Over the past fifty years, one global demographic trend has remained remarkably steady: increased urbanization. At the turn of the 20th century, only 15% of the planet’s people lived in cities. Today, that share is around 55%. And by 2050, we’ll see the total urban population rise to 68%, with much of the growth taking place in Asia and Africa.
While one might imagine that this kind of large-scale coming together might promote increased harmony, it’s entirely possible that we see the opposite. As we continue to leave traditional towns and villages behind, we’ve also lost many of their shared spaces and their sense of collective social cohesion. And while our buildings are often “mixed-use;’ the delineation between private and public space continues to be made more and more explicit.
Increasingly, planners and designers are acknowledging that high-density living doesn’t always guarantee meaningful interaction. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this contradiction is the modern high-rise, where residents live in a kind of private, vertical alienation. In these sky-high environments, we live on top of each other but hardly ever interact, save for polite nods in the elevator.
However, a number of recent projects are challenging our assumptions about how residents interact with tall buildings. The skyscraper, long-held as a symbol of status and architectural might, is being broken up in new ways. Architects thinking beyond the lobby to create numerous common areas, green spaces, and community amenities to create towering villages. By breaking up the vertical “grid” of tall buildings, designers are able to create spaces that are more community-minded and egalitarian.
In Southeast Asia, urban planners have adopted the idea of the traditional “kampong;’ or compound, for a hyper-modern (and landscarce) world. Instead of exclusive roof decks and penthouses, the buildings offer rooftop community gardens, shops, and elderly housing. The result is an inter-generational community housed in a single complex.
One particularly enthusiastic proponent of the vertical village is German architect and urbanist Ole Scheeren, whose successes in Asia may help translate the concept for North American audiences. Scheeren’s 1,040-unit Interlace complex in Singapore was named Building of the Year at the 2015 World Architecture Festival and has garnered international attention.
Composed of 31 separate six-story structures, the Interlace rises to 24 stories at its highest point. While it has been compared to a mass of Jenga blocks, the placement of its structures is more method than madness, incorporating studies of the area’s sun, wind, and climate to aid with energy efficiency. Wind corridors and pools of water work together to create cooling breezes, and the Interlace’s courtyards are intentionally shaded from the sun.
While obviously massive, the complex feels permeable and inviting rather than daunting. Living spaces coexist with terraces that house swimming pools, tennis courts, roof gardens, and verdant courtyards. Taken together, the complex feels more like a sprawling resort than it does an apartment complex, with its emphasis on purpose-built shared spaces.
Soon, Scheeren’s work will cross the Pacific and aspire even higher in Vancouver, British Columbia. Plans for Barclay Village reveal a pair of towers made up of stacked and jutting glass volumes, occasionally broken up by lush green terraces. Again, Scheeren’s goal is to break up the homogenous height with an innovative variation. Here, residential layouts will include multi-floor units, creating house-like environments within the towers.
As urbanization shows no signs of slowing, it only makes sense to continue to scrutinize our own expectations of what building upward offers. Rather than simply stacking residences and offices on top of each other.
In 1955, Trans World Airlines commissioned the brilliant architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen to design a new terminal at New York’s Idlewild Airport. In the 63 years since almost every proper noun in the previous sentence would be altered by some kind of untimely end: Saarinen died before his time in 1961-a year before the terminal’s eventual completion; Idlewild was renamed John F. Kennedy International in 1963, mere weeks after the President’s tragic assassination; TWA folded in 2001, absorbed by American Airlines after decades of financial struggle.
However, despite the ravages of time and the relentlessness of change, the daring heart o Saarinen’s structure remains with us, as timely as ever. The head house of the TWA Flight Centermagnificent, futuristic, and ambitious-still stands in the middle of New York’s largest airport. It’s a stubborn, elegiac landmark to a bygone idea of travel, one that transcends mere transportation.
If you’ve ever flown through JFK, you know the terminal’s sublime concrete contours, equally at home in Jamaica, Queens, and on The Jetsons. It’s simultaneously retro and futuristic.
Intended to evoke the spirit of flight, Saarinen’s building resembles a bird from above. Its thin concrete shell of a roof extends in great, symmetrical gull wings. Inside, the smooth form of the building blurs the lines between ceiling, wall, and floor, becoming pure, gestural geometry.
The building was an immediate icon. In 1994, it was named a New York City Landmark. Later, it would be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
However, changes in air travel would eventually doom the forward-facing terminal. Planes got bigger. Security clearance became more onerous and timeconsuming, creating longer lines and eventually making the terminal become less and less viable. It went on to close in 2001.
While its heyday as a terminal has passed, the TWA Flight Center is not yet a complete relic. Next year, after 18 years of disuse, the structure will know the lively bustle of crowds once again, this time as the centerpiece of a high-concept hotel devoted to celebrating the optimistic design of the Jet Age. The $265 million project, appropriately called the TWA Hotel, is the brainchild of MCR and Morse Development and will once again place Saarinen’s original vision front and center.
Connected to JetBlue’s Terminal 5 by dramatic, redcarpeted “flight tubes:· Saarinen’s main structure will serve as a 200,000 square foot lobby ( the world’s largest) containing retail spaces, eight restaurants, and six bars. The hotel’s 512 guest rooms will be housed in two separate buildings flanking the main structure, benefitting from the world’s second-thickest glass walls (seven panes!) to minimize runway noise.
The hotel’s Instagram-ready interiors are tailor-made to suit today’s Mad Men-abetted obsession with all things mid-century modern, anchored by an attention to detail that borders on the fanatical. The rooms will feature only Saarinen-designed Knoll furniture and period-perfect terrazzo tiling in the bathrooms. Retro-obsessed guests will even have the opportunity to order room service on 1950’s rotary phones. To drum up anticipation for the hotel, its owners have offered up a preview of the property’s aesthetic in an exclusive lounge installation at One World Trade Center, complete with a museum section celebrating original TWA assets.
While the building’s architecture serves as its major selling point, its high-profile provenance has added significant headaches to the hotel’s development. Its renovation required approval from 22 government agencies and drew on the expertise of 173 design firms to bring the project up-to-code, including removing asbestos and replacing the building’s many obsolete windows.
When finished, the TWA Hotel will be JFK’s only on-site hotel, attracting guests seeking convenience and accessibility. However, the building—with its expansive public space and hospitality options—will no doubt also become a destination for architecture buffs and curious travelers with long connections. One can imagine taking the train to the airport just to soak in its atmosphere—an almost unheard-of proposition in the age of the TSA and cramped economy seating.
In fact, the renovated building may help reignite a long-lost spirit of glamor and occasion in air travel, one that predates sweatpants and neck pillows, in which exquisite design and glamor are part of the journey itself. In that sense, Saarinen’s vision of an artistic and ambitious travel future was spot on. It just took us 64 years to catch up with him.
When the Wall Street Journal identified Ten Hot Destinations in its “Where to Travel in 2018” piece, a curious outlier joined the likes of Shanghai, Montenegro, and Madagascar: the Scottish coastal city of Dundee.
A former industrial hub on the banks of the River Tay, Dundee may seem like an odd choice for jet setters and cultural tourists. However, it turns out that the country’s fourth-largest city has been cultivating quite the buzz in recent years, replacing its formers mills and shipbuilding warehouses with prospering video games studios. And today, Dundee has shed its former reputation for “jute, jam, and journalism” and is courting visitors with an ambitious £1.5 billion, 30-year urban revitalization program centered around the city’s waterfront.
At the heart of this renewal project (and central to the Wall Street Journal’s interest) is the V&A Dundee, Scotland’s first design museum and the first outpost of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. While the V &A Dundee’s collection of design artifacts will no doubt prove to be similarly world-class, it’s the building itself that is drawing the most interest.
Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma-who was selected in an international design contest that courted some of the world’s most talented firms for the three story, 8,000 square meter building has been described as a “living room for the city;’ intended to reconnect the urban center to its river.
The building’s connection to the waterfront is very real. Early construction required the creation of a massive cofferdam-a watertight structure built around the protruding section of the building-allowing part of the museum to extend into the river, partially submerged. The final effect is breathtaking, offering up striking reflections on the water’s surface. The V &A will is no doubt destined to become one of Scotland’s most -Instagrammed sites.
A mass of curving concrete and stone, the building’s form draws its direct inspiration from Scotland’s spectacular seaside cliffs. Without a single straight external wall, the building’s impression is at once organic and nautical, calling to mind a massive stone ship. The building juts and recedes dramatically and includes a large gap in the structure’s heart, offering direct pedestrian access to the river.
The V&A Dundee is designed to invite enthusiastic exploration, attracting visitors in the same way a beautiful cliff face might: “The beauty of the cliff comes from the long, long dialogue between the earth and water;’ explains Kuma. “I wanted to translate that beauty to a contemporary building. It’s very different from a concrete box. The inclination of the faade gives a different type of experience. If is it too vertical, the vertical void rejects the people. The building should invite people to the waterfront: “In line with the project’s democratic principles, the building will feature free-toenter galleries and a large foyer space at its heart, its interiors clad in soft (and locally-sourced) wood.”
The building’s exterior required an uncommon degree of precision in its engineering. The structure’s 21 wall sections are clad with 2,500 unique rough pre-cast stone panels, each weighing up to 3000kg. 3D modeling helped ensure that their complex forms interlocked perfectly. Together, they resemble their sloping, stepped angles resemble the striations of a cliff face.
Scheduled to open in September, the V&A Dundee gamble seems to have already paid off in pre-opening buzz alone. The museum’s first major exhibition will, fittingly, re-imagine the golden age of sea travel, including the opulent designs and interiors of the world’s great ocean liners. The museum’s permanent galleries will feature Scotland’s unique contributions to design. It’s estimated that half a million visitors will flock to the museum in its first year, spurring local hotels to add beds and inciting a large-scale renovation to the town’s train station.
Destination architecture is nothing new, but Dundee’s calculated bid for civic revival through a flagship building may spark a trend among cities of a certain size. Dundee has long been associated with design—it was designated as a UNESCO City of Design in 2014—but was unlikely to top many guidebooks’ must-visit lists. If press coverage is any indication, this is set to change.
With an estimated cost of £80 million, Dundee’s investment in its new flagship attraction is a significant one. However, if early reactions to the structure are any indication, the architectural gamble will likely pay dividends.
Survey a group of architects, engineers, and designers about their childhoods, and a common affinity is sure to emerge: Lego. With a little imagination, a Lego set can become a potent primer for space planning, structural engineering, and even landscape design.
In fact, the association between the plastic blocks and actual buildings has become so strong that Lego produces a separate Architecture line geared toward adults, complete with respectable austere white pieces and reproducing various notable buildings.
And so it’s no wonder that when it came to creating a new headquarters and museum for Lego in the toy’s hometown of Billund, Denmark, an architectural wonder emerged. The work of superstar Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and his firm BIG, the Lego House was completed this September. Composed of 21 staggered, giant interlocking blocks, it feels like a love letter to right angles, with hardly a curve in sight. A massive steel frame masquerading as a brick building [tiles give the illusion of offset bricks], the entire building looks like it could be constructed from giant Lego blocks.
However, while one might expect a garish and motley mess of color and embellishment from a toy brand, don’t forget: we’re in Denmark, where simplicity and form are sacrosanct. And so, Lego House manages to balance a tasteful and rigorous Danish design sense with its youthful subject matter. It’s all a matter of how you look at it.
From street level, the structure is the picture of modernist respectability: gleamingly white with stark ceramic tiles. One could mistake it for a gallery or even a government complex, and, in a sense, one wouldn’t be too far off. The 12,000 square-meter Lego House replaces Billund’s former town hall and maintains a civic-minded component. At the center of the stacked galleries is a sheltered town square open to the public.
Over the last seven decades, Lego has become part of the fabric of the town, and the company employs more than half of its residents. Lego built Billund’s international airport and maintains a factory still responsible for producing more than 90% of all Lego products in Billund. The Lego House was partially conceived to draw visitors into downtown Billund. Before, visitors tended to remain near the Legoland theme park on the town’s outskirts.
There is, of course, a more playful side to the Lego House. If you were to fly into Billund, you would see a very different building. A bird’s eye-view reveals terraces that pop with the vibrant hues of a kindergarten toy chest. A series of ramps connect the building’s colorful rooftops, turning the top of the building into a kind of playground. In the center of the ziggurat is a single, giant white Lego block (the brand’s signature 4×2 rectangle] complete with eight studded, circular skylights to give inquiring eyes a peek inside.
Stretched over sixteen galleries, Lego House is part art exhibit and part playground. Four color-coded zones offer up opportunities for experiential play and discovery. Massive Lego installations from “master builders” are placed throughout the complex. There are dinosaurs, life-size people, sharks, and submarines. At the heart of the building is a bit of simulated greenspace—a massive tree composed of more than six million Lego bricks.
But the true diehards will want to dig deeper. Hidden under the public Lego Square is the Lego Vault, a subterranean archive showcasing first edition playsets from the more than sixty-year history of the brand.
Lego House is part of the brand’s large-scale attempt to promote itself not simply as a toymaker but also an educational product that fosters creativity, imagination, and experiential learning.
To listen to the architect, it’d be hard to refute the argument. Bjarke Ingels is himself an avowed Lego enthusiast: “Lego…is amazing because it’s not a toy where someone has premeditated how you’re going to play with it. It’s more like a tool that empowers the kid or the grownup to create their own world and then to inhabit that world through play. When architecture is at its most interesting, that’s exactly what we do… You can create the world as you wish it was.”
If you aren’t able to visit the Lego House in person, you can always build it yourself. A 774-piece Lego Architecture set of the Billund building is available for purchase and is significantly cheaper than a trip to Denmark.
Fueled by one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Dubai has never been a city troubled by humility. Long crowded with construction cranes, the desert city boasts a dizzying collection of ultramodern and hyper-tall skyscrapers, unreal manmade islands, and massive fountains. The effect is an atmosphere of pure, unrestrained ostentation.
Dubai is a city that isn’t shy of attention. Here, you can ski indoors. You can enjoy giant upscale waterparks in the middle of the desert. And you can shop at a world-class mall that features its very own dinosaur. Subtlety isn’t always essential in the United Arab Emirates.
In 2009, when a design competition, cosponsored by Dubai and ThyssenKrupp Elevators, sought to establish an architectural icon to promote “the new face of Dubai;’ there were more than 900 entrants. The winning entry couldn’t have been more fitting. Because Fernando Donis, a Mexican architect based in the Netherlands, delivered a colossal, free-standing, portrait-style frame.
Intended to both contribute to Dubai’s architectural landscape and to highlight it, the postmodern structure features two towers connected by a perpendicular observation deck. When it’s completed, the Frame will stand 492 feet tall and will serve as a dividing line and a window between historical Dubai to the north and more recent development to the south.
“The purpose of this project is to build a void;’ explains a statement from Donis, calling it an “anti-icon” that is the “maximization of the post-and-lintel principle:’ If architects are often striving for simplicity, the Dubai Frame certainly succeeds on that score. Less building than not, the Frame is a triumph of empty space, a simple rectangle towering above Zabeel Park.
However, while the design is straightforward and elegant, the history of the project has been anything but. After awarding Donis $100,000 in prize money, the Municipality of Dubai cut ties with the architect in the midst of the contract phase. When Donis objected to the terms of the proposed agreement that limited his copyright, negotiations came to an end.
Dubai proceeded to handle construction without the architect’s involvement, failing to properly compensate him properly for his design, in violation of the terms of the contest. In a city known for dubious building practices and human rights abuses, the structure has had the perhaps-unintended effect of framing a deeply troubled industry and drawing global negative publicity in the press.
The controversy has also raised thorny questions about intellectual property, ownership, and international copyright law. The Municipality of Dubai maintains that Donis’s copyright only covers “conceptual design;’ giving the Municipality the power to proceed without him. Most intellectual property experts, however, side with the architect, whose protected work was well-documented (the contest was even overseen by UNESCO”s International Union of Architects).
The similarity of the in-construction Frame and Donis’s submission is undeniable. They are conceptually identical. In fact, the height of the structure matches the proposed design down to the meter. However, Dubai has embellished the structure beyond Donis’s unadorned, simple proposal. They’ve added a flourish in-line with the character of the city: ornate gold stainless steel cladding. The overall effect is almost chintzy, more roadside attraction than architectural triumph.
At a cost of $43 million, Dubai is hoping the Frame, with its multimedia exhibits on the history of Dubai and its observation deck ( complete with a glass floor for thrill-seekers) will become a major tourist attraction, drawing an estimated two million visitors a year. Construction delays have plagued the project, but the Frame is expected to open before the end of 2017, as a lawsuit concerning the Frame continues.
While the Dubai Frame is a clear-cut case of a bad faith transaction, copycat buildings have become more and more common, especially in fastdeveloping regions like Dubai and many cities in China (where jurisdiction isn’t always clear). Zaha Hadid’s buildings were the subject of multiple plagiarism controversies, including a major stadium in Tokyo and a knockoff in Chongqing. As highprofile buildings continue to be associated closely with their creators, the problem of intellectual influence architectural copyright may only become more complicated.