5-mile park a genuine phenomenon. It has driven Chelsea’s property values skyward, spurred a glut of real estate development, and inspired similar efforts in at least 19 other American cities.
The High Line also managed something exceedingly rare: it became an instant landmark, joining the pantheon of Gotham’s greats, alongside the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the New York Public Library. Like the slightly-more stately Brooklyn Bridge, it turns infrastructure into a tourist attraction. If you’ve spoken to any visitor to the city over the past few years, you’ve heard about their memorable jaunt to the west side of Manhattan to walk the High Line.
But can a landmark be planned ahead of time? Or does that kind of status require a kind of natural charisma or even luck? Is building a landmark like capturing lightning in a bottle? What elevates Chicago’s beloved Cloud Gate (or, if you prefer, The Bean) above every other art project languishing away in a public park? While it’d obviously be impossible to know for sure, we collected a valuable data point in our hypothetical study in March 2019 when New York’s Hudson Yards Redevelopment Authority opened a 16-story, a honeycomb-shaped monument called The Vessel.
Designed by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, The Vessel is part sculpture, part viewing platform, and part poster from the M.C. Escher gift shop. It rises above Hudson Yards’ plaza, widening like a cone, clad in resplendent copper and glass marvel of symmetry and geometry. Assem-bled from 75 giant modular pieces manufactured in Monfalcone, Italy, the Vessel feels expensive. And it was. The monument cost a reported $200 million. But in simplest terms, The Vessel is an intricately conceived, very shiny staircase to nowhere in particular. And while one can catch a view of the Hudson River from many of its 80 landings, The Vessel is its own self-justifying destination. One goes to the Vessel to marvel at its construction and snap Instagram photos of its 154 interlocking flights of stairs.
Funded by developer Related Companies, the Vessel sits at the High Line’s northern-most point, and it’s clear that the structure was meant to capitalize on both its neighbor’s traffic and its cultural ubiquity: “We said we want to design a 365-days-a-year Christmas tree,” Related CEO Jeff Blau said upon the Vessel’s opening, “so that every single person who comes here has to come to Hudson Yards.”
With a large Related shopping center sitting in the Vessel’s shadow, one can imagine precisely why one would want a landmark there. But the Vessel is more than just a mall advertisement. Taken together, Hudson Yards represents the most expensive private development in the history of American real estate with an overall price tag of $25 billion, with planned luxury residences, retail, and a state-of-the-art performing arts center. Accordingly, Related has touted the Vessel as “America’s Eiffel Tower,” and implied that the monument should last for “hundreds of years.”
The idea of creating an intentional land-mark is a flexible one, spanning from hypercapitalist developments in New York to large-scale civic projects in communist China. A few years ago, a project in Changsa, China embodied many of the same goals (and a similar affinity for stairs) as the Vessel.
Designed by Amsterdam’s NEXT Architects, the striking Lucky Knot bridge offers pedestrians multiple undulating paths across the Dragon King Harbor River. Playful in its sensibility, the Lucky Knot invites pedestrians to choose their own path across the arcing, bright-red strands of the bridge that resemble a Möbius ring. The bridge has become a popular backdrop for wedding photos and a tourist magnet—while also managing to serve a functional need. Like the Vessel, the Lucky Knot is an argument for a certain vision of the future.
It’s far too early to know whether the Vessel’s bid for landmark status has been successful. Reviews have been somewhere south of mixed, with many criticizing the clear commercial intentions of the project. However, one may note that early reviews for the Eiffel Tower weren’t kind either. It’s entirely possible that the next time you talk to a recent visitor to New York, they’ll tell you about their memorable climb to the top of the Vessel.
Traditionally, a building’s design is dictated by its purpose. Its footprint, facade, and layout are planned to house a certain kind of resident, accommodate a type of commerce, or even signify the values of the building’s owner. In best-case scenarios, considerations around a building’s immediate surroundings, the cultural context of its neighborhood, and its impact on the environment will also enter the equation. To most, these concerns and inquiries from the first principles of architecture.
However, Jeanne Gang—one of the world’s most prominent female architects and winner of the MacArthur “genius” fellow—is designing structures that address an even more fundamental concern: the influence of the sun. While simple orientation is nothing new—every real estate agent in the world knows about good light and ideal facing directions —Gang’s firm, Studio Gang, has developed a more in-depth approach to our interaction with natural light.
Gang’s philosophy, artistically termed “solar carving,” challenges designers to create wildly-angled structures that are exact about redirecting sunlight, optimizing for climate, and even minimizing unwanted shadows cast by the structure. The resulting projects are beautiful buildings that boast deferent, oddly-shaped silhouettes that resemble intricately-cut diamonds from up close and weathered stones from afar. Imagine if the sun had the same gradual eroding power as water and you start to get the idea.
At the heart of solar carving is a simple idea. A flat, vertical pane of glass isn’t optimized for either a building’s residents or its neighbors because at some point in the day it might generate an excess of glare and heat. Traditionally, we solve this problem through types of glass and interior window treatments. Solar carving, however, attempts to solve the problem with an obsessive eye for detail, some software, and a bit of clever astronomy. By carefully considering the sun’s path throughout the day, designers can “sculpt” an intricately considered, responsive facade that takes into account the building’s specific latitude and optimizes its surface. The effects vary from building to building but can range as far as helping to minimize adverse effects of seasonal differences.
In Chicago, for instance, where the weather can dictate much of resident’s day-to-day reality, Studio Gang’s Solstice on the Park project incorporates solar carving to maximize light in the winter and minimize heat gain in the summer. The twenty-six-story residential building is clad with windows angled inward at 72 degrees, creating a striking impression and essentially acting as “smart windows” by predicting seasonal light extremes.
However, it’s almost certainly Studio Gang’s newest solar carving project that will grab all of the attention. 40 Tenth Avenue is an office building on Manhattan’s west side with some high-profile considerations: the West Side Highway nearby and the buzzy High Line Park—the city’s hugely influential elevated adaptive reuse park—at its feet. For the High Line, a new tall building could spell disaster and darkness.
However, instead of being imposing, Tenth Avenue is different. The ten-story building appears tapered, using solar carving to reduce glare (sparing drivers on the highway), minimize birdstrike (the building is not far from the Hudson River, where migratory birds pass through), and optimize its relationship with the High Line. Making use of twelve types of glass, the varying windows are both handsome to look at and, one would imagine, incredible to look out of, offering an observation deck-style view of the city below.
40 Tenth’s diamond-shaped windows benefit both building tenants and park passersby, generously bathing the High Line in sunlight instead of dominating it in shadow. Over the course of a year, the design nearly triples the amount of sunlight the park would receive in comparison with a more conventional building.
In an era of increased density, when builders are crowding cities with ever-taller structures casting ever-longer shadows, solar carving may be a worthy addition to our design quiver. If current trends hold, the sun isn’t going away any time soon. We may as well plan around its predictable paths with the best tools we have.